2010. Amazing Letters - The Life and Art of David Zack
Istvan Kantor's Amazing Letters - The Life and Art of David Zack
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - September 24, 2010
Reviewing this will be one of the hardest of such tasks I've undertaken for awhile. I started corresponding w/ Zack no later than 1981 & continued up until his incarceration in a Mexican prison. I tried writing him there too, probably shortly after I found out about his being there in late 1988, but never got a reply. Yrs later, I heard he was dead.
Zack came to live in the 24 rm mansion I was corenting in the middle of 1981. I had organized "81 APT - the 3rd International Neoist Apartment Festival" to mostly take place in this house in BalTimOre & Zack came to participate. Monty Cantsin (in the Istvan Kantor incarnation) had connected Zack w/ us & highly recommended Zack. Zack lived w/ us for about a mnth.
Zack's scheduled 'participation' was a 'workshop' on "Alien Dialects". That seemed promising to me & I scheduled it to happen in an abandoned bldg that I'd once lived in that I still had the keys to. When the 'workshop' started, it turned out that Zack basically had nothing to say on the subject & hadn't bothered to prepare anything. The attendees saved the 'event' from being totally boring by improvising.
Now Istvan Kantor has edited this memorial to Zack as a project related to an exhibit re Zack that he organized at the New Gallery in Calgary - where Zack lived for awhile. Zack's extremely important to Kantor b/c Zack convinced Kantor to leave Hungary in the late 1970s & to come to North America. This was a big positive step for Kantor & helped him enormously broaden the scope of his creative activities. Zack was also important to Kantor as the person who proposed the name "Monty Cantsin" as a collective identity - an idea that Kantor embraced more fully than anyone. SO, it's understandable why Kantor wd go to so much trouble.
But why shd the rest of us care?! I care b/c I know Kantor & knew Zack & b/c of how Zack's history is relevant to neoism - the movement that Kantor launched somewhat under the influence of Zack & "Blaster" Al Ackerman & the mail art network in general - & a movement that I've been a prime mover in. But why shd anyone else care? Well.. there's alotof good writing in here, alotof testimonials about Zack written w/ care, alotof things sd about Zack - both positive & extremely negative. So, as a human interest story written about someone associated w/ mail art, nut art, & neoism this bk might be of interest to cultural historians.
After that, though, the subject gets alot trickier. I keep detailed records of most of my snail mail correspondence. As such, I know that I sent Zack at least 43 packages & that he sent me at least 21 things. Additionally, I have a slew of his publications: a "NEO-NOOZE POETRY MAGAZINE" from 1983, eg, & 5 issues of his "FORMULAR PUBLICATION" regarding 81 APT. In other words, I had direct experience w/ Zack & have much textual & audio residue from him to consult. Some of the mailings from my collection are reproduced in this bk. So far, so good.
What we have here is a substantial bk, somewhat carefully made, w/ full color illustrations of someone presented as an artist. But where, exactly, & WHAT, exactly, is the "art"? One of Zack's 'claims-to-fame' is that he had the cover story published in the January/February, 1973 issue of "Art in America" on mail art. That, indeed is precocious. I didn't get involved in postal networking until 1978. Of course, Zack was 15 yrs older than me.
Zack also was a promoter of the "Nut Art" movement. Even back when he talked to me about Nut Art I didn't really get the impression that the "movement" existed. I don't recall Zack being able to describe it in any coherent way. Various people are associated w/ Nut Art (wch I didn't even find on the internet in my admittedly superficial browses). One of these was David Gilhooly, according to Kantor "a man who was once Zack's close associate", who's quoted as writing that: "David was not an artist but an art writer." &, as w/ many of the negative things presented in this bk, I'd have to agree w/ that - w/ the addition that Zack was an atrocious art writer.
Let's take a selection from his FORMULAR PUBLICATION apparently entitled "NOTES FROM THE CHRONOAXTICAL EMBASSYLUM no the CHRONONAUTICAL EMBASSYLUM". This is 2 8&1/2 X 11" hot pink pp printed on one side each to make a total of '4' pp when folded. There's typewriting & decorative border doodles of a sort that Zack did over & OVER again w/ apparently no creative inspiration whatsoever. Beginning on the front & continuing onto the next page he writes:
"Explain my typos how you want, my intent here is to talk about Michael Tolson's books, or as he calls himself "Tentatively A Convenience".....
"[..] There are a couple photos opposite a page which has two phrases on it: "the L tour" and "a stool pigeon". In one a man is playing an instrument with this circular wooden body, I think, on a brick surface next to rough brick wall, folding chair standing by table with maybe candles on it. Other a man in overalls is smiling and holding crotch. He is barefoot. It isn't Michael Tolson. Who it is is across the street from Norert Importing Company. Do these images refer to Buddhist worship, maybe even a man burning himself up?"
Now the bk that David's writing 'about' here is my 1st bk - sometimes referred to as "the white book" & reviewed on GoodReads as "t he book, t he referent 4 wch consists of, t he non-materialized transparent punch-outs from a letter/whatever stencil" .
The texts quoted (correctly) are the answers to 2 riddles written on the verso of the page on wch they appear. They have nothing to do w/ the fotos. The person pictured in both fotos is 'Michael Tolson', contrary to what David writes, & the sign on the bldg in one of the fotos looks to me to read "RUKERT TERMINALS CORP." Now, to give Zack some slack, he wore glasses, the picture is hard to read. That sd, I was only 4 or 5 yrs older than I was in the fotos when Zack was living w/ me so it wdn't've beenthat hard to've recognized me.
Furthermore, I'm NOT "playing an instrument with this circular wooden body" - I'm wearing a large foto of a light-bulb that I'm using as a tie - & that's in both fotos. Also in both fotos I'm wearing transparent pants & jacket, naked underneath, & NOT "overalls". Maybe Zack was close to blind. Dunno. But I do know that I don't know of anyone else ever 'describing' those fotos so utterly inaccurately.
&, maybe more than anything else, it was this characteristic obliviousness that I remember about Zack - & it was more of a source of irritation for me than it was a matter of interest. In Zack's writings about 81 APT he talks about me as a vegetarian. Well, I'm not a vegetarian & Zack & I lived together & ate together in the same kitchen where he wd've probably seen me eat ground beef on many an occasion in the tomato sauces for spaghetti that I routinely ate at the time. It was when I read such 'descriptions' of Zack's that I realized just how out-of-it he was.
Ok, he was a diabetic - so we can use that as an excuse somewhat. But I was lovers w/ another diabetic & knew another diabetic writer. Neither of them were out-of-it. I think Zack just didn't really care about other people very much - certainly not enuf to pay attn to them. When I was in Scotland at the DATA Attic in 1988, Pete Horobin showed me a video of Zack & his traveling companion Snow White Jung sitting around talking w/ Pete. Pete & Snow wd have a conversational exchange & then Zack wd pipe in as if he were contributing to the conversation. What was astounding was that, at least as I recall it, nothing that Zack sd seemed to indicate in any way that he had been paying attn to what Snow White & Pete were saying.
Now, I fuck w/ other people's minds plenty & I'm sure that people seeing video of me talking w/ other people might think that what I'm saying is also irrelevant but I know that when I'm being like that I'm paying close attn & strategically being bizarre. I just got the impression that Zack simply wasn't listening. "Blaster" Al, a long-time Zack friend, has called this characteristic Zack's "otherworldliness" in conversation w/ me - a typical humorous euphemism on Ackerman's part.
In fact, if it weren't for Kantor's massive labor of popularizing the Monty Cantsin identity thru mail art & performance, Zack's other 'claims-to-fame' wd probably fade away. The art? Well, unless one is primarily interested in anyone's life as art then there's really very little there. Almost everything reproduced in the bk is so small that one can't really see it but what one CAN see wd make crummy outsider art AT BEST (& I LIKE Outsider Art) - & just mindless doodlings, at worst.
So let's look at the life & see how calculatedly creative that was. Zack did travel alot & was involved in apparently interesting things in multiple countries - & he never 'stooped' to working for a living. Is that creative? Perhaps. But looking at it from a more working class analytical perspective, I have to wonder whether Zack just wasn't a spoiled rich kid. After all, his dad was the conductor of an orchestra & Zack attended university in both Chicago & London. As such, I think he was just privileged in a way that gave him the attitude that he wasn't responsible for taking c/o himself. He got funding from his parents & he went to live w/ his parents when he reached his early 40s. That means that he didn't survive of 'his own' (excluding his wives & 6 kids) for even a decade once he was separated from the tit of academia before he had to go back to his mom & dad.
It was probably "Blaster" Al who told me that Zack wd show up at the home of a mail artist friend w/ wife & 5 kids in tow &.. STAY THERE. He probably also told me the story of Zack going to visit "The House of Candles", the home of another mail artist, the house being so-called b/c the electricity had been turned off for non-payment. According to the story, Zack's unwilling host cdn't get rid of him until he resorted to chasing him away at gunpoint. Wd you want Zack as a house guest? Probably not.
In mail artist Mark Bloch's article re Zack in this bk, he writes:
""Your loss is my gain," said Al Ackerman, then of San Antonio, Texas, when it was confirmed that Zack was on his way from his house to visit me in New York [..] At the time I wasn't sure what Blaster meant, but it was clear when Zack got on an Amtrak train to Rhinebeck, NY, a month later. I knew all too well that Judith Conaway's loss was my gain as I gleefully waved goodbye".
Al Ackerman has also speculated to me in conversation that Zack may've even murdered his parents by beating them to death w/ his cello. Now Blaster has a taste for the lurid, no doubt, but he claims that Zack's cello disappeared after his parents' death - implying that Zack got rid of the evidence. My inclusion of this story can be interpreted as pure sensationalism - or someone can check into the details of his parents' death in a more investigative journalism fashion.
Zack also studied cello & is often described as being a classical musician of some talent, etc.. Now I've known & played w/ plenty of classically trained musicians & they always have some facility but don't always have any imagination. They're often, as Frank Zappa sd, "music butlers" - ie: highly trained to perform a function that goes largely unquestioned.
When Zack was at 81 APT he sat around all day long, on the front porch, on the roof over the front porch, in the attic, wherever, playing tenor guitar or bouzouki & playing the same small selection of chords over & OVER again singing some of the most uninspired & repetitive lyrics known to history. & this went on, I SHIT YOU NOT, for up to 3 or 4 hrs at a time. I witnessed almost no indication of talent whatsoever. Basically, he did w/ music what he seemed to do w/ everything else: meander aimlessly w/o inspiration in a way almost completely oblivious to his surroundings. & this is described by others in "Amazing Letters".
Zack wd send me tapes of him playing & talking - usually recorded on extremely cheap Mexican cassettes. The recording quality was always muffled, the playing always meandering & interrupted by banal talking that interfered w/ whatever minimal musical quality his cello playing sometimes had when he wasn't 'improvising' but was playing something from his classical repertoire instead. When I was digitizing these tapes to give to Istvan decades later for possible use in the exhibit they contributed to the destruction of the deck's tape heads. Ok, ok, I've worked ultra lo-budget too but if I were using such cheap tapes I wd've contextualized them as TAPE HEAD DESTROYERS or some such & at least been CONSCIOUS - wch Zack never particularly struck me as. It seemed to me that however he rambled was fine w/ him - be self-critical? NEVER.
When I read the excerpt from a letter from Zack's mom claiming that he had an "IQ of 165" I have to laugh. Zack never exhibited any special intelligence or ability to do ANYTHING when he was around me. I remember when Istvan/Monty did his performance in 81 APT & kicked out a window. Zack sd he'd repair it. Of course, when it came time to do so Zack denied this. While Zack was staying w/ us, he tried to convince us to collectively rent some sort of office equipment that he wanted to use & that noone else had any interest in. We didn't do it. When Zack went away to Calgary after a mnth w/ us he asked if he shd come back. We sd no. It wasn't that he was a 'bad roommate' - it was just that none of us seemed to get anything out of his being there.
All in all, my experience of Zack was that he was basically a nice enuf guy but an air-head. So reading descriptions of him as an "intellectual" just seem weird to me. If he was an intellectual then I reckon just about ANYONE who's ever rambled mindlessly on pseudo-philosophical topics is an intellectual. I'm reminded of all the fantasizing stoners, the people who think they're going to play that great guitar solo, pull off that perfect crime, etc, who then.. take another toke & do nothing else. I set my standards a bit higher than that.
I found Judith Conaway's letter to Istvan particularly telling:
"I chuckled at your long paragraph describing all the things Zack was...because Zack was so completely conventional in his world view. He inhabited a universe where wives were for breeding, devoted women existed solely to support the geniuses they loved, children were proof of one's virility, avant-garde art involved happenings and blondes dressed in black, and white men showed how hip they were by singing black blues...I could go on and on."
So why have I rated this bk 5 stars?! B/c, in the end, there's not much else like it & Kantor has done a great job. Even if one's opinion of Zack is hardly the most praising, he still makes an interesting case study of a mail artist. In my experience, many mail artists often are pretty low on the skill set level of their art & high on their desire to have it seen by many others nonetheless. Many mail artists churn out well 'nigh ENDLESS quantities of repetitive thoughtless crap that they send w/o discrimination to every mail art show regardless of the theme of the show or of any considerations of quality - just so they can get the ego-boost of 'being in the show' & getting the catalog w/ their name.
But, of course, there's more to it than that - there're the rarer, &, to me, far more 'important', mail artists who are driven w/ an incredible amt of energy to play pranks on the world - tricksters who've taken advantage of the postal system to stir the imagination & to make social comment. Al Ackerman & Istvan Kantor are 2 stellar cases-in-point. & Zack was right in the thick of this. & mail art - or, as I prefer, Postal Interaction Networking - is often driven by a strong desire for internationalism & communication - 2 things I wholeheartedly endorse.
PLUS, some of the stories really do resonate in a potentially profound way. Zack's unpd bill collages & the Portland Convenience Store Mysteries have deep meaning for anyone who's ever struggled to survive in a world that has little appreciation for creativity & heavy enforcement of conformity & slavery. The "Mysteries" involving, as they do, robbing convenience stores in a creative way appeal to me as imaginative acts of survivalism but repulse me as more ripping off of the working class by the rich. After all, Zack came from the upper class, or, at least, the upper middle class, & anybody who's running a convenience store franchise is probably working their ass off to make a pretty pathetic living.
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