(Art Journal, Spring 1977)
The New York Correspondence School has never claimed to be an innovation, but rather intends if anything, to carry on a tradition that goes back to primordial times. Examples of communication as an art form can be cited throughout history. Cleopatra had herself rolled up in a rug and presented to Julius Caesar. In the Middle Ages, Charlemagne received an elephant from Haroun al Rashid (the Caliph of Baghdad of Arabian Nights fame). During the Renaissance, courtiers might present each other with cakes in the form of palaces, inhabited by dwarfs. Charles I of England, and his Queen Henrietta, were favored by the Duke of Buckingham with a pie that contained a famous midget. Today's heads of state take their communications more seriously, even if they miss the Dada aspect of much of it.
However, for the past 20 years, many artists have renewed the art of correspondence. It is an ephemeral, evanescent business that disdains description, but there is one central figure and possible founder - the artist Ray Johnson.
I first heard of Johnson through David Herbert, who had been with the Janis Gallery and had just then - 1959 - opened a gallery of his own. David was receiving in the mail small collages or non-specific art works from Ray Johnson, things that might be considered conceptual art in today's terms. Ray referred to some of his mailings as MOTICOS. These were small calligraphic, caricature-like abstract forms done in pen and ink. Ray had offset prints made of these configurations and mailed them off to various acquaintances or non-acquaintances in the art world. I was impressed by what David Herbert showed me and I was fascinated with the concept of mailing things to an unknown but possibly appreciative audience. I had been using the mails myself to dispatch odd postcards or small objects and clippings to friends. But Johnson's mailings were not restricted to friends, and thus were not necessarily in-jokes limited to personal experiences.
I was soon sending things to Ray and then began to receive mailings from him. The envelopes contained tidbits of disorganized collage scraps or proto-pop elements such as labels and pictorial material from the comic strips or newspaper pix, often transformed with drawings. Usually there were instructions to mail certain things to other people. Thus my mailing list expanded. Further, when I sent things to unknowns, they responded with mailings to Ray, or to other unknowns. Now I was corresponding with people I did not know and possibly was never to meet. It was possible to communicate with someone on one level without knowing them on any other, and this added to the mystery of it all. For the most part, the members of this not-too-secret society were artists, or poets, or dancers, though occasionally there would be someone from the "other side".
About a year after my first mailings to Ray, I arranged to meet him. On a warm spring day in 1962 I went down to the lower-lower East Side to his place on Suffolk Street off Delancey. I had been expecting something as cluttered and contrived as a Schwitters Merzbau, but to my amazement, the place was empty of everything but a chair, a bed, a stove and refrigerator, and a few boxes containing collages. Nothing on the walls, nothing on the floor - just two or three nearly empty tenement rooms. About a year later I discovered that Ray had prepared his apartment the evening before I was expected. He packed up everything and stuffed it into the room of his across-the-hall neighbor, Dorothy Podber. This was a trick Ray often played. Another time, while receiving a visit from Sam Wagstaff, Ray's closet door opened and out came a young lady, Malka Safro. This so startled Wagstaff that he fled the premises. (Ray's collection of acquaintances were apt to be unusual. La Podber, for instance, often appeared wearing several pairs of shoes at once. How she managed, I've never learned: one shoe inside the other... likewise with sleeves which she would peel off, one at a time, in a sort of mini-happening.)
Ray's propensity for empty space was echoed in one of his early meetings, a "nothing" event which took place in the late spring of 1962. It was sponsored by George Maciunas, and occurred at a gallery that was in the process of relocating and was empty of all but some construction materials, bags of plaster, and some boards and saw horses.
There had been a notice in the Village Voice stating that Ray Johnson would be performing a Nothing. This, of course, was at the high moment of Happenings. At Ray's meeting nothing happened at all until the end when Ray took a large box full of wooden spindles that he had found somewhere and threw them down the staircase leading up to the gallery. These spindles covered the steps and made climbing up or down very precarious. But up to that time, visitors would enter the bleak gallery, look a little bewildered and finally ask what was happening, only to get a succinct reply, "Nothing!"
Ray was eventually to stage numerous meetings at a variety of locations. (The meeting idea was taken up later by other correspondence groups. One such elaborate meeting was the Decca Dance in Los Angeles in 1975.)
Through Ray's meetings I was to meet numerous artists and characters. I recall that Ad Reinhardt was at the early Nothing, as was Robert Buecker. A number of these people were as yet unappreciated underground movers of the avant-guard of those days. One of these was Sari Dienes. Recently, when a young interviewer asked Jasper Johns if Rauschenberg hadn't been a significant influence on his early years, Johns replied, "No, it was Sari Dienes." To which the interviewer, no doubt, replied "Sari Who?"
A few of my earliest correspondences were with Buecker, Richard Craven, Michael Malcé, the late James Waring, and also George Brecht and Bob Watts of the Fluxus group. By the mid-1960s I introduced Chicago artist Karl Wirsum to the game. Also about then I ordered a rubber stamp that read "New York Correspondence School of Chicago."
Before 1962-63 there was no specific term for mail art. I began calling it the New York Correspondence School for this reason: Abstract Expressionism or Action Painting was then often referred to as "The New York School" so I merely inserted "Correspondence" into the term. This name caught on, despite the fact that Ray chose to spell it "correspondance" and chose to kill it in 1973 with a letter to the obituary column of the New York Times - a dead letter. But the term and the concept have persisted and expanded, first to the West Coast and to Canada, and finally internationally and intercontinentally.
Ever since the late '60s there have been any number of correspondence shows throughout the world, even in remote places like New Zealand. The Canadian Government has given money for a Toronto group to publish FILE magazine, which gives listings of mail art people, as well as what they want to receive. Thus, the correspondence wave continues and thrives, and no doubt will do so until postal rates make it prohibitive.