February 1, 2009
Post-Office Correspondence Art
Dan Visel at if:book has a super entry/exhibition on postal art from Ray Johnson to Ben Greenman:
Johnson ran what he called the New York Correspondence School; he used the word correspondence not simply for its reference to communication but for the way he made associations with words and graphic elements in his collages… Membership was seemingly capricious and full of contradictions: members included institutions and the dead; the school committed suicide publicly at least once; and it was at best the most constant member of a baffling parade of clubs and organizations that Johnson ran, including, at random, Buddha University, the Deadpan Club, the Odilon Redon Fan Club, the Nancy Sinatra Fan Club…
“The whole idea of the Correspondence School,” Johnson told Richard Bernstein in an interview with Andy Warhol’s Interview in August, 1972 “is to receive and dispense with these bits of information, because they all refer to something else. It’s just a way of having a conversation or exchange, a kind of social intercourse.” Emblematic of Johnson’s work might be his Book about Death, begun in 1963, which consisted of thirteen printed pages of collaged images and text, which were mailed individually to Clive Phillpot, chief librarian at the Museum of Modern Art, and others. (A few pages are reproduced below.) The Book about Death was discorporate, as befits a book about death; more than being unbound, Johnson made sure that none of his readers received a complete set of the pages of the book. The book could only be assembled and read in toto by the correspondents working in concert: it was a book that demanded active participation in its reading. The content as well as the form of the Book about Death request active participation: the names of his correspondents feature prominently in it, but understanding of what Johnson was doing with those names requires some knowledge of the people who had those names.
One of my favorite recent literature/history/theory books is Bernhard Siegert’s Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System. Visel doesn’t quite say this, but it’s clear that despite Johnson’s humanist intents, he was using the technology of the mails in a way that was pretty resolutely anti-nostalgic. (In his fake-manifesto “Personism,” Frank O’Hara says that he once realized while he was writing a poem for someone that he could just as easily pick up the telephone and call them — you might say that Johnson realized he could just as easily send them a cheap postcard.)
Greenman, on the other hand, with his de luxe edition “book” collecting accordioned pamphlets and postcards, is working in a different register, where similar gestures connote a backwards-looking resistance to both electronic communication and industrial book design. But (and here Visel is spot on) both foreground the notion that literature doesn’t just have a reader but a recipient — a correspondent, so to speak — whose contact with the author begins with (but isn’t necessarily limited to) buying or reading or thinking about or talking about the book.