Sara De Bondt, who recently spoke at the Walker as part of our Insights lecture series, is co-founder of Occasional Papers, a non-profit publisher dedicated to producing affordable books on art, design, architecture, film and literature. Their most recent publication, Please Come to the Show, which launched June 10th, is edited by David Senior, bibliographer at the Museum of Modern Art Library in New York. The book was published on the occasion of Senior’s MoMA Library exhibition recently traveling to the Exhibition Research Centre in Liverpool and the catalog “consists of a wide range of MoMA Library’s exhibition-related ephemera—invitations, flyers and posters from the 1960s to the present—presenting them as an historically overlooked but integral aspect of exhibitions. Often the first point of contact between the audience and artist, such items form part of an essential lexicon for graphic designers, curators, art historians and anyone interested in the event-based nature of showing art. Filled with full-colour reproductions of numerous examples from the MoMA Library collection, the book includes new essays by Gustavo Grandal Montero, Will Holder, Antony Hudek, Angie Keefer, Clive Phillpot, David Senior and Suzanne Stanton.”
Below we present Clive Phillpot’s essay “Postal Works” from the catalogue. Clive is a writer, curator and former art librarian.
by Clive Phillpot
I have moved house and consequently weeded my belongings maybe ten times since 1976, but through all that time I held on to a postcard announcing what is probably a performance (that I never witnessed) by Kevin Atherton at 8pm on 14 October 1976. The card informs the reader that ‘A Work Opened Up’ will be performed at the Battersea Arts Centre. Why have I kept this particular piece of paper, measuring six by three and a half inches, for so long?
The card has an internal border of a black line that breaks briefly on the top at the point where a paperclip has been attached, then, above the centred textual information, is another paperclip opened up and straightened out into a bendy line and fixed to the card with adhesive tape. This art announcement is unusual in its incursion into the third dimension, but its fascination lies in both its minimal sculptural quality, and its enigmatic content. How does a straightened paperclip connect with what happened after 8pm at the Battersea Art Centre? The lack of a ready answer contributes to the suggestiveness of the mailed work and to its ongoing curiosity.
As well as these qualities the card has usefulness, even after the event, as a record of an artist’s work and a record of one of the events at a particular venue at a certain time, just like most items in files of art documentation. The fact that I have filed and preserved Atherton’s announcement for such a long time counters its intrinsic datedness. Like nearly all the items in this exhibition it was conceived as something short-lived, that is, ephemeral. Printed ephemera are so-called because, they resemble the Ephemeroptera, the biological order of the mayflies that emerge (in the month of May) from their larval form in streams, take flight and last but a day before their lives are done. In turn printed ephemera would initially appear to have no further function once the event that they announce has occurred.
This exhibition, too, contests the status of the pieces of paper that it brings together, since years after their appearance they have been preserved and are now displayed and their content, their design, their artistry, fêted. It will also be apparent that these humble announcements and invitations actually communicate very specific items of information that have enduring value as particles in the art historical food chain.
The world of art museums and galleries has had a need for invitation cards for many decades, but with the radical changes in art in the 1960s, when artists began to take charge of the ways that their work was publicised and written about, the exhibition announcement became another arena in which the artist could work. This was a time when artists’ magazines burgeoned, as did book art, mail art and artists’ postcards.
While art announcements take many forms, the simple postcard, usually sent in the mail as is, without an envelope, is very common, and provides a small harmonious forum for verbal and visual statements. To illustrate the potential of the form one might highlight a microcosm of artists from England, who have similar interests and who have utilised the postcard form to make artworks that also announce exhibitions. They are Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and David Tremlett, each of whom has worked in remote regions of the world, and with the land itself. Richard Long has stated that ‘everything that I show in a gallery or put out in other ways, is art in its own right’. And indeed, in his recent 2009 exhibition at Tate Britain, he not only showed over eighty sculptures and wall works, but also perhaps three times as many printed works, including artist books and postcard announcements. His card for his exhibition at Sperone Westwater Fischer in New York in 1978 epitomises the announcement as artwork. It depicts his circle of driftwood on a shore in the arctic, placed in the foreground of a vertical photograph which also shows waves in the Bering Strait and a forbidding sky. The whole image, a study in greys, has a white border and two lines of lettering in white. This is a rewarding and compelling image; a small artwork. (Strangely the same photograph, bled off and without lettering, was issued in a postcard edition by Gebr. König in Cologne, but this has none of the iconicity of the New York announcement.
The idea of the artist’s postcard —a sibling of the announcement as artwork —was also made more visible in the 1960s as the mail art network expanded. For instance, a bit later, in 1977, Image Bank, the alternative space in Vancouver, published their Image Bank Post Card Show. This exhibition in a box contained works by such mail art stalwarts as Guglielmo Achille Cavellini, Dadaland, General Idea, Ray Johnson and Mr Peanut, as well as other sympathetic artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark and Sol LeWitt. Others who encouraged artists to make postcards included Klaus Staeck who had himself made postcards and stunning posters; his Edition Staeck published cards by Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, Dieter Roth, Claes Oldenburg and several more artists. Yet another extended phenomenon was Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots. This series of 51 black and white postcards surprisingly depicted the odyssey of 100 boots as they made their way across America. Each card showed the boots en route, in a field, in a farmyard and so on, until they arrived at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Such postcards intermingled in the postal system with announcement cards and so ended up in ephemera collections as well. Getting back to announcement cards, however, there were artists who not only devised work for such cards, but also embarked upon serial card works. One of the most notorious is that by Robert Barry in 1969 in which he composed cards for exhibitions of his work in the USA and across Europe, which announced: ‘for the exhibition the gallery will be closed’. Thus after exhibiting elusive phenomena such as radio waves and inert gases he began to exhibit nothing, drawing attention to this fact by utilising these mailed announcements. Another series of interrelated cards were Joel Fisher’s announcement cards for a string of exhibitions in the mid-1970s, also across Europe, in which he paired a photo of one of his eyes with an eye of the gallerist presenting his work.
Other artists played more complicated games with announcements. For example Ray Johnson made a set of ‘five cards in diminishing print size’ for a series of ‘invisible shows’ each referred to as the ‘8 Man Show’, apparently at three different galleries. The exhibitions were, however, inventions, as were some of the artists who appeared to have exhibited: thus ‘Ray Johnson’ metamorphosed into ‘Ray Charles’, ‘Kay Johnson’ and ‘Ray Johnsong’, while ‘George Brecht’ reappeared as ‘Mrs. Brecht’. And the galleries, also fictitious, started as the ‘Robin Gallery’—probably a play on the Reuben Gallery —and then its successors the ‘Woodpecker Gallery’ and the ‘Willenpecker Gallery’ (which alluded to the artist John Willenbecher).
Other art world phenomena that contributed to the flood of printed and mailed ephemera included the publishing of artists’ magazines. Thus there are cards announcing parties or benefits to celebrate the appearance of magazine issues: the Image Bank issue of Art-Rite for example, or the various cards for Just Another Asshole. Then there is a card to announce the press conference at Grand Central Station for the release of Les Levine’s compelling subway poster ‘We Are Not Afraid’. There is another for the ‘Eat-Art Show’ at the Art Caféon Second Avenue. Yet another is for the exhibition of work by Frank Kozik at CBGBs on the Bowery. The venues —and the occasions —are multifarious.
Today we may be witnessing the end of the growth in postal announcement cards after only a few decades, for most exhibition venues are cutting back on the production of cards and other items to publicise their exhibitions or events. Email announcements have more or less taken over. Some of the more corporate galleries still issue dinosaurial card announcements but these are generally larger, thicker and more ostentatious than before.
An array of art world printed ephemera tells us a lot about the times in which they were produced. If one thinks, perhaps, of printed ephemera from the nineteenth century, the look and means of these earlier specimens is vastly different from, say, the printed ephemera of the late twentieth century, for the older ornamental typeset sheets with their inventive layouts gave way to the immediacy of offset, duplicated and xeroxed material often literally revealing the hand of the maker. So along with the art in ephemera and the information in ephemera, we can discover the look and feel and facts of the times that they document.•
Please Come to the Show
Edited by David Senior
Published by Occasional Papers
With the support of the MoMA Library and the Exhibition Research Centre, Liverpool John Moores University