On the Make
I have often felt I was crazy as an artist who doesn’t feel the need to make art. I’ve received so much of it over the years I don’t care if I ever see or make another image. That is why I write. What is there to do but ponder the work of other artists as a point of departure? I have come to view writing about others as my latest work of performance art. The goal is not to critique but to describe and to make associations for my own edification, which I then share with others. The learning curve is steep and gratifying, and receiving feedback makes the end of the process as collaborative as the research I do in the beginning to understand the artist.
I consider Marcel Duchamp the most important artist of the second half of the 20th century and Ray Johnson the most important artist of this century, one he didn’t live to see. Duchamp convinced me to eschew all art objects and my friend Ray taught me to chew up the art market to embrace the moment. This has put me in a lousy position as a career artist. Sometimes I catch myself and think, “Oh shit, I forgot to make the art.”
My own practice as an artist originally gravitated to “mail art,” because it was a perfect strategy for giving one’s work away. I liked the ephemeral look and gift- economy-potlatch-philosophy of mail art, which seemed to walk the walk of egalitarian, democratic ideals I claimed to care about. I stayed for its networking and community aspects—a lifestyle or permanent performance art piece—not just a way to crank out tchotchkes. I switched to online activity in 1989 for the same reason. There, in that text-only world of teleconferencing, I like to think I found my voice via trial and error interactions with other people, some with similar interests, some different. In those days there were more scientists online than artists.
I didn’t develop a love of Dada or the underground or the politics I have because I was a mail artist, it worked the other way around. Duchamp referred to some artists in his time as “stupid as a painter.” Though I’ve never actually seen anyone use this term in print, I still take Duchamp’s word for it that this was an expression, or as he clarified it: “in love with the smell of turpentine.” I always thought the art most people were making was sophisticatedly stupid and deceptively simple-minded, reinforcing my disbelief about the public reception to Duchamp a century earlier. Few seemed willing to change their approach. Sure, they quoted Duchamp, but they kept making crap. And by crap I mean they kept making anything at all.
I don’t mean I don’t see work I like. I don’t mean that people in the art world are not sometimes fun and interesting to talk to. And I don’t mean there aren’t some great artists out there (both within and outside of mail art circles). I don’t think I am better than anyone else. In fact, I couldn’t begin to make the art most artists make. I hereby declare you all better artists than me. Nor do I consider myself an exceptional writer on art. Perhaps my harsh attitudes derive from an anxiety of being naïve and uninformed—including fears I am alone in such feelings. Those attitudes inform what and how I write and what I do occasionally make. I carry around a sketchbook to write and scribble and draw in constantly, attempting to make sense of things. Meanwhile I seek out collectors, publishers, and other big shots as much as the next guy, hoping to be bestowed with prosperity as they bless my work. So I’m a total hypocrite. Call me a hypocritic.
Duchamp spent the last 20 years of his life working on the Étant donnés (1946–1966), revealed upon his death in 1968, and never quit art after all. He checkmated us with that and his best intentions in his 1957 speech, The Creative Act. Meanwhile Ray Johnson’s ideal to invent art that would be seen whizzing by on trains by coyotes, not people, takes on new meaning after his own suicidal endgame and an art press that romanticized his “hermit” status. I call that exaggeration the ultimate centerpiece of his very social anti-art form. In one of our many phone conversations Ray assured me that he saw no difference between his collages and his mailings “or the nice wobbly drawings I do when I'm driving through Ohio.” He told me “a letter from Jim Rosenquist and a kid in Nebraska” are “equal as activity.”
In the end, like everyone else, I’m led around by my brain chemistry through a Jungian collective unconscious populated by impossible archetypes. It’s why I sometimes think it would be fun to paint like Pollock or Rothko in their “genetic moment” before Abstract Expressionism. But mostly I think the best thing to “make” would be a new theory of life that the truly living could adhere to with a modicum of integrity.