A Look Back at the Cavellini Festival
Museum of Modern Art Library, 4 W. 54th St., New York, NY
Richard L. Feigen & Co., 34 E. 69th St., New York, NY
Lynch Tham, 175 Rivington St., New York, NY
Whitebox Art Center, 329 Broome St., New York, NY
By BARBARA WINFIELD, JUN. 2015
Ask the Cavellini Festival organizer, curator and artist Mark Bloch who his heroes in the art world are and you’ll not only hear Guglielmo Achille Cavellini (aka GAC) but also Ray Johnson, an artist who played a leading role in the development of the early mail art movement in the 1960’s. Neither are exactly household names, but the art world is a lot bigger than anyone can imagine, and for many, mail art is a major but alternative part of that world. When I first met Mark Bloch I had never heard of mail art but I quickly became a fan of this interconnected movement that relies on a network that uses the postal system as a way to distribute art.
Bloch, also working as Pan, P.A.N., Panman, Panpost and the Post Art Network, is an American conceptual multi-media artist in the tradition of Dada, the Surrealists, and Marcel Duchamp. While still in art school in Ohio Bloch began using the postal system as well as other communications media in his art. “I began mailing embellished packages to friends without receiving much of a response. They just didn’t get it,” says Bloch. “It was only when I moved to Los Angeles that I discovered a large coterie of artists doing mail art, so I fell in with this group and began to focus my work on this movement.”
During the 1970’s while living in Los Angeles, Bloch met E.F. Higgins III and Buster Cleveland, a painter and collagist, respectively, also working with mail art. “I started corresponding with Higgins and other artists through the mail, this was how I first became aware of Cavellini, an Italian artist and art collector who created art in the 1960’s and 70’s,” says Bloch. “Being young, I had trepidation about contacting famous artists through the mail. Ray Johnson and Cavellini not only responded to my correspondence they became my teachers. But I actually didn’t meet Cavellini in person until 1980". That was at the Interdata Festival in California. Bloch would meet him again at festivals in 1982 and 1984.
Cavellini became a mythical figure for a generation of underground artists. In 1970 he devised autostoricizzazione, (self-historicization) deliberately exaggerating popular history surrounding his existence. In 1979 he mailed elaborate red, white & green certificates to several followers of mail art all over the world assigning them the task of creating exhibits in 2014 in major cities throughout the world to celebrate his centennial. Mark Bloch was one of the recipients; his assignment became an American museum. “When I received this certificate from Cavellini I knew it was a clever way of self-promoting after his death. It was kind of tongue-in-cheek,” says Bloch. “But it was also who he really was; what he really wanted.”
Having received this dictum in 1979, holding a centennial celebration in New York in 2014 became a destination for Bloch and his friends. They started with Cavellini’s essay “10 Ways To Become Famous.” Number six on the list was “Start a Cavellini Study Center.” “So that’s what I did,” says Bloch. “I got together with a few friends and created the SCCSC, the Southern California Center for the Study of Cavellini. I was enamored with this man. I loved his energy and sense of humor. He sent out mail art that was elaborately printed and decorated, packages containing beautiful books, hand made ornate items. I wanted to share his art and spirit with others.” After Cavellini died in 1990 Bloch continued to plan the centennial project while creating his own art.
Around 2012 Bloch approached Milan Hughston who runs the Special Collections Library of the Museum of Modern Art in NYC and suggested that they have a celebration of the Cavellini centennial. “The MoMA art library collects several of my magazines that I had created over the years, so I had a contact with Milan,” said Bloch. “I sent him a letter with an outline of the celebration I planned. He said they would consider it. They didn’t say yes, but they didn’t say no. I continued to be very persistent, writing to MoMA throughout 2012 and 2013 trying to set up something for 2014” said Bloch.
Finally in Fall 2014 Hughston put Bloch in touch with Jennifer Tobias, who also worked at the library. Tobias was interested in the connection between mail art of the 1960’s and 70’s and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter as well as computer generated art and was creating an independent exhibition on these subjects. It was perfect timing. There were Cavellini celebrations planned all over the world including Emily Harvey Foundation, Venezia, Italy; Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest, Hungary; ICI, Italian Cultural Institute, San Francisco, CA; Center of Contemporary Art (Lu.C.C.A.), Lucca, Italy; Public Library of Cairo Montenotte, Cairo; Spazio Contemporanea, Brescia, Italy, among others, but up to this point, no exhibition in any major museum in New York City. “It unfolded like a little miracle,” says Bloch. “The Library agreed to host a reception and special viewing of their substantial Cavellini archive.” And so the Cavellini Centennial was off to a great start – to begin on Friday November 14th 2014 with a reception at MoMA’s Cullman Education Building.
As Bloch began planning the weekend events, asking for help as needed, he received an enthusiastic response, meeting with Lynch Tham, the gallery that represents Cavellini's estate, who offered several of Cavellini’s works but not the ontological carbon series created from 1970 to 1990, fully and partially charred pictures and objects that they planned to show concurrently. Bloch also approached Richard L.Feigen & Co who agreed to include their exhibition “Ray Johnson’s Art World” in the schedule. Finally, when Bloch proposed a Cavellini weekend to Whitebox Art Center on Broome Street, they actually counter-proposed a month, proposing that the show slowly take shape over the course of 30 days as mail from around the world poured in.
“All the performance artists, musicians and poets were collaborators for their particular part of the Saturday evening opening, says Bloch. “Publicity mostly spread through word of mouth including Facebook. I also had help from Steve Dalchinsky and Valery Oisteanu, poets who worked with me to arrange a lineup of spoken word. My wife Amy Scarola and Giovanni Strada and Renatta Strada from Ravenna, Italy helped me hang a lot of the show on that packed 55 foot wall and they were indispensable. I also want to acknowledge Piero and Barbara Cavellini and an anonymous supporter who helped me create an edition of Cavellini stickers for the event. No Cavellini Fest would be complete without a sticker.”
I asked Bloch, as an artist, how did he feel about working as a curator? “I have curated several shows in my career as an artist and I have always done so out of necessity. Just like being an artist, being a curator requires a good eye, a sense of timing and an ability to be organized. In the case of GAC I was so happy to curate someone else's work because I had the chance to focus outwardly, not inwardly as artists must, and therefore be very generous which is the best part of being a curator. This process gave me the chance to give back to someone who had been generous with me. Plus, I loved the idea that the theme of the show was self-promotion since it allowed me to promote myself, as well, but on someone else's behalf".
The festivities began on Friday with a reception at MoMA’s Cullman Education Building to view their extensive collection of mailings from Cavellini and to celebrate his art. Saturday morning Bloch arranged a group to meet a professional photorapher, Julia Smith, in front of the Guggenheim Museum and go around to the various NYC museums displaying a red, white & green Cavellini 1914-2014 banner. Later that day there was the Ray Johnson viewing at Richard L.Feigen & Co., who also lent Cavellini-related works by Johnson for the show at Whitebox. Their own display featured films of performance art by Yoko Ono as well as entire rooms featuring collections of Ray Johnson’s mail art and collages to and from other “art stars”. I stopped by this show that included a comic collision of formal business letters and farcical Dada-like drawings, collage, typography and handwriting and was very impressed by Johnson’s work, a collective reaching out to other artists by artists. In many ways it is what we are experiencing as a culture today, and much of his work can be seen as an earlier form of social media.
From 3-5pm the Lynch Tham Gallery on the Lower East Side featured the works of Cavellini from his estate and also included performance art. We then moved to the Whitebox Art Center on Broome Street where New York was treated to a gala mail art show and another program of performance art, jazz and poetry in honor of Cavellini that lasted 3.5 hours. Jonathan Stangroom and Jennifer Weigel created an interactive Cavellini Kissing Booth and a pair of glasses for people to take selfies in. There were books by Cavellini and several videos playing--three simultaneously-- both inside the gallery and outside on the street. In this last show at Whitebox, Bloch surprised the audience with a display of original museum posters designed by Cavellini in the 1970s announcing his centennial in major museums around the world. The posters had been sent from Cavellini's family in Italy. Of all of these imaginary posters, MoMA was the only one to actually manifest a 2014 Cavellini celebration.
Bloch concluded the weekend festivities on Sunday with a New York Correspondence Brunch Meeting at Katz’s Delicatessen in honor of the late leaders of the mail art movement. “It was important for me to feel the presence of mail artists who are now gone,” says Bloch. “Many of these artists not only introduced me to mail art, but were also responsible for my meeting Cavellini. I chose Katz's Deli as a nostalgic way to end the festival because it had been the location of many celebratory mail art events back in the 60s, 70s and 80s initiated by Ray Johnson.
Thirty-five years after receiving his assignment, Mark Bloch put together an art-filled weekend that reflected what Cavellini was all about. Here was an artist who wasn’t afraid to bring attention to himself, flirting with the art world in a playful way, reminding us that creating art about self-promotion can be fun. This festival was Cavellini at his best, a man who 100 years after his birth is still basking in the spotlight. WM
For more by Mark Bloch on Cavellini go HERE
Barbara Winfield is a freelance writer specializing in art and design. She has edited and written for several national publications and is the author of two books. Ms. Winfield also taught for twelve years at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC. Her recent work includes an article on artist Miriam Hernandez for Green Door Magazine.view all articles from this author