“Correspondence” by Andrea L. Volpe

10 January 2010 on Nonfiction   Tags:

A tiny collage hangs at what is eye level, for a six year old, in my son Jacob's room. It's not much more than an inch or two high, a narrow range of pale colors, ochre, pinks, yellows, about the size of a postage stamp. And it's not, by conventional standards, the kind of picture for a child's room. As I draw laundry from a wicker basket one afternoon, I ponder over it, and I catch a glimpse of what must be a map. In pencil it is inscribed, “For Sam, with love.” It was a gift to my husband from his old friend, Harley, painter, collage and mail-art artist. Mail art? Perhaps tender correspondent is a better term for it—laboring over the packaging and sending of letters. Some might call it a variation on collage, a bit Dada, Fluxus, Benjaminian, the envelope and its contents became a form of art, commemorating the everyday, the small expressions of a moment documented by a sheaf of words.

Harley has his own country, Terra Candella, and it publishes stamps, first day issues, all the other documentation of a postal system, the sovereign state of the artist's imagination. Harley struck an elusive, somewhat European figure on the streets of Oberlin, Ohio, with his long flowing hair and an aquiline nose on which rested wire rimmed glasses. He wore a long dark green coat that billowed around his legs when he walked. His studio was above Gibson's bakery on College Street, just opposite Tappan Square, where I would go for a whole wheat donut and a tall neck Orange Crush. No one would ever call a little dry college town in Northeastern Ohio the Paris of anything, but his collages and paintings are suffused with color that would make you think of Matisse. In the mid-1990s, Harley's collection of mail art and artistamps were acquired by the special collections department at Oberlin College, where he and Sam had met in the 1980s. About the same time, Terra Candella moved west.

Sometime after he reached California, Harley asked Sam to contribute to a show on mail art that he was curating called It's in the Mail: Artistamps and the Mail Art Movement, at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, in Santa Rosa, California. I would have said at first that it was a bit of a stretch for Sam, a printmaker who had for a long time been making prints so big the paper had to be folded in on itself to fit on the bed of the American French Tool press. But throughout the 1980s, Sam had been making images with map-like surfaces, taking something small and blowing it up so it looked like a LAN-SAT image, or taking something big and telescoping in on it so it looked microscopic. He was, in other words, making pictures about territories. And if the ability to issue postage is a sign of a sovereign state, then so is the ability to set boundaries and lay claim to certain borders. He and Harley shared an interest in mapping the worlds they saw in their imagination onto the flat surfaces of paper.

This is the origin of Correspondence, titled, as so many of Sam's prints are, with at least a double-entendre, meant to convey the literal and the conceptual frames for his pictures, to set up some kind of reverberation between the text, the image, and the viewer. The first sense of correspondence in the picture is of the written exchange, the kind that we think of as coming from the now-old-fashioned letter, with its franked stamp verifying place of origin and the hand-written address assuring proper delivery and receipt. In semiotic terms, a message has been sent and received. It's also an act of faith that the message will get to the receiver. Think of the children's game of telephone where a string is held taut between two paper cups and carries a muffled approximation of a message from one end to the other.

The second comes from what can only be the mischievous suggestion that there could be any sort of correspondence between a stored ancient sculpture and a little stamp-like chine collé of a comet. How could these things have any correspondence, any shared origin or connection? They are a playful yet serious re-working of a child's matching game, where the child is asked to match the secondary attributes of an object to its larger whole. Our son, now almost seven, plays these games with glee, drawing wobbly pencil lines from bird to nest or frog to pond. This is a game, in the largest sense, that encourages the internalizing of cultural knowledge—the rank ordering of parts to thing that is learned, not natural, but become so intuitive that the very assumptions that make the game possible are elided. It is also an exercise in analogy: this is like that.

In Correspondence the visual reference to this game becomes an occasion to contemplate the order of things, where Sam plays deliberately with the relationship between the monumental and the ephemeral. This was a persistent theme in all his prints, in the fictitious maps he made (one of the original purposes of the print was for mapmaking), in pictures that used schematic drawings of games (Cannibals and Missionaries) or instructions (how to use chop sticks, how to swim the crawl). I think that part of the point of the print is to make us laugh, and that laughter is about being caught off guard, to think a little harder about what's going on in the picture. A pair of dice, a marionette, a magic trick, a medal, matched up with sculptures that stand for no less than the foundation of Western culture. Meaning, cultural hierarchy, what gets preserved and saved, what gets collected—in short, what's important.

The first memory I have of him working on this print was his search for collage material for the little stamps that frame the picture. We were in a bookstore, maybe the old Mcintyre and Moore on Mount Auburn Street, and he came across what I thought of then, and now, as a rather silly book about Malcolm Forbes' collections. Really, there couldn't be anything at a farther distance from the spare, cold marble of stored ancient sculptures than one of the twentieth century's most famous capitalists' accumulation of stuff whose guiding principle of collection was just sheer display. It's more absurd still, when I go to fetch the book from my shelves. It's titled More Than I Dreamed: a Lifetime of Collecting by Malcolm Forbes. It's filled to overflow with photographs of boats, cars, interiors, an over-the-top, self-referential display of wealth. And in contrast to the authority of those ancient sculptures, which seem to have stood up awfully well to the passage of time, there is nothing timeless about them.

Sam cut out images from the book using a mat knife, pasted them to a sheet of paper and took them down to the copy shop in Central Square to make color copies. Next came the work of making them look like stamps. When I was cleaning out Sam's studio, after his death, I came across a sheet of foam insulation—salvaged from our house renovation—dotted with pin marks. He had laid the sheets of collage copies on it, and poked around each one with a heavy needle to give the images the perforation marks that would make them look like stamps (I later learned that many mail artists use sewing machines, without thread, to do this).

Once, I accompanied a friend to Sam's studio, where she bought some prints from him. The prints were trimmed of the brown tape that held them to the studio wall while they dried, the heavy cotton of the paper yielding the softly torn deckled edges that I love about cotton rag paper. “What's your favorite number?” he asked her. I can't remember her reply. But whatever it was became the number he assigned to the print. The edition number was constant, if sometimes incomplete, but the print number itself was up for grabs. Which is to say that Sam sometimes left things undone, circling back to them when he could grab an afternoon or morning at the studio, before or after teaching, or on the weekends.

When I knew that Sam was going to die, my thoughts went immediately to his work. It's a strange thing to think back on now. In the face of such helplessness, the speed at which his cancer advanced from nothing to everything, I gave room to worry about the work that would be left undone. I think now that this is because I knew that this was a man whose main form of communication with the world was pictures. I brought as many prints home as I could in those last weeks for him to sign.

What I didn't know until I started to go through his print drawers in earnest—a year or two later—was that there were several copies of Correspondence left unfinished—without stamps attached. I found the envelope of collage elements from the copy shop layered deep in one of his metal flat files and made a few extras copies for backup. I brought my copy of the print from home back to his studio on Summer Street and used it as my map. I was working in his studio at that time, wanting to be close to his archive of pictures, collage elements, the very smell of the dust in that place. In the afternoons, when my writing hours were tapped, I would sit in his studio and punch that needle into the paper, letting it catch on the foam board, pull it out and punch it in again, and again. I liked the slowness of this procedure—there was no speeding it up, it was mindless, or mind emptying, just the repeated sound of the needle catching on the powdery yellow foam. But it was also harder than I thought it would be. I had to be sure to get the needle just the right distance between the images so that when I pulled them apart they would separate just at the right point, and in doing so, the accrual of punctures came to look like the perforation marks on a sheet of stamps bought from the post office.

In the year that I worked in his studio, writing and archiving his prints, I realized in a way what it meant to be a printmaker's wife; well, maybe widow is more apt. When I came across a print with brown paper tape still attached, I knew how to trim it against a straight edge. I recognized the sequence from state proof to finished picture. So one day I bought wheat paste at Pearl Art, knowing it is the most archival adhesive, ready to glue my little stamps to the prints. Now when I think of it, I see how that day in the loft of his studio, the concept of correspondence was brought to mind again, as I tried to make a picture that he had left unfinished correspond to one that he had made, where yet another meaning of correspondence is substitution, approximation. I hoped, in a way, that my labor would be invisible, that I could make the print look as if he had made it, side-step, in this little gesture, the fact of his death.

A few weeks, months, maybe even a few years later, I found another copy of Correspondence in the studio and looked carefully at the collage elements. When I compared one to another, I realized that he had assembled other versions of the print that didn't correspond at all to the one I was using as my map of his way of working. In this way, correspondence raises all sorts of questions about the limits of signs, symbols, experiences. It's a foundation of semiotics—which was one of Sam's great interests—that the relationship between an object and its sign can only be arbitrary—there is nothing essential to a chair that requires it to be represented by the word chair. This is the mark of Ferdinand Saussure, who theorized the arbitrary relationship between signified, signifier, and sign. And this is one of the great contributions of Surrealism and the first conceptual artists, where form and content diverge. I'm thinking here particularly of Man Ray, but also of Joseph Kosuth and John Baldessari and the uncategorizable Joseph Cornell.

A few summers ago, I made one final attempt to settle all of Sam's prints with friends and family. I wrote a friend who I knew would know how to find Harley—turned out, Terra Candella had moved. I reached Harley by e-mail to tell him I wanted him to have a print of Sam's. I chose one made on the most delicate rice paper, an etching that used the aesthetics of collage, a diagram of a camera, chromosomes, a flamingo. It was ephemeral, had a map on it of Ohio, the shared land of their friendship. I carefully roll it up and pack it in a tube. At the post office, I'm asked the post 9/11 litany about the dangers of the mail: anything hazardous, liquid, combustible. No, just a map that points to the terms of two men's friendship. A few weeks later, a note arrived in the mail from Terra Candella.

It is, on the one hand, a tender thank you note. But it is also a little piece of art. The card inside was a collage, signed with the same handwriting that inscribes the piece in Jacob's room. The collage is that same just-bigger-than-a-postage-stamp-size, but this one is in rich tones, blues and reds—it seems made precisely for me, although I still have never met Harley. Inside, he writes to tell me how touched he is to have this print of Sam's. I set the card on the mantel, where it rests still.


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