by MARK BLOCH, MAY 2018
A passage from Ray Johnson in the Letters to the Editor section of “FILE Megazine” in the early 1970s went like this:
“ …And there were countless phone calls to Toby Spiselman, who is never in FILE one at three in the morning I woke her up…”
Rest in peace, Toby.
I am sad to announce that Toby Spiselman died on April 25 at the age of 83 in New York City. A family service was held this week at Mount Lebanon Cemetery.
Toby was a gifted mathematician and quite accomplished in that world. She graduated from Brooklyn College in 1955 and got a graduate degree in math from Yale, which was a rarity for a female in those days. It was equally unusual for a woman to have worked for IBM in the capacity she did but as a pioneer in computer technology, she was a well-respected professional. She later became an officer at Republic National Bank of New York where she remained for many years.
But it was Toby Spiselman’s secret job as the “acting secretary” of Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondance School that she will remain forever known. The NYCS, the analog precursor to social networking, used the international postal system as a distribution system to stand in for the computers that would eventually replace it. Coincidentally, Spiselman, well acquainted with computers due to her extreme math chops, was Ray’s constant companion from the time that she met him in 1958 until Johnson’s death by suicide in 1995. She once buoyantly told me with Ray looking on, that “once I met him, I never let him get away” and gleefully added that she had “attached” herself to him. She adored Ray Johnson and he adored her. Unfortunately, Ray’s mysterious “performance art” death by drowning was such a shock to her that she almost immediately retreated from public life in the art world and turned her attention to her family, never to return.
At about 4pm on the last day of his life, Johnson told his friend Bill Wilson in a phone call, “Tell Toby this is a mail event.” He had probably already mailed to her the couple of packages that arrived there within days and that she interpreted, along with that final phone message, to be a would-be suicide note, as murky and dark as the rest of his final days. Toby had spoken to Ray the night before—as she often did—and the call ended with a final expression of fondness by Johnson. But there was no indication to Toby that anything particularly unusual was about to occur. But once she got the harsh news that her friend was gone, Spiselman never recovered.
They were beyond close buddies. Toby was one of the few people to ever visit his home in Locust Valley, NY and was even a frequent guest. She said to me she had what she called, “my room” there in the home of man who has often been called, accurately or not, hermit-like. Together the two had gone on trips, including to Shelter Island in the 1980s, where Johnson worked on his famous silhouette portraits of famous people. It also happened to be the spot from where Ray travelled to Sag Harbor to take his own life by leaping off a bridge and backstroking into the frigid waters of Long Island Sound on a cold Friday the thirteenth evening in January 1995.
As a fixture at Ray’s side, Spiselman became well-known in her own right to art world stars of the 1960s and ‘70s like Bill and Elaine DeKooning, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Chuck Close and their circles. Toby reportedly remained close to Christo and his late wife Jeanne Claude after Ray died but that was a rare exception. I think by remaining silent and keeping a low profile, she took Ray’s Taoist example to heart. "Ray didn't talk about it, he just did it," she told me in one of our last conversations in 1995, "That's why you don't find art magazines lying around quoting the art philosophy of Ray Johnson.”
“An operation in math is anything that leaves a scar,” was a quote Wilson attributed to Toby in a 1977 book. In her role as “secretary” of Ray’s “school,” her computer-like mind did have a command of important information on which her friend, Ray, often relied. “And then I say to my friend Toby Spiselman, like what year was that?” he once said in an interview.
Like the “Letter to the Editor” above, in “FILE,” her name was always popping up in autobiographical tidbits that made his legendary letters so fun to read: “March 26, 1971; (Dear) John (Willenbecker), Last night I drove Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Alloway home after dinner at the Arakawa’s and Lawrence sat in the back with Toby and they used the kilt as a lap robe.” (The missive was adorned with a movie still of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in kilts.) In another letter he writes a version of a more frequent refrain: “Detach here and send this art to Toby Spiselman.”
In a “report” of one of his “school’s” unique Meetings, he wrote, in part, “Toby Spiselman and I… shared a Fresca watched black & white television and color television the Return of the Humonoids listened to music & John Giorno discussed the next Meeting…” Indeed, it was Toby who helped him create these NYCS Meetings, sometimes called Nothings, in which invitees were never quite sure why they were there or what was to happen. In an interview Johnson once dropped, “So we had subsequent meetings at Finch College, where Toby Spiselman rented foot massage machines.” She was not only the “secretary” of Johnson’s world but also the ultimate Meeting planner.
In a 1977 issue of “Art Journal,” (subtitled, "Send Letters, Postcards, Drawings, and Objects ...") Spiselman wrote, “ there have been thirty New York Correspondence School Meetings and Lectures by Ray Johnson in churches, schools, galleries, museums, theaters, and parks” and then, like the good would-be clerical and sidekick that she was, proceeded to list them with important details. This article accompanied texts by art world luminaries including the aforementioned Alloway, John Russell, Suzi Gablik, Robert Pincus-Witten and Lucy Lippard.
In her professional life, Spiselman co-authored a scholarly text called, “The Computer and Archaeology” with three female colleagues recapping a seminar at Columbia University for the American Journal of Archaeology. In that 1968–69 season it is now hard to imagine that “the drawback of the computer has been that the layman had no means of communicating with it directly” but that “the cathode ray tube (a monitor) has changed that.” In another passage under “In the Field” it promises, “Miss Spiselman said that it should be possible, fairly soon, to take a portable console on an excavation.” This illustrates the earliness of Toby’s entry into the field during her work at IBM.
One overlap of her work in math and her art world travels was her assistance to the artist Lowell Nesbitt. While working at IBM’s new building on Sixth Avenue, the mischievous Spiselman is rumored, in the wee hours of the morning, to have brought Nesbit in for private lessons on how to use the newest color technology. Nesbit is known as the first artist to use computer parts as subject matter for his artwork in photorealist paintings from 1965 and 66 such as “IBM Magnetic Storage Drum,” “IBM 1440” and “IBM 6400” based on the early IBM ENIAC and Univac computers. He showed at the Howard Wise Gallery, which was devoted to art that used new technology. It is interesting to note that some of the earliest writings on Nesbit were by Ray Johnson’s closest friends Bill Wilson and Henry Martin.
In fact, it just so happens that William S. (Bill) Wilson and his wife Ann, once assigned the job of being Ray Johnson’s archivists by the artist (and faithfully executed by Bill), were married in the early ‘60s at Spiselman’s family home in Brooklyn. Spiselman’s father was an inventor and engineer and her sister, totally by coincidence, also ended up in the art world—but not in New York. Her sister said, “You brought 84 years of knowledge and great wit to all who knew you… at the end of the Beat Generation… On top of it, she was a great sister, an incredible aunt to my kids and a super grand aunt to my grandsons.”
Conversely, in an interview with Nam June Paik, Jud Yalkut was probably referring to Toby when he said, “Now even Ray Johnson is going out with a petite computeress.”
So Toby charmed and touched everyone she encountered, from the world of math and numbers to her family to the art stars of her generation.
Ray had a rubber stamp he used in his letters that said, “Collage by Toby Spiselman” that was tongue in cheek but that does point to a blending of art and life that suits Toby’s big smile that I still remember from the times I saw this buttoned up member of the International Congress of Mathematicians who also had the smarts to “attach herself” to an artist as unconventional as Ray.
She took classic photos of Ray including him “wearing” a collage earring that appeared on the cover of “The Detroit Artists Monthly,” February 1978 issue that contained an interview by Diane Spodarek and Randy Delbeke and a photo of him on a Tompkins Square bench that adorned Bill Wilson’s collection of essays on him that appeared as a self-published booklet by Wilson when Ray was still alive.
Finally, Spiselman was also one of Johnson’s muses, perhaps Muse Number One from among the many women in the “mouth of the month” club that Ray hung with over the years and perhaps the job she loved most of all. She was the subject of Ray's collage, “Duchamp with Star Haircut” that combines Johnson and Duchamp 1921 imagery, “starring” Toby as Rose Sélavy, with what looks like a kid’s toy star placed on her head, pretending to be a tonsure, the shaved head of a monk that Duchamp’s portrait evoked. Toby is not recognizable, obscured by smoke with obfuscated features but Johnson let us know it was her. She appeared throughout his powerful oeuvre. Perhaps she provided a kind of double for him, but one he left behind when he abruptly exited—much like the shooting star that was shaved into Marcel’s head.
Holland Cotter wrote in The New York Times in 2014, “Like Warhol, Johnson had an appetite for glamour and the politics of who-knows-who. But he was impatient with hierarchy. Warhol was a worshiper, Johnson a collector, a cataloger. In his work the same plane of importance is occupied by Marcel Duchamp, Anita O’Day and Toby Spiselman, a Long Island friend…. There’s a sense that for him all names are equivalent in value, are all collage elements, all ‘nothings,’ or rather somethings, equally useful and even soothing in their sameness.”
But Spiselman’s relationship with Johnson and with life was special. She learned the hard way that an operation in art, just like in math, is anything that leaves a scar.
As her sister Judy said, “If there is another there, there, I hope it is a place of peace and happiness for you.”WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at email@example.com and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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