dp: Allan, after graduating from The School of Art and Design in Montreal you had a history of working in advertising and publishing in Montreal and in New York for a number of years. Your work for Benzene, a NY arts magazine must have been an excellent start for your design career. Did you find this work satisfying?
ab: Whatever being a designer means, that’s what I am. I think of it as a perfectly wonderful catch-all word, and so whether I’m working on the magazine and publishing, or collaborative mail art or my collages, being unsatisfied is the driving force. Satisfaction turns out to be that elusive prompt that keeps you working.
I was very fortunate in having some amazing friends as teachers and mentors in Montreal that opened a lot of doors for me. I was a member of Vehicule Art, one of the first cooperative art galleries in Canada. Vehicule had a press and I did a lot of the graphics for the gallery as well as having a hand in designing broadsides, chapbooks and zines. I started Davinci magazine in ’74 at the press and that was really just an excuse to open up channels to the alternative art world.
dp: What precipitated your move to NY?
ab: I had the extreme good fortune to meet my future wife while we were both travelling across country. She was heading to New York and I thought that seemed like a smart thing to do. As a young artist there is really no better place to land. I had a small studio for a while off Madison Square and was able to forge a lot of contacts with alternative theatre and music venues designing performance graphics and direct mail.
We started Benzene in New York in ’81. The idea was simply to present as varied a pallet of creative content as we could manage to stuff into a newspaper format. It was incredibly labor-intensive, and we just burned out after 10 issues. I had begun a paying gig at an advertising agency and that grew into a monster that made it difficult to continue pursuing side projects.
dp: Now you have retired from the design industry, you have devoted yourself to collage. You are in good company in the history of design and so-called fine art. Kurt Schwitters was both a Dadaist and a Designer. His collages, drawn mostly from using detritus from the streets of Berlin were in stark contrast to his corporate work with major German companies like Pelikan. He also used a Bauhausian graphic style to do unique layouts for avant garde musical scores. He made great work in both camps, but the Dadaist frowned on his commercial work.
ab: Well, I’m still a designer. That’s what I do. I just don’t get paid much for it anymore! Collage is that wonderful vehicle that carries my design.
My heroes and visionary guides were probably set before I even entered art school in the early 70’s. Schwitters and the Dadaists; Apollinaire was an important influence along with the Bauhaus artists. Herbert Bayer and Russian constructivist graphic arts is still an inspiration.
dp: Yes, I’m a big fan of Herbert Bayer. He did very well in NY after leaving Germany and I am happy to have some vintage copies of a couple of Fortune magazines with cover illustrations by him. I was at a lecture by him, at Dartmouth back in the 70s.
ab: A lot of my early ideas got a kick in the head when I discovered Franz Kline and Barnet Newman and the whole New York scene. That tapestry is just so rich and varied, it’s hard not to be inspired. Oldenburg, Rauschenberg... Happenings and street theater. Good stuff!
dp: Absolutely. Those were the days. Rauschenberg’s early work was a revelation for me as a young college student. His retrospective at MoMA a few years back also revealed some remarkable very early works from the 50s in Europe and NYC. His mixed media works definitely excited me. His mashup of assemblages and collages were iconic and they became part of a historical record of the times. His transfers and photographic screen prints operate as photo montage on a grand scale.
ab: His influence on contemporary collage can’t be overstated. His combines took assemblage and mixed media to exciting new places. I tried to make transfer collages when I was still in art school. Not very successfully!
dp: I tried that transfer thing in college too, with crappy results. After I graduated college I spent time in London. The Sunday Times Magazine still had spirits-based inks that transferred easily with lighter fluid. Oddly enough, I’m thinking that perhaps the inks in the US were more environmentally friendly.
ab: We were in Paris in ’86 and saw an exhibition at Musee D’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris called 1960: Les Nouveaux Realistes. I discovered the work of Daniel Spoerri, Niki de Saint Phalle and Mimmo Rotella that blew me away and still inspires me.
dp: Photo montage also has a history of working in the magazine publishing world as well. Two prime examples are John Heartfield and Barbara Kruger. Heartfield, a Berliner from the same era as Schwitters, was the master of blunt graphic propaganda and had a regular medium for its dissemination on a weekly basis. He also did stage sets for Bertolt Brecht. More recently, Barbara Kruger began her career as the head designer for Mademoiselle magazine. She moved on to creating her own version of agitprop photomontage. This has led her to create major exhibitions that involve huge installations of her bold graphic statements. She changed the nature of the MoMA gift shop when she created the “I shop therefore I am” shopping bag. It’s not just books and posters anymore. Now you exit through the gift shop with lots of tchotskies.
ab: It’s a double-edged sword! The best propaganda and revolutionary art ends up documented in books and film and enshrined in museums along with the tee-shirts and plastic toys. To my way of thinking, there’s enough room for everything and I don’t give it too much more thought. I worry more about crap like NFTs and people that pay millions for art as investment and spirit it away to offshore tax havens.
dp: Yes, the art market is out of control. The art fairs, where many so-called patrons show up with art advisors to guide their purchases as a form of money laundering is a loathsome operation. NFTs make about as much sense to me as string theory. You seem to be active in a more grassroots approach to marketing. I see that you are active in marketing your collage work online through Instagram and in Facebook venues Collage Artists of America, COLLAGISTES COLLECTIVE, Utopia Parkway, Edinborough Collage Collective and others.
ab: That’s where the eyes and ears are. It’s just about impossible to find traditional gallery space that is interested in mounting a solo exhibition of collage. A while ago I decided the best way to have my work seen is through print and I resurrected Benzene Editions to feature my work as well as the work of some incredible collagists I have met online. I search out open calls whenever I can as well as alternative arts magazines and online aggregators.
dp: You have been showing work in galleries. Anna Klos at Retroavantgarda in Warsaw, Poland has a keen curatorial eye, her choices are steeped in the history of European art and design. You have been in several of her annual collage exhibitions. Recently, you were part of unfoldingobject, a very fine show curated by Todd Bartel in Lincoln, MA. That’s where I first saw your work. That led to your also showing work in Neuroanatomy, a show I curated in Southern Vermont. There are perhaps other opportunities for showing your work in galleries and museums?
ab: That has been a fortunate result of the online community that has formed around collage internationally. I’ve (virtually) met hundreds of artists and collectors online that are doing amazing work to promote contemporary collage. Anna Klos has accomplished so much in the last few years with her annual survey of contemporary collage. Finding those kinds of opportunities is so important if you have any desire to have your work seen.
dp: I also see that you are a participant in mail art and your “poster stamp” piece “Inflict” is part of the Portland Stamp Company’s Artist Series. This series of stamps is by invitation, and they are in a limited edition of 100. Artiststamps have been around for decades now, and you have said that it’s like joining a secret society.
ab: I’ve done less than a dozen stamp “issues” over the years but the work I’m happiest with has been directly related to my collage. It’s a compelling challenge to transfer an idea that begins as a collage to the kinds of restrictions that are imposed by the stamp sheet format. I’ve done a few that I’m quite happy with and have sent them out into the mail art network.
dp: Chuck’s Welch, an archivist of Mail Art for more than forty years, has brought this secret society to a level of honor by being part of the Smithsonian’s collection. Even so, mail art is still an obscure branch of the art world, even though it has antecedents from the Fluxus movement and the brilliant, but also obscure, Ray Johnson. Ray intentionally made himself “New York’s most famous unknown artist”. His history has a basis in Fluxus, Neo-Dada and early Pop art.
Have you had opportunities for showing your mail art works, or is it about the one-on-one personal contact with individuals?
ab: I took part in various mail art projects in Montreal in the early 70’s. I remember soliciting work from Picasso Gaglione, Opal L. Nations and David Zack for my magazine Davinci and sending work to Ryosuke Cohen in Japan for his Braincell mailings and to Clemente Padin in Uruguay for a mailart exhibition.
I wasn’t as active when I moved to New York, but I did have a brief correspondance with Ray Johnson in the early 80’s trying to get him into Benzene. Mail art was never really central to my practice, but when I retired I was able to put more energy into projects like my artist stamps. They’ve been my bridge to the mail art world and it’s been amazing to correspond with artists like John Held Jr, Buz Blurr, Carl Chew and Chuck Welch among so many others.
dp: It’s been a pleasure to virtually connect with you in this interview. I’ve learned a lot about you and your practice. Thanks for the opportunity to be a correspondent.
ab: Thanks so much David. I look forward to seeing you in the mail!
Allan Bealy is a Canadian artist and graphic designer who lives and works in Brooklyn. Allan was co-publisher of Benzene, an arts magazine in the 80’s and has had several books of his collages published, most recently: Conjure by Red Fox Press in 2021. His practice now focuses on collage and mixed media, as well as continuing to publish, occasionally, under the Benzene Editions banner.