From Withheld: A Conversational Memoir
By John Held, Jr.
As told to Jeremy Greco
The most important part of my first trip to Europe in 1977 occurred on one of my walking tours of Amsterdam. I found a Rubber Stamp store called Posthumus. There was a wooden Medieval looking sign over the door with a hand holding a rubber stamp, so I went in. They had these sets of visual rubber stamps. I bought about five or six of them. I was going to give them to my kids Amanda and Nat as souvenirs of the trip.
But when I got home I started using them in my art work and I would impress the rubber stamps in patterns. Since the ink pad was not very good, I would go over the impressions with pen and ink and put cross hatches around them. I did that for a year.
I was really excited about them, and I got back in touch with the store in Amsterdam that sold me the stamps. I told them I was doing this artwork with their stamps. I knew he had some extra space in the store, so I said, “Maybe you’d like to have an exhibition of rubber stamp art. I’ll do some research on artists that are using rubber stamps.”
I was a reference librarian, so you’d think it would be easy finding this out, but it was difficult. One day I saw an article in the New York Times about a rubber stamp company that made visual rubber stamps called Bizzarro in Providence, Rhode Island. I wrote to the owner, Ken Spicer, asking him if there were any other artists using rubber stamps.
He wrote back and said, “There’s this whole movement called Mail Art, where people send things back in forth through the mail. They use rubberstamps to decorate their envelopes. And if you want to know more here’s the name of two people that are involved in it.” One name was Ray Johnson, and the other was E.M Plunkett. Turns out Johnson was doing Mail Art in the mid fifties and was the “father” of the movement. And Plunkett a was a friend of his, also living in New York City, who gave Johnson’s activity the name The New York Correspondence School in 1962. So, this is a movement that was going on a good 20 years before I stumbled across it in 1978.
I started writing to Ray Johnson, and he and I hit it off pretty well. I had no idea of his stature in the art world, if any, at the time. I’d get three letters a week from him, and some months later, he came up to the area to give a performance at Hamilton College, which I attended. I asked him if he’d come to the Mid-York Library System the next day to do a video with me, because I was the video librarian there. We did an hour interview together. It turned out to be one of his rare interviews. I got to be good friends with Johnson and from there my involvement in Mail Art just exploded.
I was involved in this art field that I thought had possibilities. The thing that really appealed to me about Mail Art was, number one, its community building aspect. This utopianism was foremost on my mind at this time, because I was working for the Oneida Community Historical Society the same time I was discovering Mail Art. I saw Mail Art as a new community, one that breached art and life.
It was about communication. I was a librarian at the time, so, that was what I was involved in professionally – information transfer. I was into information aesthetics. I would read books by Norbert Wiener, “The Human Use of Human Beings,” about technology aiding information transfer, and changing humanity in the process. I was exploring information transfer. That’s what my first article was about, “Information Science and the Art of Information,” for the periodical Assembling, edited by Richard Kostelanetz.
I was still doing visual art on the side. Pen and ink work, but incorporating rubber stamps more and more. I went back to Amsterdam, a year after I went their initially, and had a show. I met Ulises Carrion, who was one of the most influential artists in the Mail Art Network. He had a retail store called Other Books and So that sold artists magazines and audio works that circulated in Mail Art, rubber stamp works…avant-guard things. His specialty was artists’ books. Other Books and So was the European center for artists books and publications of all kinds. Like a modern day Printed Matter bookstore in New York.
Carrion had a show of rubber stamp art at Other Books and So that the owner of Posthumus rubber stamp store attended. The owner decided to make a portion of his retail store into a gallery and museum of rubber stamps. He called it Stempelplaats. They were the Royal Stamp and Seal Makers. and they became the Royal Stamp and Seal Makers of Holland because during the World War II, the company was making – was forced to make – rubber stamps for the Nazis, but they were also making duplicates and gave them to the underground resistance. So, the Queen of Holland presented them with a Royal Charter after the war because of the risks they had taken.
Anyway, they opened up this gallery and museum next to the rubber stamp store, and I went back over and had the first show they presented. I spent a lot of time with Ulises Carrion at Other Books and So. This was about 1978. It gave me the opportunity to spend some quality time with the leading intellectual of Mail Art. Ulises Carrion wrote more often and was more incisive about Mail Art then anyone at the time.
It was interesting. because I was being exposed to various strains of Mail Art. On the one hand, Ray Johnson, and his very witty, punning, playful activity of free association. Whereas, Ulises Carrion saw Mail Art as an intellectual exercise having social ramifications. Most of the American Mail Artists with whom I was corresponding saw Mail Art as a purely Dadaistic activity.
European Mail Art was more intellectually rigorous and the works tended to be more fine art oriented then d-i-y oriented, as it was, in the United States. I mean there was a lot of overlap, but these were just general tendencies I observed.
Mail Art became even more interesting when I began corresponding with Eastern European artists. It was a serious activity for them, not Dadaistic activity. This was the only way they were able to communicate with their Western counterparts. A way to find out about art and what was happening in people’s lives in the West. I think that Mail Art was an important step away from political and artistic domination for these artists.
*********************************************************************I opened Modern Realism Gallery with Paula in 1982. We weren’t married yet. We were married in 1986. We lived together for four years before we got married. 1984 was a big year. Paula and I went to San Francisco to attend the Inter Dada 1984 Festival, a Mail Art centric festival that featured the publication of the book, Correspondence Art, by Mike Crane and Mary Stoflett. There were a lot of people there including Cavellini from Italy, Jurgen Olbrich from Germany, Lon Spiegelman from LA…just a lot of people.
Inter Dada 84 was the first time I met Bill Gaglione, who I had been corresponding with since 1978, when I first got involved with Mail Art. That was the first time we met. I remember him taking me over to his home on Lake Street. In the basement, he had this rubber stamp factory – small rubber stamp factory- just a vulcanizer, really. And he had a rubberstamp museum, mostly sets of antique rubber stamps.
Let me see, I think it was – yeah it was 1992. I had an exhibition with Bill Gaglione in San Francisco. By this time, he had expanded his stamp company – Stamp Francisco – from the basement of his house, to an industrial space in San Francisco. In addition to having a retail space where he sold the rubberstamps, in the back he had about ten people making rubberstamps for him. Then they’d sell them up front. About 1990, he had added a gallery space that showed Mail Artists who were using rubber stamps.
So, in 1992 I went there, and I did this show called Networking Fresco. At the time I was doing rubberstamp wall murals – rubberstamping directly on the wall. I had done this in Italy. A show in Milan. I went to San Francisco and gave a talk on Mail Art while I rubber stamped the mural. It was a performance. I talked and stamped while people were watching.
I was encouraging Bill about the shows he was doing at the gallery. He was getting more excited about these shows, because the rubberstamp company was doing pretty well at this time, and they could afford to financially support the gallery.
There was a whole world of visual rubberstamps that was booming – there were maybe two hundred, three hundred companies and retail stores across the country. California was ground zero for the visual rubber stamp movement.
I went to San Francisco for the show and Gaglione and I stayed in contact. He’d send me fliers for all the shows he was doing.
I went to Paris in 1995 with Gaglione. There was a rubber stamp exhibition at the Musée de la Post, and both Gaglione and I had contributed work for the show. We had been in contact with the curator and decided go over there and do a performance. We were there in May, and we did this performance were we glued…attached rubber stamps to our shoes, and we built a big stamp pad. We walked on the stamp pad and then walked around on paper. And then we had made these rubber stamps that had our portraits in the middle. The Fake Picabia Brothers – Gaglione and myself…and we would give them out as souvenirs.
Afterwards, Gaglione and I went to visit Ruud Janssen in Tilburg, Holland. He had a big rubber stamp archive, so we went there and arranged for him to have a show with us at the Stamp Art Gallery. But that’s getting a little ahead of myself.
…I had a show in Yugoslavia. I didn’t go for it – but it was big show at the Golden Eye Gallery in Novi Sad with a catalog. It was based on Fake Picabia Brothers graphics. And after that, I decided to leave Dallas and move to San Francisco. I arranged a retrospective of my Dallas years at a gallery called Documentary Arts, and showed my own work as well as past shows at Modern Realism. It was a nice little Texas two-step out of there.
Ashley Parker Owens, who was the editor of Global Mail, one of the more visible Mail Art publications, mentioned in the summer of 1995 that she was thinking about moving to San Francisco and I said, “Wow! That sounds like a good idea.”
I had just been there for another show at Bill’s gallery. I had stayed with another Mail Artist, Mike Dyer. He took me to Baker Beach, and he’s playing nude volleyball. There’s all these naked women around. The Golden Gate Bridge is off to the right. The Pacific Ocean, off to the left. The Presidio behind me and the Marina Headlands ahead, and I think, “What the fuck am I doing in Dallas. This is unbelievable. There’s naked people running around, nobody cares, and it’s unbelievably beautiful.”
When Ashley mentioned San Francisco – that she was moving there, I said, “Maybe I should move there with you – you want to room together?” So, we decided to room together and that’s how that came about.
I gave my notice to the Dallas Public Library in the middle of August and then two weeks later I got bladder cancer. Luckily my insurance was still in force. I got through that, packed up the apartment in a huge truck and attached the car to the back. I stayed the first night on the road in Amarillo with Stanley Marsh 3 of Cadillac Ranch fame, who had become a friend and patron.
At this point, I was sick of libraries and really didn’t want to work in another. Bill had offered me a job and – and I guess I moved to San Francisco because of it, as much as anything. His rubber stamp company was doing really well. He had fifteen employees making stamps, someone to run the retail store, and an assistant, Diana Mars, who would help him with production. Bill’s wife Darlene took care of the finances.
He was putting together shows. We were doing a lot of work together at this time and we just decided we needed to jump into this and do it whole hog. He invited me to be the curator and I told him what I needed – you know, the money I needed to make it work. Plus, I cashed in my pension at the Dallas Public Library. I was able to go there with about ten thousand dollars to ease the transition.
I started working as curator for The Stamp Art Gallery. Bill and I put together a very ambitious schedule, and each month we would show a rubber stamp artist, postage stamp artist and Mail Art. We had three shows a month. We would do catalogues for almost every show. Plus, we would do a box set of rubberstamps to document the exhibition in rubberstamp form. And those were some of the greatest things I’ve ever – some of the greatest art objects I’ve ever been involved with – those rubber stamp box sets.
The catalogues later – much later, went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They bought the whole run of it. What we were doing, I thought at the time, was really substantial. It was the only gallery in the world devoted to rubber stamp art, Fluxus, Mail Art and artist’s postage stamps on a fulltime basis.
We were showing a lot of international artists. We had Ruud Janssen come over from Holland for a show documenting his rubber stamp archive. And, we had workshops with local artists.
The other thing that I did when I went to San Francisco was…you know, I was pretty active in the zine community and had a written for Factsheet Five, under the original editor Mike Gunderloy, but Gunderloy had dropped out and sold the publication to someone else, who passed it on to Seth Friedman, who was living in San Francisco.
So, Seth got in touch with me before I moved out to San Francisco and said that he wanted me to write for the magazine, or be involved in some way. He became a good friend when I first moved there. Seth was the publisher of Factsheet Five, and had an editor, Chris Becker, and I became friendly with both of them. They helped me move into my apartment with Ashley.
I decided to review the sex zines for Factsheet Five. I did that for about two or three years, which was interesting, because it put me in touch with the sexual underground, people who were into crush fantasies, just very peculiar deviant types…
Chris was working at Borders bookstore. I was still working at The Stamp Art Gallery. But after a year or so, my money from the Dallas Public Library dried up, and I wasn’t getting paid that much at the Stamp Art Gallery – so I started working part-time with Chris at Borders Bookstore. Eventually the Stamp Art Gallery went bankrupt. I went to Borders, and started working there full-time.
All right, let’s get back to coming to San Francisco, okay? I came to work for The Stamp Art Gallery. Bill Gaglione had a rubber stamp company, Stamp Francisco. But really, one of the major reasons that Bill was so anxious for me to come was for me to do a history of the Bay Area Dada group, which he was part of in the early 70s.
It was basically these guys who were working at a stationary store, Aaron Brothers Stationary in San Francisco… Bill Gaglione, his cousin Tim Mancusi, who was seven or so years younger than him, Charles Chickadell, a friend of theirs, who was originally from Delaware, and Steve Caravello, who was a local guy. They worked together and began doing things like stealing all the, pink stick-on dots from the stationary store. Sticking up pink dots all over town – a pre graffiti type of thing. They started building up a cadre of other like-minded characters.
I eventually started research on the Bay Area Dada group. I was interviewing people like Winston Smith – an illustrator – used to be the designer for the punk group Dead Kennedys and is currently doing covers for the New Yorker magazine. And Bill Griffith, the cartoonist who does Zippy the Pinhead . He was Tim Mancusi’s roommate at one point in the early 70’s. Monte Cazazza was probably the most outrageous one. He eventually went to Europe and started working with Genesis P’Orridge and came up with the name Industrial Music. Monte’s claim to fame. Not that he cares.
I started tackling the research through their publications. I tried to collect all the publications they generated. Tim Mancusi had done the New York Correspondence Weekly Breeder. Bill was doing Dadazine andVILE Magazine with Anna Banana. Chickadel was doing Quoz and The West Bay Dadaist. So all these periodicals were coming out they were basically Xeroxed – actually this was even before Xerox. They were doing it by Quick Print, which was the commercially available technology proceeding photocopy. Anna Banana came down from Canada and married Gaglione. They were the first couple of Mail Art for awhile.
They’d do tours of Europe and lots of local stuff. The center of the Mail Art universe for awhile was definitely San Francisco in the mid 70s. A lot of Canadians came down to visit like Jorge Zontal of General Idea. They did these exchanges with Canadian alternative spaces, like Western Front in Vancouver. They were very active.
I started gathering Bay Area Dada publications from people like Patricia Tavenner and Irene Dogmatic – others that were associated with the group, and eventually, we put on a show at the main San Francisco Public Library of Bay Area Dada Publications from 1970 to 1984. Then the show traveled to Printer Matter in New York, probably the foremost store for artist’s books in the country, and a place where Bill and I had a decades long relationship with. They were only too happy to have us come and recreate the show. That was in 1999. It was four years from origination of the concept, before it was actually displayed in San Francisco and New York. We received a review in The New York Times.
I forgot to mention my collaboration with other artists, because I love collaboration. I don’t know if personal insecurity is at the heart of it, like wanting to be a backup singer rather then lead. I’ve always wanted my art to be bigger then myself, and drawing others into the collaborative process insures that.
…Gaglione and I were huge collaborators when I first moved to San Francisco. I couldn’t tell you where he ended and I began, to tell you the truth.
San Francisco, April 2010