E.F. Higgins III: Doo Da Forever!
May 12th – June 5th, 2022
Van Der Plas Gallery
by MARK BLOCH, May 2022
So my co-conspirator in Communication Art, Ed, E.F. Higgins III, has passed. He was a remarkably talented man, always with fresh, funny, original ideas and a clever eye for what would make good, snappy populist art. He was one of my first correspondents—after I saw his name in a book on rubber stamps in 1977 and got a speedy reply from him. He did not dawdle when it came to the mail. I met him a year or two later at a festival in 1980 in California: Inter-Dada 80. Southern California was where I lived at the time although, like him, I was from the Midwest. It was interesting to meet the lanky, folksy “Correspondance” artist who smoked a lot of cigarettes while he talked about art history.
I now know Ed was from the ’burbs but you wouldn't have known it then. He had a kind of country charm. He didn’t like cursing. He’d stop you if you did as if he was a holy roller something—which he was not. But he did mean it and he did like Patsy Cline and Hank Williams songs. When I moved to New York, he invited me to his Doo Da Stamp Auctions where he would sell his paintings with a real auctioneer. I'd see him around Lower Second Avenue when I moved there in ‘82. I’d see him at Arleen Schloss’s events and he could always be counted on to attend a mail art gathering. He’d often cause a commotion with his bellowing voice and hilarious sense of humor. We all saw that more than once. I had an open appointment with him for him to paint my portrait but it never happened, sadly. He said to “come over with a twelve pack and a bag of peanuts” and he would paint me but that will have to happen in another lifetime, Ed. I called him the New York “Coors” Spondance School because of his love of beer and Ray Johnson. He turned me onto Todd’s Copy Shop on Mott Street for color Xeroxing, a place where Jean Michel Basquiat used to tie up the machines for days creating Xerox art for his paintings. But eventually one could get through and make some copies on those beautiful Canon machines that we both loved.
In those days Ed and his constant partner-in-crime, the aforementioned Buster Cleveland, used to call the corner of Spring and West Broadway their “office” where they would sell their art wares. That was where they met Gracie Mansion who was then starting her career as a gallerist and Ed became one of her artists for a while, as did Buster. Higgins remained a fixture in the East Village for the next three decades, always promoting his artistamps and always good for a laugh. I will miss him.
An impressive matrix of 44 of his amazing acryllic “Firecracker” paintings greets visitors to the memorial exhibition of the work of the late Mister Higgins The Third (1949-2021) at Van Der Plas Gallery on Orchard Street. In addition to that hilarious eye-popping display of buzzards, nudes, references to various native people and customs as well as homages to spray paint, vodka and tequilla, there are over two dozen more of his unique painted works adorning the rest of the walls of this gallery, each bursting with color and a pallette of similar whimsical symbols that seemed to spill endlessly from the imagination of Higgins—the madcap Midwestern master.
Higgins created his own icons like the hand-painted, fictitious Firecracker brands or other creations like his “Moon Man” series or his issues of “Cavellini 1914-2014” tributes to stitch together a long career for one purpose: to make postage stamps that he then cancelled with rubber stamps that said things like “First Day of Issue” and “Suitable for Framing.” Higgins was part of a second generation of postal proponents that entered the Mail Art, or correspondence art, communication art network that used to and still is characterizing itself internationally by distributing small-scale creations through the postal service and spreading via a word of mouth network—one that was well established before the era of computers. Town crier types like Higgins picked up the slack by hollering from analog artist to isolated artist about the communal way the process worked and how the information spreads. The American artist Ray Johnson (1927-1995), a friend, fan, and patron of Higgins, popularized mail as a medium in 1955 when he created his New York Correspondence School, reaching out to everyone in the art world from Dover Street and then from Suffolk Street, neither far from this gallery or the nearby tenement apartment where Higgins lived around the corner. Higgins and his friend Buster Cleveland first arranged to meet Ray Johnson at Katz’s Deli, also a few blocks away, initiating a local Mail Art tradition.
Following Johnson’s generation, many of whom created the Soho loft era without him and then went on to become blue chip Pop artists without him (but not entirely without his permission), Ed Higgins was typical of something similarly atypical: the irreverent and unorthodox but ambitious spirit that characterized the community of visual artists to be found all over the lower East Village and the the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the late 70s, 1980s and 90s. Higgins moved into a rent-stabilized studio apartment on Ludlow Street below Stanton in the Fall of 1976, and did not relocate for the next 45 years, working construction occasionally while making and selling his artwork.
But what separated Higgins from most of his contemporaries was the way he lived, surrounded not only by his own paintings, but by his “Doo Da Post” postage stamps, and thousands of pieces of mail art that inspired him, sent to him from around the world by post, mostly from people he had never met. “The mail art network opened the doors,” he said, “across countries, across borders, for creative beings to communicate with one another, circumventing the traditional gallery, art business, money-fame game.” Higgins and his correspondents helped invent social networking before computers.
Around the time Higgins moved to New York, he met C.T. Chew, of Triangle Post, a Seattle-based mail artist who Higgins referred to as a “stamp genius.” Beginning after their first meeting, the pair corresponded almost daily, exchanging their wild postage stamp designs, fake stamps known as “Cinderellas” in the stamp collecting world and eventually as “artistamps” in the world of international postal art. But by 2015, they decided to document their correspondence work in a 240-page book, “Gone Fishin’” that they used to promote their detailed hand made artworks to anyone that would listen. It was full of Higgins’ variety of all-American charm.
Higgins’ mail art always consistsed of his trademark images of clowns, animals, dancing beans, fishing lures, and portraits of other artists or just made up characters, always identified with absurd descriptions in bright lettering taken directly from his paintings, which were photographed, made smaller, and printed in series as stamps and perforated on the heavy iron, foot-operated perforating machine he kept in his apartment that punched holes in the artworks, a few sheets at a time. He called his postage stamps Doo Da Post from the song “Zippety Doo Da.”
A 30-page catalogue of the show contains an origin story of his arrival in Manhattan by the Neoist provocateur Istvan Kantor, a colleague and collaborator, who told how Higgins, alone in a strange land, stepped off a Greyhound bus at the Port Authority and headed straight for the Empire State Building. He stopped in front of Macy’s on the way there, met a stranger and never made it but he eventually found his “headquarters” on Ludlow in an ad in The Village Voice and the rest, as documented in his quirky paintings, is history.
Outside the exhibition opening reception on May 12th, Kantor, also known as Monty Cantsin Amen, visiting from Canada, memorialized his late friend, by dividing the crowd randomly into two opposing camps: the Executioners and the Revolutionaries, instructing the former, on his call, to mock-execute the latter, calling for what else? “Revolution!” When pressed for an explanation, he said later that he considered Higgins to be one of our culture's revolutionaries who are always destroyed by the powers-that-be, according to Kantor’s romantic and heroic world view. But in the end, Cantsin Amen was interested in only one topic: his prolific friend E. F. Higgins and the incredible output of paintings that surrounded us in the gallery and that seemed to follow Higgins around like a cartoon escort emanating from his witty mind and sharp tongue.
Monty Cantsin Amen, who referred to Ed Higgins as the “The Uncrowned King of Mail Art,” was a long time cohort of his in the “Rivington School“ of which Higgins was considered a founding member, starting in the mid-1980s when “Cowboy” Ray Kelly opened a performance space in the basement of the No Se No Social Club at 42 Rivington Street. Featuring a fluid, nightly agenda of performances from multimedia artists, filmmakers, musicians, as well as visual artists, the local hang out thrived creatively. In 1985, the No Se No artists moved to the vacant lot across the street on the corner of Rivington and Forsyth where a massive living sculpture of welded trash and found objects soon took shape, eventually surrounding the area, and creating a giant walk-in environment and local landmark. When asked by the web site “6sqft.com” if the 20 foot tall structure ever ran into trouble from law enforcement, Higgins replied “Nah. This was the 7th precinct. They used to laugh at us.” But when a piece of junk fell and “almost killed someone,” according to Ed, the city finally got involved and demolished the sculpture garden in 1987—while their “School” lived on.
The 6sqft.com website called the Rivington School “a hallmark of the Downtown aesthetic,” and “represent(ing) the collaborative effort amongst artists to establish a creative refuge amidst the gentrification and crime of an ever-changing New York City urban playground” but to me it was simply the place Ed Higgins could be found if he wasn't at his apartment perforating stamps. There was often interesting activity by interesting people taking place there.
“Ed was a tall Wingnut!” said Jonathan Stangroom, a mail artist who attended the opening, referring to the grafittied and printed symbol Higgins often used to describe his wacky ways. “I attended by bus from Boston out of respect and the desire to see his work one last time and to give his sister, Ginny, a photo of Ed that I’d taken years ago.”
Higgins was born the second child of five in Racine, Wisconsin. His family moved to LaGrange, Illinois when Ed was about 4 or 5. LaGrange was a suburb on the outskirts of Chicago that was billed as a utopian retreat from the perceived dangers of the Windy City. The Higgins family then moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan when Ed was 15. It must have made an impression as Ed always told me he was from Michigan and much later bought a house there, where he would go to work and escape from the New York heat in the summers. Ed the Third was descended from E.F. Senior, a lawyer, and Ed's father, E.F. Higgins Junior, a professional engineer.
E.F. Higgins III majored in Fine Arts at Western Michigan University until two weeks before graduation, when he decided to discontinue his schooling. He later majored in painting and printmaking at the University of Colorado in the 1970s, where he created letterheads, maps and blueprints but more importantly postage stamps and postcards. Shortly after graduating with a BFA and MFA, he set off for New York City as Kantor described, taking advice from his Colorado teacher and correspondence artist Edward Golik-Golikov to look up Ray Johnson when he arrived.
Now, some 42 years later, Ed Higgins' Minnow Spinner Doo Da 2005 Fishing Lure postcard beckons patrons to come see his work at the Van Der Plas Gallery and maybe even buy a painting. I am certain Ed would be proud to say hello and hook them if he could. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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