Biron on Robert Opel, Camille O'Grady, Jerry Dreva, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gronk, Teddy, Jorge Caraballo, Clemente Padin, Guglielmo Achille Cavellini and other artists
Interview by Philip Vincent
Biron moved to San Francisco on May 23, 1978, from Ann Arbor, Michigan where in the early 1970s he Came Out and founded, with a handful of other graduate students and Teamster support, the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan which served as a national model for other University student-teacher Unions. Soon thereafter, he abandoned his Ph.D. dissertation on the Dada Poetry and Philosophy of Tristan Tzara along with an eight year old career as a college teacher.
In Ann Arbor, he was also active in the Gay Liberation Front, wrote for the Gay Academic Journal (see: review of Truman Capote's ANSWERED PRAYERS) , became a trained peer-counselor with the Gay Hotline, and helped organize and manage the Gay Community Services (GCS) Center, a storefront at 612 S. Forest, Suite B -- a privately-funded non-profit drop-in social and counseling center that served the Ann Arbor and University of Michigan gay community.
He published over a dozen gay articles including a scathing critique of ADVOCATE publisher David Goodstein's Gay agenda that appeared in Winston Leyland's GAY SUNSHINE magazine (San Francisco, Spring 1976). In 1977, Biron compiled and edited the Lesbian and Gay Male Directory and the Youth Survival Guide (with several Gay referrals) which was distributed free to all public high school students in Ann Arbor.
From early experiments with Xerox art in the mid 1960s, Biron actively participated in various conceptual and mail art projects in the 1970s including a collaboration with Andy Warhol in 1975 ("Homage to R. Mutt "). His work appeared in various underground publications both in the US and in Europe. In 1977, he orchestrated the Mail Art Crime Contest and coined the slogan that later appeared in L.A.'s HIGH PERFORMANCE magazine (Spring 1980): "Art only exists beyond the confines of accepted behavior."
The week after he arrived in San Francisco, Biron exhibited in the Lesbian/Gay Pride group art show, curated by Lee Mentley, at the Gay Community Center's TOP FLOOR GALLERY located at 330 Grove Street -- a big old rickety warehouse that has since been replaced by a concrete municipal parking structure.
During the summer of '78, Biron worked for the 'NO on 6' Campaign distributing fund-raising buttons sold to gay bars in the SOMA. He also created his "Heart Attack" piece on the walls of the San Francisco Art Institute and his Hastings Man billboard with cock, at the corner of Hyde and Bush, that Robert Opel photo documented.
Biron was a regular at the gallery openings at Opel's short-lived Fey-Way Studios (March 1978 - July 1979) located, in the SOMA, near the notorious Black and Blue bar. Opel's regular monthy shows featured the very best in leather male erotica including the works Tom of Finland, Étienne, Lou Rudolph, Rex, Chuck Arnett, Domino, Charlie Airwaves, Rick Borg, Mark Kadota, Olaf, The Hun, and the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe in one of his first exhibition on the West Coast.
WHAT WAS YOUR ASSOCIATION WITH ROBERT OPEL?
LB: Robert Opel was a collaborator. When I moved to San Francisco in May of 1978, I was still active in the underground mail art community and exhibited some of my photocopies in a group show at THE TOP GALLERY at the Gay Community Center during the Lesbian/Gay Pride Celebrations that year. It was a great feeling to unpack the car, and have someplace to immediately display my work. It was also my first gay exhibition.
Robert showed an interest and in September participated in my GREAT CRIME CONTEST. He also documented my Hastings billboard zap with his photographs in February 1979.
The following month, I participated in the First Anniversary Show at his art gallery, FEY-WAY STUDIOS, located at 1287 Howard Street. I exhibited only one piece -- a photo-collage based on a 10 year old Polaroid self-portrait. Like most things exhibited at Fey-Way, it didn't sell. No one expected things to sell. Everybody was having too much fun to care about that.
Robert was also a personal friend and we occasionally hung around together. I never was part of any group that hung around at Fey-Way. I was not much into leather myself, but I often hung out in the SOMA gay bars like the BLACK & BLUE bar with its golden shower tub in its outdoor patio, across the street from the notorious 8TH STREET BATHS where the steam room often surpassed even the wildest dreams; the AMBUSH that sold the best amyl in town from its upstairs leather store; the RAM ROD, or the BOOT CAMP and a bar where the STUD later relocated, with there busy week-end back rooms. That was when I wasn't hanging out on Polk Street with its genial male hookers and hot multi-racial club boys and working class stiffs before the N'TOUCH became narrowly identified as an Asian bar.
The Castro, in my early years in San Francisco, was of no interest to me. Even then, it was strictly middle class. Interesting people, artists, hung around in the SOMA where even the streets and back alleys were electric. But that's a whole other story....
By the way, several of the bars -- like the AMBUSH and EAGLE -- served as art galleries often exhibiting the powerful work of graphic artists who idealized a masculine gay erotica that permeated the SOMA. There was no artistic pretense whatsoever -- what every artist dreams of -- but a total harmony between the lifestyle of the patrons at the bar and the subject matter and energy of the works displayed there. "Art = Life" just like the Dadaists preached some 60 years earlier.
The SOMA gay bars essentially functioned as clubs that welcomed ANYONE able to cope with the prevailing energy and this, more than the leather attire, distinguished them from the majority of the Castro bars. Not all the bars in the Castro were racist, but that was the general climate of this area which was slow in changing and still today feels the need to have a Black-identified Gay bar in its neighborhood.
When the HOT HOUSE baths first opened its doors on Fifth Street, they threw this wild weekend-long party. Robert Opel had a invitation and shared it with me. There was something very generous and open about Robert. Although he was judgmental about the state of political affairs, I never felt he was judgmental about his friends. THE HOT HOUSE that week-end was like a leather fantasy theme park with no closing hours. We went in Friday evening and left Sunday morning.
WHAT WAS FEY-WAY STUDIOS LIKE?
LB: With Robert Opel as its director, it was an incredible place just half a block down the street from the BLACK AND BLUE bar and the 8TH STREET BATHS - two institutions that attracted gay men to the area in droves and who would sidetrack to the gallery on opening nights. But when I said 'director' I was being sarcastic. Robert was more like a circus ringmaster who keeps things moving with one act after another. He had a lot of energy, a good heart, and to boot was quite handsome.
I miss those opening nights. The receptions were always fun with the usual booze and a good place to meet interesting people. Robert showed the works of Tom of Finland, Étienne, Lou Rudolph, Rex, Chuck Arnett, Domino, Charlie Airwaves, Rick Borg, Mark Kadota, Olaf, and The Hun, and other artists - all barely recognized as artists in those days even within the broader Gay community.
My friend Greg Day was a regular and Rink was there as he was every place else I suppose documenting for posterity. One of Rink's FEY WAY photos was recently published in a biography of Robert Mapplethorpe.
I think Fey-Way was either the first or second time Mapplethorpe's photographs were exhibited in San Francisco, and to be quite honest, no one paid much attention since his work was double billed with drawings by the already quite popular Tom, of 'Tom of Finland' fame.
The SOMA leather community was definitely at the cutting edge. Gay artists were regularly exhibited in bars like THE AMBUSH, but it was Robert Opel who created the first Gay art gallery in San Francisco that openly celebrated male erotica. Especially hard-core stuff.
In addition, FEY WAY was a performance space open to anything queer from the rock poetry of Ruby Zebra to the showing of experimental films directed by Robert and Bill Moritz.
And there was, as the poster proclaimed, the first West Coast performance - direct from New York's MINE SHAFT - of Camille O'Grady. Camille was an extraordinary artist, an attractive leather woman who when she lived with Robert did a fantastic drawing of him dressed in leather with these large angelic wings that was used to publicize FEY WAY's first anniversary show. It was gay SOMA's golden age!
WHAT WAS THE IMPACT OF ROBERT OPEL'S DEATH?
LB: It was tremendous. Robert's murder in July 1979 was a great personal loss and totally unexpected. As I said, he was a friend and a sympathetic collaborator who understood the essentially political nature of art. This was before AIDS, so I wasn't accustomed to a young friend dying - especially in a brutal murder. It stopped me dead in my tracks as far as my art projects were concerned. That was the end of my mail art stuff and my art attacks. It had been great fun, and I just didn't feel like playing anymore.
His death was catastrophic for the Gay community as well. Robert's charisma was the nucleus around which a hard core of high energy artists gathered. Think of it as a Gay beehive with Robert as the Queen bee. We were all dazed by the brutal murder as we went own separate ways. There was some talk of keeping the gallery open -- only talk. After FEY WAY STUDIOS closed, the bars went up across the windows and THE BALLOON LADY eventually moved in.
Of course, Robert will be best remembered for having streaked the 1974 Academy Awards on live TV when David Niven was at the podium. I'd rather remember him for his Anita Bryant Look-Alike Contest or his his last major project - his Dan White mock execution which was as controversial a piece of theater within the Gay community as was Robert himself. Unfortunately, he was the one executed: tied up in his studio and shot in the head - all for $5.
Coming Out takes on a whole different meaning when I think of Robert Opel. Uncompromising and unapologetic, he blurred the lines between art and life as he traveled beyond the confines of accepted behavior. Harvey Milk and then Robert Opel both killed within a few months. As Dylan said: the times they were a changing.
WHEN DID YOU GET STARTED WITH MAIL ART?
LB: When I shared an apartment in Ann Arbor with Tom Dorrien who published the mail artzine CHEAP TRASH. Actually, I got him interested. I was already doing conceptual pieces like the first Joint-Assisted Ready-Made with Andy Warhol in 1975.
Nothing serious, I was no Ray Johnson. I was just having fun with a bunch of "pen pals" across the United States and Europe who exchanged art through the mail. Then, I met others in Ann Arbor like Warhol who was on tour promoting his autobiography. That's what attracted me to it, people having a good time, not taking their work too seriously, yet still functioning as serious artists. That may sound contradictory; it really isn't.
WITH WHOM DID YOU COLLABORATE?
LB: I was in contact with artists like R. Mutt, Opal L. Nations, S HITchcock, Cavellini, John Bennett, Tinkerbelle, Diana Peipol, Jerry Dreva, and in L.A., Gronk and Teddy.
The 1970s was a very creative period. There were all kinds of exchanges: letters, cards, collages, stamps, photocopy and rubber stamp stuff, slogans, contests, and zines. Great fun!
For example, Jerry Dreva's August 3, 1978 guerrilla performance in South Milwaukee borrowed my slogan: "Art only exists beyond the confines of accepted behavior" from The Great '78 Mail Art Crime Contest and incorporated it into his own art project that was featured in the Spring 1980 issue of L.A.'s HIGH PERFORMANCE.
Jerry documented his Heart Attack piece with photographs, an illustrated article from the local press, and a copy of the official South Milwaukee police report and sent me a full set of the documentation. In turn, I duplicated Jerry's Heart Attack piece in San Francisco using the heart stencils he had mailed me from South Milwaukee along with a list of the spay paint colors. That's how it went: organic collaborations. You took an idea - it didn't have to be your own - and ran with it.
In March 1978, Dreva came to L. A. for a major show with Gronk at the Contemporary Exhibitions, at 240 South Broadway: "Dreva/Gronk 1968-78 TEN YEARS OF ART/LIFE."
I still have a "Dreva/Gronk 68-78" commemorative button created for that exhibition. In exchange for something I mailed out, Gronk sent me - folded neatly in an envelope - an extremely fine pen and ink figure drawing on a plain white cotton handkerchief. Now, nearly twenty years later, these Gronk handkerchiefs are sold in art galleries for $1,000 each. The Mexican Museum at Fort Mason had an excellent 20 year retrospective of Gronk's work several years ago. (For Dreva's reported death in March 1997, see --> http://colophon.com/umbrella/newlit_artbooks.html)
WAS THE MAIL ART MOVEMENT GAY?
LB: Have you ever heard of one that wasn't?
Of course, it wasn't exclusively Gay, if that's what you mean. There were certainly other Gay mail artists around. I didn't know any Lesbians although I had contacts with female artists like Diane Peipol, a friend in Ann Arbor who eventually moved to Chicago where she made a name for herself. In the circles I was involved in, there was plenty of Gay energy.
Yet, I don't recall that gayness was ever a topic of discussion. Certain projects were obviously intended to exclude the homophobes, and I'm fairly positive we succeeded in doing that. However, I don't recall any collaboration which clearly drew the line between gay and straight. But my Hastings Man billboard could not be misconstrued in this regard.
Teddy, a Chicano performance and Xerox artist based in L.A., was the most Out within the Mail Art movement that I knew. One year I received this marvelous colored Xerox Valentine of himself in full drag.
A group of L.A. Chicano artists who banded together as the BUTCH GARDENS SCHOOL OF ART presented in 1979 "La Historia de Frida Kahlo" in which Gronk performed a musical number and danced with Teddy dressed in drag with high heels and strapless gown.
The publicity flyer showed a picture of Frida Kahlo's across which was rubber stamped my slogan: "Art only exists beyond the confines of accepted behavior" which in a more esoteric interpretation suggested the need for significant political action such as Coming Out.The slogan was picked up by many artists not all of whom were Gay who saw its more obvious meaning as being directed against conformity within the art community.
The BUTCH GARDENS SCHOOL OF ART also included Eddie Dominquez, Harry Gamboa, Gilde Montez, S. Zaneta, Kosiba, and Vargas whose activities and sexual proclivities I know nothing about but here are their names on this program I found in my files.
It amazes me now how speculating about people's sexual tendencies was of little interest to me in mail art when it so important in other contexts. It's probably because we Gays clearly made our presence felt. We never experienced discrimination from within the movement that would have required us to band together. The fact we had no need to protest suggests that the mail art movement was pretty cool and laid back in the `70s.
WHAT ABOUT ROBERT MAPLETHORPE?
LB: Not much to report. I know he was at least marginally involved with the movement. My only contact with Robert Mapelthorpe was with the Great Crime Contest.
WHAT WAS MAPLETHORPE'S PARTICIPATION IN THIS CRIME CONTEST?
LB: The Great Crime Contest took place in September 1978 and involved 100 artists from throughout the United States. Aside from that, there's little I can add because the contest's rules stipulated that in order to protect the participants, no documentation would be published or otherwise released.
I've never discussed the contest and if any information on it ever comes out, it won't be from me. The crime contest is part of Mail Art's underground, its unwritten history that belongs exclusively to its participants and is the movement's only protection against total exploitation from without. This sort of thing has nothing to do with creating an elitist mystique and everything to do with keeping the energy alive much like Marcel Duchamps' thundering silence did for Dada.
IS MAIL ART ANARCHISTIC?
LB: Sometimes, but the premise on which it rests is the old Dada maxim: Art = Life. So,
Neo-Dada Mail Art is fundamentally conceptual.
Dada and Futurism are the direct sources for much of today's so-called avant garde: all those performance and conceptual artists.
The Dadaist were primo intellectuals who focused on the creative process - the spirit with which one does things rather than on the material artistic product - the tangible goods such as drawings, paintings, sculptures - what people usually associate with art and can be sold in the capitalist marketplace. Consequently, Dada's affinities are more spiritual than materialistic. One only exhibits and buys and sells the traces of the creative energy. But tell that to a capitalist who only sees reality as marketable product -- coinage for the elite -- greatness by association. Museums -- modern day churches. Speak softly and do not touch. You are in the presence of the divine -- a $20 million painting donated by a philantropist who sucked every penny from the exploitation of those middle class masses -- the new proletariat devoid of any class affiliation.
Since Mail Art, like Dada, involved consciousness raising, it could, at times, be quite political. For example, in 1978, Geoffrey Cook organized an international letter writing campaign from San Francisco that lead to the release of Jorge Caraballo and Clemente Padin - two prominent Uruguayan mail artists who were missing and unaccounted for in Uruguay for nearly a year.
Senator Cranston followed up on the request and in a letter to me dated October 31, 1978, reported that investigations conducted by the U.S. State Department in Montevideo confirmed that Caraballo had just been released on bail and Padin's release was imminent. Our mail art blitz had worked.
HAVE YOU MAINTAINED YOUR MAIL ART CONTACTS?
LB: It all depends on how you spell it. [Laughs] Actually, I've had nothing to do with correspondence art, mail art, since Robert Opel died in 1979. However, I did attend the SAN FRANCISCO INTER-DADA 1984 FESTIVAL, sponsored by the Canadian Consulate and the Goethe Institute, which featured a series of well organized events including a Mail Art show, a Dada Parade in SOMA, a reading of Tzara's poetry and manifestos at Hotel Utah, a dance contest and a fashion show at the Victoria Theater, and a series of lectures, and a Midnight Scream at the Emeryville Mud flats.
The Festival allegedly done in the spirit of Dada was too focused on the past and had little new or interesting to offer. It served as a showcase for some of the old-bananas preoccupied with their historical lineage to Dada and all that. Old Dada, not Neo-Dada. I suppose I could be accused of doing just that right now. So rather than reading about all this why don't you go out and do something instead.
Anyway, the serious linear tone of the festival made attempts at spoofing fall flat. And the participants were a little too straight for my own taste -- straight machismo and hetero-coupling -- a combination I particularly find repugnant.
So it was more of a conference than a festival with lots of pseudo-intellectual overtones. What can you expect when the Goethe Institute is sponsoring slide shows and German avant-garde films that promote the Motherland's contributions to Dada.
It proved to be great aversion therapy for I haven't been interested since. So now you know how I got cured of the illness known as Mail Art.
IF MAIL ART IS IN THE PAST, WHY DO YOU WANT TO DISCUSS IT NOW?
LB: That's a good question. First, it's important for Gays to know how in all ways - even minor ones like this - we Gays have been influential and have made a difference.
Another reason is that I've had more time to organize my papers and be more introspective since I've been unemployed for some time now. And, after nearly 20 years, perhaps it's a story finally worth telling.
WILL MAIL ART SURVIVE?
LB: If it's not already dead, sure why not? But who cares? Mail Art is or was about having fun and has involved all kinds of people. It's democratic and open minded.
Back in the late '70s, they estimated that some 10,000 to 20,000 people had already participated in the Mail Art movement since 1962 when Ray Johnson created the New York Correspondence School.
I want to clear something up. I did not personally have any contact with many of the major players like George Brecht, Ray Johnson, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, George Maciunas, and Dick Higgins. However, I knew more or less what they were doing. However, I did collaborate with Cavellini in Italy quite extensively.
WHO WAS CAVELLINI?
LB: Gueglielmo Achille Cavellini was a master showman, the Sol Hurok of Mail Art, who just happened to own a chain of supermarkets in Italy. So, Cavellini had lots of money to pursue his projects.
In the '70s, he produced some of the slickest stamps and some of the best internationally collaborative mail art exhibitions and catalogues in which I participated. He spared no money in his playful, well orchestrated quest for fame.
Cavellini masterminded the worldwide distribution of tens of thousands of brightly printed round plastic stickers advertising his Centennial Exhibition at the Ducal Palace in Venice from September 7 through October 27, 2014. These stickers are still occasionally posted around in the upper Haight. The opening night reception at the Ducal Palace less than 15 years away is one party I'd like not to miss. (For more on Cavellini--> http://www.cavellini.org)
- END OF PART II
- Part II : The 1970s Revisited: Biron on Robert Opel, Camille O'Grady, Jerry Dreva, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gronk, Teddy, Jorge Caraballo, Clemente Padin, Cavellini, and other artists. Lionel A. Biron 1996 © All Rights Reserved.
- Part I: The Invisible Closet: on Coming Out as a Photographer