by John Held Jr. (San Francisco, USA).
John Held Jr. always has been fascinated by the Fluxus artists. He had some very interesting interviews with some of them, and those texts are published on his site as well. Because the interviews contain many interesting details we decided to reproduce some of them on the Fluxus Heidelberg Center site. Here below you find interviews with John Cage, Allan Karpow and Ray Johnson.
An Interview with John Cage
The interview takes place in 1987 at the Dallas Public Library Cable Access Studio, Dallas, Texas. Mr. Cage was in the area to attend an event in his honor at the University of Texas at Dallas.
John Held, Jr (JH): It's my distinct pleasure and honor to welcome John Cage.
Mr. Cage, welcome.
John Cage (JC): Thank you.
JH: Mr. Cage grew up in California and went to Los Angeles High School and then Pomona College.
JC: I'm a college drop out.
JH: You never graduated from Pomona?
JC: I went to Europe instead.
JH: This was about 1930. Yes?
JC: Yes. I would have been in the class of '28.
JH: What does...
JC: It would have been '32. I started in '28. I would have been graduating in '32.
JH: What made you decide to leave school and head for Paris?
JC: I think that our education teaches us to write rather then anything else. And I thought that for a writer, experience would be more valuable then education. And my mother and father agreed. So I left after my sophom ore year. Later I was hitchhiking in California and was picked up by my history professor, and he said he was so glad to see me. And I said "why?" And he said, "Well, all the more interesting students have dropped out of college." (laughs)
JH: What happened in Paris? You went over there to study piano, is that right?
JC: No. I just went there to get some experience to write some books.
JH: That was kind of a heady time...
JC: ...but I was so impressed. When I saw Gothic architecture, I began studying. It's hard to believe, but I began to start studying the details of flamboyant 15th century Gothic Architecture in the Bibliotheque Mazarin. I'd go early in the morning when it opened and I wouldn't leave until it closed. Fortunately, a professor from Pomona, whom I'd not studied with, but whom I knew, it was José Pijoan, do you know his name? At one time for the League of Nations, when it was in Switzerland, he was the one who listed all the contemporary works of art. Anyway, he asked me what I was doing and when I told him, he literally gave me a kick in the pants, and the next day he introduced me to a modern architect, who I started to work with. And after a month or so I heard this architect say to one of his girlfriends, "To be an architect you have to devote your life to architecture." And so I put down my pencils. He had put me to work drawing Greek columns, ironically. I went into his room and I said, "I'm not going to devote my life to architecture." And so we left in a friendly fashion. And I had seen modern painting, and I'd heard a concert by John Kirkpatrick of modern music. And my reaction to both of those was that if that's how things were, I could do it too. So I began without any further ado to write music and paint pictures. And it was only somewhat later when - it was the depression - when I left Europe and came back to California, I did a number of things, but it led my meeting the Arensbergs and Galka Scheyer, do you know her name?' She brought the Blue Four from Germany to California. And I met Richard Buhlig, who was the first to play the Opus 11 of Schoenberg. I met all these important people because I needed some way to make a living, and the way I hit upon was to do the gardening in what would now be called a motel, but was then called an auto court. And in return for doing the gardening I got a place to live. And then I needed someway to buy food. And over the garage at the back of the auto court was a large empty room without any walls. I mean interior walls. And I went from house to house in Santa Monica, and I said that I would give lectures on modern music and modern painting, and that I didn't know very much about either subject, but that I would learn enough to give a lecture each Friday. (laughs) I sold ten lectures for two dollars and a half, and they had a card, you know, that would get punched. But at that time you could buy a pound of beef for five cents, did you know that?
JH: Those were the good old days.
JC: You could go to a restaurant and eat all you could eat for forty-nine cents
JH: You weren't in any public works arts projects that were going on at that time?
JC: No. No, that came later. My connection with the WPA was entertaining. I went to San Francisco to the music department, and I'd already worked a good deal in the field of percussion music. I said I wanted a job on the WPA. And they said. "But you're not a musician." And I said, "I deal with sound. Where should I go?" And they said, "Try the recreation department." (laughs) So I did. And I worked with children after school hours in Telegraph Hill. The Italians. The Black kids in another part of town. And the Chinese in Chinatown. And I used to get a splitting headache from the Italian children. I'd bring them instruments to play, and things I had made, and they'd smash them. And I'd always left that session with a headache. But the Chinese people I got along with beautifully. The blacks were so gifted that they had no need of me. But I always remember how well I got along with the Chinese people. The only trouble was that the school was Catholic, and the sisters were not confident that my influence on the children was good. (laughs) So one day one of these tiny children came to me and said, "You're not teaching us anything about counterpoint." (laughs) And they couldn't have even known the word. So then the next thing I knew they were gone.
JH: Soon after that you met somebody who was really a turning point in you life, and that was Merce Cunningham...
JH: ...up in Seattle. How did that come about:
JC: Well, I decided to make a move away from Los Angeles, and I went with - I was married then to Xenia Kashevaroff-- and she and I, and my mother and father, went up to Carmel. They stayed up in Carmel with Xenia's sisters and friends, among whom was John Steinbeck. And I went up to San Francisco for one day and I shopped around for jobs accompanying dance classes. I got about eight jobs in one day. I had a choice so to speak, and I choose the one in Seattle with Bonnie Bird, who had been in the Martha Graham Company. And the reason I choose it was that she told me when I talked to her in San Francisco that they had a closet full of percussion instruments. And that was what I was working in. It had been left there by some German modern dancers.
JH: And Merce Cunningham was a student...
JC: He was a student of Bonnie Bird. Yes. And he was absolutely remarkable. In fact when Martha Graham saw him, she took him immediately in her company. He was a creature of the air. And no one knew it at the time that he would come down to earth as he has in recent years. (laughs) He's been forced down to the earth, but he refuses to stop dancing. I'm sure he'll dance the day he dies.
JH: About this time you were also collaborating with Kenneth Patchen, a well known poet, on a CBS radio...
JC: That was a little bit later. It follows the meeting with Merce and working with Bonnie Bird. In between was... I spent a whole year trying to establish a center for experimental music. I wrote to companies and universities, anyplace that I thought might house such a thing. And I aroused a good deal of interest, but each place needed money, and they didn't have the money and I couldn't raise that. I did get a job in Chicago teaching experimental music at Moholy-Nagy's School of Design. And while I was there, I organized a group of players, and I got a commission from CBS for a CBS Workshop play. It was a very important radio program. It was the one that made everybody leave home because they thought the end of the world had come. Did you hear about that.
JH: War of the Worlds?
JH: It followed that?
JC: It was at that time that CBS Workshop was so important for everyone, so I proposed doing a piece for them. My idea was to take a play, and thinking of the script as having ambient sounds to use those sounds, not as sound effects, but as the sounds of a music which would accompany the play. CBS liked that. The man in charge was Davidson Taylor. The letters that came into Chicago after the performance were so enthusiastic - they came from the Middle West and from he West- that Xenia and I decided to seek our fortune in New York, even though we didn't have any money, so to speak. We arrived, actually, in New York with twenty-five cents. We took the the bus from Chicago to New York and in the station we arrived with twenty-five cents, and only the confidence that CBS would have received a favorable response. And also we were invited to stay with Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst. Do you know the story?
JH: Of what?
JC: Of what happened in the bus station? (laughs)
JH: No. But I want to hear it.
JC: I put a nickel into the phone, and I called the number that Max had given us when he visited the Arts Club in Chicago. This time he didn't recognize my voice. And he said, "Are you thirsty?" And I said, "Yes." He said, "Well, come over Monday for cocktails." And so that was the end of the conversation. And I went back to Xenia, and she said, "Call him back!" (laughs) She said, "We have everything to gain and nothing to lose." So I called him back, and he said, "Oh, It's you." And this time he recognized my voice, and said "Come right over. Your room is ready." And it was then that we met anybody whom anyone would want to meet in the art world.
JH: This is when everyone had come from Europe...
JC: They were all here. Mondrian was one of the first. Mixed in with the artists, including Marcel Duchamp, was Gypsy Rose Lee, whom Joseph Cornell just idolized. It was marvelous. We stayed there for two weeks, and then Peggy and Max were going away so they asked us to leave. Meanwhile, Merce Cunningham, who was earlier in New York, was preparing a program of dance with Jean Erdman. Jean Erdman was the wife of Joseph Campbell. He taught at Sarah Lawrence and knew a great deal about mythology and oriental philosophy, and so on. He wrote With a Thousand Faces. Anyway, Jean and Joe were going up to Vermont for the Summer at Bennington, and she and Merce were going to do a dance at the end of the Summer. So they gave Xenia and me their apartment, which had a piano. That's how we began in New York.
JH: You mentioned Marcel Duchamp, and as he's a favorite of mine and alot of other people maybe I should pursue that. What was your relationship like with him?
JC: I admired him so much I didn't want to impose myself on him. For instance...I was very ambitious. And I met everyone I could meet who would facilitate my giving a percussion concert in New York. Even though Peggy Guggenheim had immediately said she would like a concert of my music to open the Art of This Century. Being so ambioutions (laughs), I still wasn't satisfied and went to the Museum of Modern Art, and they also wanted a concert. So I came back to Peggy, and at dinner one evening, I told her there was also going to be a concert at the Museum of Modern Art. And she said, "Well, in that case I will cancel the concert at Art of This Century", and furthermore she would cancel what she had promised, which was to pay for the transportation of the instruments from Chicago to New York. Well, when she said she would cancel all of that I was very unhappy and I left the table, and literally burst into tears. And I went to the back of the apartment, and I happened to go into the room where Marcel was sitting in a rocking chair smoking a cigar. And something about his presence made me stop crying. I more or less told him why I was crying. He didn't say a word. Nothing. Shortly I felt perfectly content. (laughs) I told this story to someone later to whom the same thing had happened, the same influence he had of bringing a person back to an equilibrium. Just beautiful. Marvelous man.
JH: In the early fifties you were involved with Black Mountain College. Black Mountain College was the seminal melting pot for many different types of art. And it was one of the first times intermedia, performance, happenings idea started. There were people there like Buckminster Fuller, Josef Albers, Robert Rauschenberg, Charles Olson, and many, many more.
JC: It's endless. There would be say a hundred students in the summer, less during the winter. But I think you'd find they're all active as artists. What I think was so important at Black Mountain was that we all ate our meals together. For instance, I was teaching music composition, but no one was studying with me. I had no students. But I would sit at a table three times a day (laughs) and there would be conversations. And those meals were the classes. And Ideas would come out, what McLuhan called the "brushing of information." Just conversation. That event that we gave one afternoon at Black Mountain was thought of in the morning, and I quickly plotted the whole thing giving different people periods of time during which they were free to act. Charles Olson and M. C. Richards climbing ladders to read poetry. Merce dancing through the space. And the audience arranged so that it was in four triangles facing themselves rather then facing something to look at. (laughs) So the action was around the audience and in it. Through it. I was up on another ladder behind one of the triangles. Mrs. Jalowetz, who was the widow of the deceased head of the Music Department arrived very early. And I told her she was very early. And she said," Well, I want the best seat." (laughs) And each seat had a cup on it. And, I said they're all equally good. And I pointed out to her that she'd have to look where she wanted to look rather then what seemed to be the front. (laughs) And people then smoked, so they used the cups as ashtrays, but the whole event ended by girls coming from the kitchen with big pitchers of coffee and filling all the cups with coffee. Some of them were disgusting. (laughs)
JH: We haven't touched upon your theories, but I did want to bring up your innovation of introducing chance, of indeterminacy, into the art world.
JC: Actually it was Duchamp who did that the year I was born.
JH: He seems to predate everything.
JC: Everything. In about 1958, or '59, in Italy, at Peggy Guggenheim's house in Venice-we had made up by this time- I smiled and said to Marcel, who I hadn't seen for a long time, "Isn't it strange that you were doing the year I was born what I'm doing now." And he smiled and said, "I must have been fifty years ahead of my time." (laughs) Actually, his mathematics were not correct it was more like forty years.
I think a great deal of his work as being musical, which isn't yet thought of as musical. Have you seen the Etants donnés at the Philadelphia Museum? Did you know there's a big book this thick that he wrote telling how to take it down and put it up? I don't know why it's not been made more public. Anyway, those are directions, which if they're followed, as though you were following a notation of music, they would produce sounds taking it down and putting it up. Yes? So that is also a piece of music.
You are familiar with him taking pieces of paper out of a hat? Of the train? The train has freight cars. And instead of putting coal where it belongs, you put musical notes into each one of the freight cars. As it passes by -they fall by chance, of course- and the result is you get different octaves instead of cars, with different notes in them. So it makes a new body of sounds with which one can compose. (He) gave a beautiful concert in Japan, in which just before the intermission, this train was brought out and then during the intermission the musicians figured out the scales, and when the audience came back, they got to hear a reading of the music. Isn't that beautiful
And then his other idea's is even more important. It's a sonora sculpture.
It's one of his notes on a little scrap of paper. And it's the idea that
sounds which don't change could come naturally
An Interview with Allan
The following interview was videotaped at the Dallas Public Library Cable Access Studio in 1988 while Mr. Kaprow was attending, "Proceedings," a symposium in his honor held at the University of Texas at Arligngton. It was subsequently broadcast on Dallas Cable Access TV.
John Held, Jr: Tonight we have a very special guest, Mr. Allan Kaprow, who is in Dallas this week of April 12 through 16 (1988) to have a retrospective of his actions of the past called "Proceedings" at the University of Texas at Arlington. Mr. Kaprow, it's a pleasure to have you with us this evening to talk about your work.
Allan Kaprow: Thank you.
JH: Of course, you are best known as the person who coined the phrase "happenings." I just wonder how you felt the first time you heard the Supremes singing that song, "The Happening." Did you...
AK: I'd already repudiated the word, because many other people before that were using it. It was a catch word. You remember everybody went around going, "What's happening, baby?" Political uprisings on campuses and advertisements for butter and brassieres were all using the word "happening." I remember one ad showed a floating woman in outer space, a starry background, and the legend was, "I dreamt I was in a happening in my Maidenform brassiere." So by that time movies and the Supremes and all were in general usage around the world in ways that had nothing to do with my original sense, which became so foreign to me that I just dropped it. However, it's like your name, you can't drop it without somebody coming and picking it up and saying, "You dropped something mister."
JH: The place you used it first was a paper about Jackson Pollack?
AK: Yes. It was actually semi-conscious. It occurred in a paragraph toward the end of the article, which was about the presumed legacy of that artist, who had died shortly before then, in which I said there are two directions in which the legacy could go. One is to continue into and develop an action kind of painting , which was what he was doing, and the other was to take advantage of the action itself, implicit as a kind of dance ritual. Instead of making ritualistic actions, which might be one directions someone could take, I was proposing the hop right into real life, that one could step right out of the canvas, which in his case, he did while painting them.
JH: It seems to be a continuation of the Abstract Expressionist concept that the process was just as important as the product. Tell me if I'm wrong, but you were bringing the painting to life?
AK: Well, painting as painting is a lively affair in any case. Let's not repudiate painting. My interest was not in negating painting, it was to add to the number of options that an artist had at that time. I had been a painter. I might even say that I was beginning to be somewhat successful among my colleagues at that point. That was 1956. But, the idea of going farther was a heritage of Modernism at that point. hat each younger generation went farther then the last one. And the notion of a progressive amplification of options, even of a revolutionary sort, was part of our upbringing. So I was offering that option, not as a denouncement, but rather as one more opening into some other future.
JH: You mentioned that you were a painter, and you were a student in the early fifties studying under some of...
AK: In the forties.
JH: In the forties. And early fifties with Meyer Schapiro?
AK: I studied painting then under the greatest teacher in the world of Modernist painting and that was Hans Hoffman, who was of course a distinguished member of the Abstract Expressionist group in New York. And that was the liveliest school you could find anywhere. It was superb. I was very lucky, and when I studied with Meyer Schapiro, who was an eminent historian, it was a parallel study. It was not only art in the practical sense, it was art history and the philosophy of art, which I had been studying in the university before that. That was to do my masters, and I thought at the time my post-graduate work too. But I got my masters degree and did most of my course work in art history for my PhD and then I got a job with his help, that is with Meyer Schapiro's help, at Rutger's, teaching art history, and chucked the whole post-graduate program, which they never let me forget.
JH: You were concentrating then on Mondrian. Why?
AK: He was my thesis. I was interested in what turned out to be a key to what I'm doing now, although I didn't realize it then. In that master's thesis, which was an intensive analysis of the optical effects of looking at Mondrian, in a way that I thought had gotten cues from his writings, that if you do that intensively, that is almost staring for as long as two hours at a painting, the relativity of all the parts increases to the point that the clarity that you first see in the picture, you know, those straight lines - the whites, the blacks, the reds, the blues, and the yellows - no longer are at all clear. They start bending. They start disappearing under your glance, in a way that using the same kind of staring technique at other works will not happen. So there is something unique about that, and I convinced that when he was talking about the mutual destruction of all parts of the work, which would produce some sort of transcendent unity at the end, he was dealing with the elimination of painting through itself. I didn't put it that way. I ascribed to it a kind of mystical state, which I think was correct in his terms. But later on the idea took form in a different way with me when, indeed, I separated the action of action painting from the painting part of it, and in a sense jumped into life.
JH: It was very interesting to me. Those were two great teachers, Hans Hoffman and Meyer Schapiro. At the same time, a great many things were happening at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and it seems that so many of your latter colleagues came out of Black Mountain, or had some experience with it. Did you yourself ever visit there?
AK: No. I tried to get a job there after I completed my masters work and decided to stop doing the PhD. I didn't know what to do next, and I thought I was getting this job at Rutgers, but I wasn't sure so I was trying, as any young man would, as many options as I possibly could. One of them was Black Mountain, and they said to me, people who were colleagues of mine and friends, for example the composer Stefen Volker was there, and Bill de Kooning had been there, and I asked them about it. There was a party one night when they were in New York, some of it's recruiters were in New York, trying to scare up students, and I asked them for a job, and they said, "Sure, if you want to milk cows. We can't pay you." So I told them politely, thank you, I'd have to consider other alternatives.
JH: Were you married at this time. Were you supporting a family?
AK: No. Not yet.
JH: You were running a gallery? The Hansa gallery. Did that come into being about this time?
AK: The Hansa was going for years before that. It started in '53 or '54, first at one of the artists studios, Wolf Kahn, then subsequently it got it's own place toward the end of '53, I think, down in the 4th Avenue area, near 9th or 10th Streets. But that then grew subsequently into an uptown gallery, which I was part of for awhile, and then, as a cooperative it dissolved as most of the artists went on to bigger and better commercial galleries. Then I joined the Judson Group downtown at the Judson Church. At the same time, I was part of the group that overlapped to become the Reuben Gallery, where the first happenings were given.
JH: One thing I was extremely interested in while reading over your biography was that you attended a class given by John Cage at the New School for Social Research. And the reason this intrigued me so much was that, being familiar with the Fluxus artists - Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Yoko Ono, etc. - that's how they started - from that classs of Cage.
AK: He was a kind of train station. People would sort of gather there and wait for the next train. I actually was a student of his. That was not the case with all of them. Many of them were occasional visitors. But I was already teaching at Rutgers by then. That was 1957, and I knew him slightly. Knew his work, of course. But at that point I was trying to introduce a richer range of sound into the environmental stuff that I was doing parallel with the early happenings that were done. So I went to the class - I had been on a mushroom hunt with him, that's what it was, with George Brecht, who was a neighbor of mine at that time in New Jersey - and I asked John at that time about the problems I was having with the sounds. There were mechanical gadgets that I had gimmicked up as best I could, you know, those wonderful toys the Japanese made - gorillas that growl, cows that moo, and things like that - and these were interesting, but after awhile they got boring, rather mechanical and expected, so I asked him what to do. And he said, "Why don't you come to the class next week." So I drove in for the class, and he explained rather quickly that I could use tape decks, a half dozen cheap tape decks, make all the sounds in advance, and put them on in some sort of random order, or program them as I wanted, and then distribute loud speakers around the room, and these things would have a much greater richness, done in a collage fashion, which I could understand readily, having done that, then any of the mechanical toys I had done. So I thought that was - he explained it in five minutes. You just take sticky tape and stick all these things together which you've previously recorded and put into envelopes. And he said, "Why don't you stay for the class?" "Fine," I said. At the end of the class I was so fascinated with what was going on I asked him if I could attend it regularly, and he said, "Sure." And that's where I actually did the first proto-happenings with the participation of the rest of the class members. Everyone was given homework every week and came in with a piece. And that's where I began doing that sort of work.
JH: Some of the first happenings, aside from those in Cage's class, were done on George Segal's farm. And I know that the Fluxus people did things there too. They had a Yam Festival...
AK: That was done later. In 1963.
JH: So many things were going on there. What was the karma?
AK: Well, George Segal was a neighbor of mine, and became a fast friend, and has remained so. I was living on a chicken farm, in a cabin there, while teaching at Rutgers, and he was a painter so we got to know each other very quickly. And pretty soon there were years in which we had annual picnics for our artworld friends of ours, who never in those days got out of New York. So it was a big thing to come out for a weekend to either the farm I was living on, or the farm George was living on. It was there that in one of these years we decide as part of the entertainments, to try out some of the happenings that I had been working on in John Cage's class, or at least developing the prototypes for, but now on a somewhat bigger scale, because physically we could use the chicken coops, the fields, the tractors, whatever we wanted, and a casual atmosphere of friends was present that allowed people to do it, or not to do it, as they wished. And of course, that's where I started putting into some practice the things that I started in John's class.
JH: It occurs to me that a lot of this type of activity had precursors in the Dada movement...
AK: Sure. And the Futurists.
JH: ..it was in the air then too, and then it petered out in the twenties, thirties..
AK: That's right.
JH: ...forties, and then all of a sudden in the fifties - here it was again - with yourself, and the Fluxus people, and Gutai in Japan...
AK: They were before us.
JH: ...and Yves Klein and the Nouveau Realists in France.
JH: It just happened again. Why? Why after all those years...
AK: There's no explanation for it. The usual kind of exhaustion principle, that the prior avant-garde had exhausted itself is true, but it's not an adequate explanation, because you don't find it happening with every exhaustion. So, why it happened pundits will have fun on speculating, and I'm sure they're all right. It's just beyond us. One could draw parallels today with the powerful conservative backlash that occurred right after the exhaustion of Abstract Expressionists around the world. Particularly those in New York in the Eisenhower years. You know, the rampages of Joe McCarthy and the Cold War in Europe. There were a lot of features which resemble those of today. And one could say today perhaps almost for twenty years now, we've been in a neo-conservative state with back to all kinds of prototypical modernisms, now quoted, now so called post-modernist snide tickle-tickley cutesy stuff, all of it feeding a consumerist market, of course. Which has been revived when it was practically killed during the period that you're talking about. Well, who's to say how long this is going to last. There have been many many of these periods as there was before and whether this will be followed by a resurgence of experimentation is hard for anyone to predict. Meanwhile, of course, I'm still on this earth and very very healthy, thank heaven, and my experiments, like some of my colleagues from those days, still go on. They happen to be not particularly interesting to the prevailing tenor of the period.
JH: You mentioned Gutai, the Japanese avant-garde movement, and that it happened just previous to your involvement. Did you know about them?
AK: No. Not until 1958, which was when I had already begun working myself, so it was quite a refreshing thing to discover that by 1955 or so, for a few years up to that point, they had been very active. Coming from a very different cultural background though, not uncongenial with the West.
JH: Many of your contemporaries of the time formed a group, Fluxus, but you remained on you own. Fluxus, I should mentioned, revolved around the leadership of George Maciunas. But you didn't get sucked into that cyclone.
AK: Well, George and I couldn't get along. Indeed, he approached me as he did everybody else to sign my entire career away to him, and I thought this was a Fluxus joke. So I said, "Up yours." And he took it seriously. But he was a marvelous man. I mean the energy and cohesion that he gave to a disparate number of artists around the world was extraordinary. So I don't say this unpleasant part history with any kind of rancor. It was like oil and water.
JH: He was a very difficult person to get along with.
JH: You are important in several areas. One is performance. It has many levels now, but you're considered to be a father of the modern movement in performance. Another thing is installation, and your work with what you called assemblage.
AK: Well, let's backtrack a minute. Performance is the replacement of the word happening, or event, or activity, which we used in those days to refer to a number of somewhat related kinds of real time events. What's called an installation today is the child of what used to be called, before the happenings, an environment. Now, I think that if you look at the words there, the shifts indicate something like a real change toward the installation compared to that of the environment, and the performance to that of the happening. If you look at the word installation, installation means, very simply and literally, that somebody is taking something already fabricated or made, generally, and installing it. It has a kind of implicit art activity to it. It also suggests a kind of aesthetic intentionally, much as you would install a sculpture in a museum. The environment, the etymology of the word, and the whole connotation of the word environment, is that of a surround, in which the particular parts are not necessarily placed with some kind of formal care for their external cohesion, but rather as an interaction between the person who is being surrounded and the stuff of that environment. It has a kind of a fullness to it, which the work installation doesn't. Installation suggests a discreteness. Now, look at the word performance. It too has a conservative evocation. When you hear that word you think of Jascha Heifitz performing on the violin, Sir Laurence Olivier performing Shakespeare, and so on. You don't ordinarily think of a high performance engine, which is the more vernacular meaning of the word in English, and in many other European languages it's used the same way. So, there is the return to a kind of artifying activity, a kind of singular focus on the performer as artist, in a way that a virtuoso was a performer in classical music, or still is. Or an actor.
Now, I think those two words, installation and performance, mark accurately the shift in attitude toward a rejection or sense of abandonment of an experimental, modernist, position which had prevailed up to about, lets be generous, up to about 1968-1969, and began gradually becoming less and less energized. So, I think what you're getting there is the flavor of modernist exhaustion and incidentally a return to earlier prototypes, or models, of what constitutes art. And it's no accident that the majority of most performance nowadays, there's not much installation anymore, by the way, the majority of those performances tend to be of an entertainment, show biz, song and dance, in which the focus is on the individual as skilled presenter of something that tends to have a kind of self-aggrandizing, or at least self-focusing, purpose. It is artist as performer, much like somebody is an entertainer in a nightclub. And they're interesting. Some of them are very good. I think Laurie Anderson is very good. She's got all the skills that are needed in theater, which is what this is. Many others who jump on the bandwagon, coming from the visual arts, have no theatrical skills, and know zilch about the timing, about the voice, about positioning, about transitions, about juxtapositions, those moment by moment occurrences in theater that would make it work. But it's another animal, whether good or bad, from what we were doing, and I think, in general, even the good ones are a conservatizing movement.
JH: You prefer the activity, or the event, rather then an audience/actor dichotomy. You were taking the action away from galleries and into the environment itself.
AK: Well, I wanted to pursue this thread, so to speak. I was like a hound dog on the scent. I wasn't particularly concerned about leading the artworld like the Pied Piper. I mean, it would be nice if they followed, but it wasn't really necessary. So you asked a moment ago about how I wasn't part of a group, although I occasionally intersected, and the reason is that I was really quite charmed by this scent that I was on. So, I don't want to put anybody else at a disadvantage here as being less good. But what interested me was that scent, which was, to put it another way, about the possibility of a totally new art. An art, which like Mondrian's pictures, would dissolve into a kind of life equivalent.
JH: Unfortunately we are short on time, and I can't pursue as many lines as I'd love to pursue. We are skipping over an illustrious teaching career at the University of California at San Diego, and also brings us to why you are here in Dallas this week to participate in a retrospective of your actions. Are you excited about this point that you've come to, where a whole week is being devoted to your past work?
AK: Well, I haven't had a chance to be excited yet (laughs), the work is so overwhelming. But what I should say in a capsule, is that the idea that I should have a retrospective was essentially that of Jeff Kelly, with the approval of the former-chair, Jeff Sperlock of the University of Texas at Arlington. They proposed it. Jeff getting on the phone quite often. And at first it seemed impossible, because how can you retrospect on a thirty-year career where everything was a throw-away.
Events were simply dissolved into the air, as all events are. And the best one could have about those events was a memory, distorted perhaps, but a memory. So, it occurred to us, that the way that we may go about this was not to have a show in the conventional sense, since there's nothing to show, but to have a yearlong of retrospections. Which might mean, and it turned out this way, that I would invent my career. And that's the way it would be interesting to me.
All these events had been, for the most part, once only things, and they were meant as changeable events, there was no fixed form in them, depending upon where they were, who did them, so why not continue to change my memory of them. After all, it's a faulty memory, and I might as well take the whole thing by the horns, so to speak, and do it with great joy. That is, change willfully.
So, in taking one of the first of the selected events to recapitulate, the one we did in New York a few weeks ago, which you've probably heard is very often quoted as a fairly well-known prototype of that time, "18 Happenings in 6 Parts." I wholesale changed it. I took it's principals of participation, of changeability, of simultaneity, and spread these, instead of the original loft work where the thing had taken place in 1959, I had it take place at the desires of the participants all over New York City.
JH: Did you have some of the same people...
AK: I tried to get them, but for one reason or another, some of them just weren't available.
JH: Because I was just looking at the original program today and it was a pretty impressive cast, such as John Cage, Ray Johnson, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Filliou, George Brecht...
AK: There were a lot of my colleagues there. But for one reason or another we couldn't get them this time. They were busy
JH: Well, I thank you for speaking with us today, and wish you the best of luck in the week ahead.
AK: Thank you.
Illogical as an Instructive
an Interview with Ray Johnson
The interview took place on December 2, 1977, at the Mid-York Library System, Utica, New York, the day following Ray Johnson's performance of Barry White Ecstasy, at the Root Art Center, Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, where his work was on display.
John Held, Jr: Do you think people are becoming more appreciative of chance these days? Do you find that people are breaking down their logical thinking and accepting chaos?
Ray Johnson: By people, we were discussing the student body at Hamilton College, but people also encompasses the people who were in the restaurant I just came from, so one would have to apply the question of chance situation in the restaurant, or the streets that I just drove through, in making a left turn instead of a right turn. Going in a wrong direction was a very chance element, but I was a singular person in that case, although I had many quick encounters with other drivers of vehicles. That's what driving is all about. There are just endless chance encounters with people involving decisions, turns, and estimates as to what other people are going to do. In car driving you are on a very different operation than you are with students in a lecture. So there is no such thing as chance elements. There are chance elements here, chance elements there, here and there. Which is the interesting point that I liked before the tape began in your asking me about community, replying that the correspondence network is logically a global situation involving the possibility of people everywhere and anywhere. There's a very interesting...can I be heard all right? I guess I can.
JH: I imagine so.
RJ: You don't want to play it back just to make sure?
JH: Sure. You want to play it back?
(The videotape is stopped, replayed, and found operational, resumes.)
RJ...they said, "We're having program difficulties," and they played some cruddy music. Finally they decided to play the sound, but they had no image. Something happened.
JH: Something always happens when machines are involved.
RJ: But it was very interesting not having the image. I was talking about a global...I wanted to mention Terry Reid in New Zealand and Australia, as places of interest where Mail Art, Correspondence Art, activities are taking place. Terry Reid is a Canadian. There's a whole group of people down there like the Helicopter Art Group. Whoever they are.
JH: There's a lot of activity in Vancouver.
RJ: Vancouver and Toronto are lively. There are many groups in Italy. Germany, of course, Paris, London.
JH: I've met Peter Van Beveren in Holland.
RJ: That was in your first letter to me. Yes, he uses rubber stamps.
JH: He's active with rubber stamps. You use rubber stamps. Do you have a philosophy concerning them?
RJ: I don't use them visually. I use them as verbal information. I was explaining my oldest rubber stamp reading "Collage by Ray Johnson" as to how and where and why I use and stamp it, which in the collage process, or ceremony, after I apply tape or glue to a surface, which technically makes it a collage. I then stamp it rather than signing my name, although I might sign my name after it. But the stamping is rather like the stamping of an envelope. Final. A letter is licked and stamped before it's cancelled. It's then dropped into a box, and so forth. Process involving the Post Office Department.
JH: Which is a chance operation.
RJ: Yes. I was describing an 8"x10" envelope that was postmarked October 31, which was finally delivered to me, one hour away from New York, one month later. The envelope had been sitting somewhere for that amount of time. It should have reached me the next day, but it was delivered one month later.
JH: Do you relate to the Dada and Fluxus movements?
RJ: I relate to any movement if there's some interest or necessity for a relationship.
JH: You're familiar with George Maciunas?
JH: I met him on a visit to Jean Brown. He has a place nearby.
RJ: Jean Brown is right across in Massachusetts?
JH: It's about two hours from here.
RJ: I've always wanted to visit her.
JH: Her archive is designed by Maciunas.
RJ: I didn't know that. Is it a large loaf of bread ? (laughs)
JH: No. It's a Shaker seed house.
RJ: He's an excellent designer. I've never seen his use of wood, but I have seen his typography and posters, and things like that.
JH: You're probably more in touch with art world celebrities than anyone else. Let me throw some at you. Arakawa.
RJ: Arakawa is his last name. His wife's name is Madeline Gins.
JH: I'm very interested in her work since reading Wordrain.
RJ: Yes. A philosophical investigation of Greta Garbo. I spoke to her on the telephone a week and a half ago, and she has endlessly promised to send me her translation of a Mallarmé swan poem, which was to mailed to me so that...as another example, that letter may be slowly on it's way... Back to Jean Brown. Where she lives in her Shaker house. I saw from my car an interesting license plate, it was either from New Hampshire or Massachusetts. And the car had the license plate LHOOQ, and I wanted to write to the State
License Bureau who the owner of the car was so I could begin a communication. Two: I found in my file recently a letter addressed to a golf ball, in someplace like Hollywood, and it contained an advertisement reading something about, "The golf ball you like to be in touch with." So I knew that if I wrote a letter to Golf Ball, Hollywood, California, the letter would come back to me, which was the point of the letter. And Three:...there was something else I forgot which came before two, before one and two, and now I've forgotten three.
JH: Jean Brown.
RJ: I'm glad her name came up, because I really should go and see her. Also around that area is Al Souza, who's organizing a show of postage stamps, who sent me a pleading letter, "Please," underlined, "contribute a stamp design," something. I had recently another plea from E. F. Higgins of Doo Dah Company, who does postage stamp design, and asked me to design a stamp, which I wasn't
able to do. And he telephoned. He likes very much to talk on the phone, and he talked me into it. So I stayed up very late and designed a one cent Dumb Bunnyland postage stamp for him. And he's into colored xeroxing, and has rented a store in Soho, which I was hoping to get to tomorrow to see his exhibition of stamp designs.
JH: There's been a flurry of activity.
RJ: Yes, as I said-global. You mentioned your friend in Holland. At times I'm unable to respond at the time of receiving requests. I put in a full workday everyday in keeping the correspondence network functioning.
JH: What's the average amount of letters that you send out a day?
RJ: It's very minimal. You'd think there would be hundreds, but each postcard, envelope, and enclosure is slowly organized, thought about, and I'd say that there are less then ten items per day. The Truman Gallery, which is run by Jock Truman on 57th Street, who for many years was associated with the Betty Parsons Gallery, and now has his own gallery, is having an opening on December 17th a Correspondence Art Exhibition, and is holding a New York Correspondance School of Art Meeting. I've designed a printed page inviting people to attend this, and I have two-hundred copies on my desk, which have to be mailed out, which means very simply folding, inserting, addressing, stamping, posting, which takes x number of time per day, since I'm a one person operation.
JH: I'd like to attend.
RJ: Yes, that's why I mentioned it. So that... click click click...
JH: New York, I guess, is still the center of art.
RJ: Well, it is a great concentration. But, I think any singular artist is a great concentration. Mark Toby, who I mentioned in my talk last night, living in Switzerland, was himself a great concentration of what he happened to do. Any singular artist is a great concentration, and New York just has an accumulation of concentrations.
JH: You mentioned to me earlier that you don't consider yourself a poet, but on looking at your letters, they suggest certain things, and a main metaphor you use is fame.
RJ: Oh, really? I do? You find it so?
JH: I sense the names are not used to brag, but to suggest.
RJ: When Richard Craven organized this catalog (referring to the 1976 North Carolina Museum of Art exhibition of Johnson's letters, which lay on a table before us), he remarked that my papers were an incredible documentation of New York bar life, and thought I was an alcoholic, because there are endless stories about who was seen in what bar. But that was his interest in the letters, because of his remote North Carolina life.
JH: I find that interesting too, but I feel the names suggest things, and one is able to bring their own associations to the names. Modern literature. Do you read writers like Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis...
RJ: No. I mostly watch television. I get most of my information listening to television. Sometimes I look at it, but I have it going constantly. I listen to every talk show from eight or nine in the morning until 1 or 2 at night.
JH: Dinah? Merv?
RJ: Tom Synder. Beverly Dunston. Merv. I'd like to appear on the Merv Griffin show.
JH: I saw a Ray Johnson advertised to appear on the Johnny Carson Show one evening.
RJ: Yes. Now my ideal is to go on the Johnny Carson show with Ray Johnson. You'd think it was a typographical error in the newspaper. Ray Johnson, comma Ray Johnson, comma Charo. Whoever.
JH: I'd love to see that show.
RJ: I think New York Correspondance School talk shows are a definite possibility in the future.
JH: You like a lot of people. You interact well with people. I think you'd do well hosting a talk show.
RJ: No. I don't think I could be a host, but I think I'd be a terrific floor roller.
JH: What does a floor roller do on a talk show?
RJ: You were at my lecture last night, which involved floor rolling. But by mentioning floor rolling, I think I'm referring to an experience I had in Southern Illinois. I forget which city. Springfield, possibly. I was offered at eleven o'clock one evening a complete television studio to do a half-hour tape of anything I wanted to present. I was very excited because there were cameras and cameramen, and sets, and lights, and dials. I'd never been in such a place before.
JH: Was this at a university?
RJ: No. It was a commercial television studio. I immediately began, since I had been asked to do something, a performance, the point of which was that it was not static, as they thought it would be. They thought I wanted to sit and talk and present, and they set up the camera and the background, and so forth. But what I was doing was action in the outer edges, and I began moving, physically moving everything, which is like a recurring theme of my lectures, which is to set everything in motion. The furniture is lifted and carried, drapes were closed and opened, and the cameraman then caught on he should follow the action, so then began a sort of dance of the camera following me. One of the people who was there was an actor, who by chance spontaneously decided that he wanted to perform with me, which was unplanned. So what happened was rather passive action on his part. He appeared, and I began piling up furniture on him and doing various arrangements. There was nothing verbal in our exchange. The people back in the control room were doing very flashy things with those spiral dissolves, and fading and fade outs, and all the flashy technical things . The interesting thing about the experience was that I never saw the result. They were going to send me a tape, which never appeared, that was viewed that evening. People saw it. I never saw it. It just went off into the void in some marvelous fashion. Which was quite alright with me.
JH: I would think so, because your letters just go off into the void.
RJ: Yes. I thought that perhaps someday this would come back at some unknown point and I would see it.
JH: With correspondence it seems that what you give is what you get.
RJ: It's a giving, but it's also a distribution and a planting and a seeding, and it takes time. I love materials that come back to me in unpredicted ways over the years.
JH: I'm reminded of E. M. Plunkett. You know him, of course.
RJ: He gave the New York Correspondance School historically it's name, and he wrote an excellent essay in the Spring 1977 issue of The College Art Journal.
JH: It's an excellent issue. Do you think it's the most comprehensive reportage about your work written to date? There were many essays on you...
RJ: John Russell, Lawrence Alloway, Robert Pincus-Witten, Lucy Lippard, David Bourdan, Robert Rosenblum. It was very interesting how most of the people, being art critics, did not use their usual art criticism style to write about the New York Correspondance School. Lucy Lippard's message was very folksy, newsy. It was in the manner of somebody handwriting on a letterpad. A letter rather than a formal essay.
JH: I guess you bring out the dada in people. It's often quoted that you are "the most famous unknown artist." And of course, you've been doing this for a number of years. When did you start?
RJ: The North Carolina catalog had postcards from Arthur Secunda from the nineteen-forties. So the Correspondance School had its beginnings in the nineteen-forties, and it was a self-conscious activity in the fifties, and very self-conscious in the sixties, and, of course, now in the seventies it has been... we were discussing last night, there have been many people who say, "Oh, I've been doing Correspondence Art for years." And many people have. They have written letters, and sent things in the mail of a visual poetic nature. Everybody has done this. But art critics in describing my activity, Dore Ashton, for instance, very many years back stated that I have so obsessively done this for so many years, everyday as an activity, that I have achieved seniority in the action, and I love it. I love it, because I have demonically pursued the subject. I have written and distributed thousands and thousands of letters with no logic in the reasoning. There's an incredible loss and waste. When I mentioned distribution, and seeding, and planting before, it is a natural kind of phenomena. Of all the leaves on a tree very few of them actually... or fish in the sea, as a germination. Things flourish, grow, wilt, die. A correspondence will reassert itself. Each person has a different reason to communicate. Some people have a necessity, as Edwin Golacoff of Denver, Colorado, has to distribute large bulk garbage, junk mail bundles, and one receives, as Ed Plunkett is into, packages and bulky things. Jim Bohn, of the Spam Radio Club, distributes very slight tiny messages, and the messages are always very soft. Some people...someone from Montana, Mr. Sludge, sends me Montana license plates, and I received a beautiful blob of plaster wrapped in foam rubber with tape and string. And it was the most outstanding object I think I probably ever received, because in cutting the string and tape and the sponge rubber and the emergence of this plastic...
(Tape ends. A second is inserted.)
...he told me he was Canadian, and that my art was so American, which of course goes without saying, since I'm an American. I can't imagine myself working in some kind of French or English idiom since I am an American. But he seemed very impressed by the Americanization of what I do, and we discussed history and community. I have a lot of projects going involving history and documentations of specific communities through portraiture, historical documents, photography, drawings, collage, writings...
JH: About communal groups?
RJ: Yes. I began by doing an exhibition, which was the documentation of the Betty Parson Gallery history and the art world, which stemmed out of my Bunny Lists and Name Droppings of celebrities.
JH: Another name for you. Arthur Craven.
RJ: Yes. The boxer. In the Motherwell Dada anthology. How about the Baroness Freytag-Loringhoven?
JH: You've got me there. But tell me the story.
RJ: The Baroness Freytag-Loringhoven was a friend of Duchamp, and she was kind of a mad lady who wrote poetry. She's in one of the Little Review anthologies as a poet, and she did dadaistic things like shaving her head, painting it green, walking down the street dragging a bedpan, and was a crazy shocking punk lady of her time.
JH: Do you play chess?
JH: You never played with Duchamp, then.
RJ: Arturo Schwartz, my ex-dealer, once asked me if I played chess, and I replied, "No." The Baroness Freytag-Loringhoven. She's not as well known as Mina Loy.
JH: Who was married to Arthur Craven?
RJ: She was married to Herbert Marshall, I think (laughs)...Do you ever hear from Claude Pelieu? He's a French poet, who's married to Mary Beach, who's the daughter of Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company, and he's presently living in Mill Valley and sends me a lot of his poems, and he sort of writes in a Ginsburg, Burrough's type of vein.
JH: Have you ever been to Shakespeare and Company?
RJ: No. I've never been to Europe.
JH: Is that a conscious decision?
RJ: I'm not a traveler. I'm a dreamer. I was in China last night.
JH: So you have no desire to physically travel?
RJ: Well, I have now, because of the projects I was beginning to describe of historical community documentation, which began with the Betty Parson history. And I have been doing silhouette portiture in the last year and a half, and did a exhibition of fifty East Hampton artists and writers, Rosenquist, DeKooning, Sally Quinn of the Washington Post, very pretty. She hated my portrait I did of her. Sort of like an Egyptian mummy, not pretty. I didn't finish the Harold Rosenberg portrait, nor did I finish the Edwin Albee portrait, but people like Chuck Close. Paloma Picasso is in that show. I've done about one-hundred and fifty drawings in the last year and a half. They're not completed. It's a work in process.
JH: Is this being done on a grant?
RJ: Well, this year under my NEA grant in painting. I'm painting on masonite.
JH: You're a painter also?
RJ: I'm trained in painting. The East Hampton show is interesting because of my use of masonite, and scruffed, scumbled paint surfaces, which suddenly some people noticed were very, in a subtle way, painterly. But that was because of the references to DeKooning and Pollack, and so forth. As a community, in that case, the references were to painting. I'm now trying to document Nassau County, which is the other Long Island county. There are fifty portraits in Bridgehampton of the East Hampton people, and I showed them last month in Old Westbury at the SUNY campus, which has a two year old, very modern gallery, gigantic thirty by thirty-six foot vast space. Lawrence Alloway wants to show my portraits in Stony Brook, in his gallery, which is
also beautifully spacious and huge. So when I went to Philadelphia and Detroit recently, I did drawings of people there. n Philadelphia I tried to draw the Mayor.
I began listing unusual people in either politics, sports, theater. That's where Merv Griffin...is it Merv Griffin? I'd like to do Andrea McArdle of Annie, the little actress, as a portrait. In Detroit, I was going to track down historic Henry Ford. I remember that from my childhood textbooks. I think the Ford automobile has a silhouette of Henry Ford. I've done some beautiful portraits of Emily Dickinson based on her historic silhouette with a big lump. Samuel Beckett. I work from photographs. So that in documenting communities and historical situations-just being in this area I'd like to do a portrait of Charles Burchfield. Mr. Root, where my artworks are displayed. So it means my doing research in libraries to find books, photographs, papers, and doing exhibitions, which would include writings, documents. Now I'm involved in the Archive of American Art, the phenomenology. Lucy Lippard and Samuel Wagstaff have given their papers, which include all my letters to them. Mr. Wagstaff, I was told, had one-hundred Ray Johnson letters. I was very impressed that I sent him one-hundred letters over the years, which are now all on microfilm.
JH: Do you keep a copy of each letter you send out?
RJ: No. Oh, no I don't. I forget about them. I never see them again. Although I'm about to purchase my Minolta copy machine, which I have rented under my CAPS and NEA grants to document papers. I have a whole new archive of things I've selected to xerox copy, and the Minolta machine happens to do photographs and offset printings. It has a dial that you set from one to five. I don't the know the Minolta machine, but it's more interesting than the Xerox machine, which just makes a print, and this can be adjusted for tonalities. And the most beautiful thing it does of all, when I do my Yoko Ono Ono Tapir, t.a.p.i.r, drawings on very cheap paper, like cheap newsprint, I would put cigarette burns in the paper, and the Minolta, which has this very fine Japanese... it reproduces the tiniest little things very, very... And the best thing it does is cigarette burns. It has something to so with the sight relief. It does things with holes in them. And things also, a quarter of an inch things in relief, which cast shadows. It's very photographic, and it's in the process in the way it makes a quick instant print. Except that the paper is not as collagable as Xerox paper stock, and someone said that I needed some...
JH: It's shinier?
RJ: It's a photographic emulsion paper, which wilts when you apply liquid glue to it. So someone said simply use a glue that it would adhere to. But that is a sensuous exploration I haven't had the time for.
JH: Book mending glue is good.
RJ: Oh! When I was in China the other night, of all things, in my dream, I had this experience, because I worked in the Orientalia Bookstore in New York and did book cataloging, packing, and I was instructed on how to repair a Chinese book, which years later appeared in my dream. The page had a slight tear, and I was about to mend it with some kind of tape, when someone instructed me to look in the margin, and it seems that in the binding of Chinese books there is a whole way of stitching and binding, which is different from the European tradition. But to my amazement, the way to repair, and it was illogical to turn the page, there was a perforation and a kind of tab and then the spine, and the page...It was contradictory, because to repair it, the whole thing had to be removed, but there was no way put it back. So as a symbol, it was a very interesting occurrence in a dream, because it was completely illogical as an instructive process, because the repair created a destruction. So maybe it should not have been repaired, although that was the intention in the dream.
JH: Have you ever been to Talas, the book supply company in New York? They have a lot of interesting things, including a large collection of marbleized paper.
RJ: Well, I would probably be intrigued, but I don't go out of my way to be involved with craft techniques. I'm very well schooled and trained, you know, many years ago, in many art techniques, and as an artist I simply now do what I do in the way I want to do it. I don't go out of my way to find new techniques. I have a long list of things I hate. Like I hate plastic frames. I hate graphics and prints. I can probably think of a third item, because I said there were many. I have one framer that I've used consistently since 1965, but they're now so expensive that I...They do the most absolute beautiful framings.
JH: Who's that?
RJ: Bernard Walsh. And they make a beautiful cabinet custom-made walnut frame for me, which is all built up and has braces. It's a perfect...
JH: Ray we're just about done here. May I me as presumptuous, as I'm sure I am, to have you draw my silhouette on this blackboard?
RJ: No. I can't do it, because my drawing of a silhouette has consistently been done on paper. I don't draw on blackboards. I draw only on paper. I have a special light that I use. I've used many lights, but now I have a specific light. And the reason I have the light, it creates a very diffused shadow. The light is shown on your head, which casts a shadow, and in drawing it, I somehow can't see what I'm drawing. It's very deliberately obscure. It's difficult, and I'm dealing with your nervous energy, whether you shake or are static. My inability to actually see what I'm drawing, because the tonality of the pencil line is the same tone as the shadow because of my light. So if I were to do this on the blackboard, it's too definite. Because in doing a portrait, it's a very concentrated deliberate concentrated one and a half, two minute, energy thing between you and myself, and your asking me to do it is very different from my asking you to do it.
JH: I said it was presumptuous.
RJ: No, it's not presumptuous, but it would be something else.
RJ: I think our tape is about done. As much as I enjoy writing letters to you, it's been even nicer talking with you.
RJ: If I didn't enjoy it, I would have said the ten minutes are up.
JH: You've been kind.
RJ: I have my watch with me. What is this? (referring to the Hervι Fischer book, Art et Communication Marginale, on the table before him)
JH: Haven't you seen this before?
JH: I believe this is one of the early works on Mail Art and rubber stamps.
RJ: What year was this?
RJ: Is there an index?
JH: Each participant is given a section. I bought it in New York.
RJ: Jaap Reitman?
RJ: I probably haven't seen this book because I'm not in it.
JH: It's mostly European.
RJ: I had a recent communication from Germany from someone George Brecht put on to me who does books and publications. His name is Peter Below. He sent me a big bundle of things that were marvelous to receive. I love looking at this (the Fisher book), but it's somehow final. It doesn't really turn me on. It's not like looking at People magazine. I look at People magazine, and click click click. I have connections with that aspect of the world. When I look at this, since I'm so specialized and involved with this kind of thing...The reality of that hundred dollar bill (in the book) turns me on as an image. And I do have my favorites. Seeing Anna Banana, who telephoned me to wish me a happy Thanksgiving the other night, with Dadaland, Polyester Nations, and Buster Cleveland.
JH: Not Opal Nations?
RJ: No, Polyester Nations. Opal Nations is a man. Polyester Nations is a woman who just had a baby.
JH: Did you have a nice Thanksgiving?
RJ: I had turkey dinner with some friends. And some friends of my friend, who turned out were alcoholics, who drank when they got there, drank before they got there, ate dinner, and then went out somewhere to drink some more. They were falling apart. And then I went to a second Thanksgiving spectacular that a friend of mine gives every year for eighty to one-hundred people. It's in Garrison, New York, near Stony Point, where John Cage, Jasper Johns, Louise Nevelson, many people live. They are generally there, as they were this year. It was a different crowd of people, very pleasant
JH: John Cage has had such an influence on people. I was interested to read that Nam June Paik learned Zen from John Cage.
RJ: You should discuss, either write or telephone, John Cage and Zen with Arakawa. Arakawa has a hostility about John's Zen-ness.
JH: I'd like to talk to you about Black Mountain.
RJ: Oh, no! Oh, no! I went through that last night, and I went through that conversation this morning.
JH: Have you read the book about Black Mountain by Duberman?
RJ: Yes, I did.
JH: Did you find it interesting? Reliable?
RJ: I read it very objectively, and I thought he did very good job of doing a lot of research finding out about a very difficult subject. And I think that everyone who was at Black Mountain, depending on the amount of time, or what year they were there, had a very different experience in dealing with it, because it involved so much of each person's individual participation intuiting what the place was.
JH: Black Mountain has accrued mythic status on par with Paris earlier in the century.
RJ: Duberman has a great interest in the Creely-Olson years, which was a time I was not there. I was there earlier during the Albers-Cage-Erik Satie Festival times. There was a slow disintegration that took place at Black Mountain in the management and administration. I don't know if it's in Fielding Dawson's book or a different book, but I think it was Fielding Dawson, who wrote about sitting around freezing to death, because no one was tending the furnaces, and how cold it was, and there was nothing to eat. It was the time of the Beat Generation. It was very in keeping with the time. When I was there, it was Albers and the Bauhaus expression. I can't imagine Walter Gropius being there with Charles Olson. It was just a very different set-up. We were so idealistic and attempted to be constructive. It was after the war, and we were so involved with carpentry, building. I spent a great deal of time there doing house plastering. I plastered a seven-roomfarm house. My education consisted of working with a hillbilly house-plasterer and slagging lime, and doing corners with a trawl, and ceilings, building windows, and putting roofs on a farm house, which is what I wanted to do at that time. I learned a great deal from doing that. I was dreadful, and I tried to study chemistry. I just couldn't understand chemistry. I was trying to read Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, and I couldn't
read. I really didn't know how to read a novel.
JH: Do you now?
RJ: Probably not. I have read a great deal, but I tend to just read, and read, and read. I think I'm incapable of understanding or analyzing what I read. Because of going to a place like Black Mountain, I had a strange type of education. Whereas, I'm very well trained in art techniques and perspective. I can't write, but I can sure hand-letter. Certain craft things interest me
JH: What's the interest in the mirror-writing?
RJ: You mean writing Barry White backwards? (referring to the previous
JH: And your own name.
RJ: Probably just amusement. I was visiting an art collector in Detroit, who's also a businessman involved with plumbing pipes. And he showed me his art collection, which is near his pipe factory next to the railroad yards. And as I was leaving, he asked me to sign his guest book, so I signed my name backwards, and I saw his registry, when he looked to see my name. He did a kind of Andy Warholesque double-take. So I think I succeeded in a mild startling effect.
JH: It comes natural? Can you write any name quickly like that?
RJ: No. There's some letters that are difficult. It's just a show-off sort of thing. I thought the Barry White and Barry anilow...everyone was convinced I was going to write Barry White a second time. It was inevitable that the second word was going to be White, as a repetition, and then it was Manilow. In one of my lectures, I was trying to figure out how to do a childish magic act, which was...