ABOUT DAVID ZACK
[Excerpts from an essay written by Istvan Kantor]
[David Zack,(l) and Istvan Kantor,(r)]
Largely unrecognized during his lifetime, David Zack 's remaining work is finally out from dust covered cardboard boxes hidden in dark basement corners in different parts of the world and ready to be added to the history of communication arts. Somewhat similarly to his spiritual master, William Blake, Zack was a "poet, painter, and printmaker", who "painted" typewritten correspondence novels and used xerox machines to print them. Almost constantly wondering around, restlessly seeking for new territories of communication and personal contacts, Zack established himself in the mail-art network as its main correspondence interface. "What Lear was to Shakeaspeare, Zack was to mail art" remarked with a smile dr Blaster Al Ackeman, another leading character of the unofficial department of the Eternal Network.
David Zack was co-owner of the Rainbow House in San Francisco in the second half of the 60s, a co-founder of the Californian Nut-Art movement at about the same time, leading instructor of the Monte Capanno collective learning experience in Italy, in 1970, a principal activist of correspondence art in the Eternal Network throughout the 70s and 80s, secret agent of the 14 Secret Masters of the World sent on a mission to Hungary in 1976, the inventor of Monty Cantsin open-pop-star project while being resident at the Portland Academy in 1977, co-conspirator of the Neoists in Akademgorod from 1979 till his death and creator of the Immortality Centre in Tepoztlan Mexico in the 80s.
David Zack was not only known for writing endless letters and correspondence novels but also for constantly playing cello or tenor guitar and often irritating people with his repetitious songs. What the wig was for Warhol, the hat for Beuys or the cigar for Duchamp, the guitar and cello were for Zack. His iconic image would be incomplete without a cello or guitar. He always carried an instrument with him and kept playing while having conversations. If William Blake "lived working and died singing" as Zack commented on him, in 1978, I can say that Zack lived singing and died singing. He was talking in songs he improvised to monotone blues patterns or classically sounding cello scales. Considering that he was a poet, he was a much less romantic figure in real life than in his writings and he was much more complicated person than the friendly character he assumed in his poetry and poetical correspondence novels. Zack never stopped rewriting his own life history and had very little regard for any truth but the literary. His obsession with Blake went so far that he not only echoed the words of Blake but he wrote his own Blake songs and considered himself the resurrection of William Blake. He also liked to think that he was the embodiment of the Wizard of Oz. His beliefs led to disaster, which, in turn, led to immortality.
Almost 15 years after his death and over 30 years after he initiated the Monty Cantsin open-pop-star project David Zack's legend is growing along with the Monty Cantsin mythology. In a time when history lost its values and less than 15 minutes fame rules the world of emerging artists just out of college, it's quite surprising that a dead artist suddenly surfaces to claim his fame and his place in history. Especially someone who's works were lost, thrown away, burnt, or just left behind for no other reason than not having enough space in a small van that was already filled with children and the most important belongings of a family.
When I met David in 1976 he was 38 years old and already had an important history behind him including the Rainbow House period, the Nut Art movement and the Monte Capanno school. Art in America published his article on mail-art as early as jan/1973. I can't claim that I know about his youth and early history as much as I know about the years from 1976 until his death in 1995. I stayed with him and his family in 1978 in Portland for several months. We met again a few times in Montreal, in 1979, in Calgary, in 1980, in Baltimore, in 1981. I visited him at the Immortality Centre in 1985 and it was in 1987 when I saw him for the last time in New York City. He disappeared in 1995 after spending about 5 years in prison in Mexico for defrauding the US Government by living off his parents' Social Security checks after their death. Rotting 5 years in a Mexican hellhole seems like way too much especially when we know that he never committed the crime he was charged with. Zack never tried to forge his parents signature, he simply signed the check receipts Monty Cantsin. There were failed attempts to get him out but David actually enjoyed his prison years and took it as a learning experience.
According to reports David died in a nursing home, in San Antonio, Texas, in 1995, about 2 years after he was let out of prison due to his seriously deteriorating health caused by his untreated diabetes. But because his death certificate is dated april 1st many of those who knew him believe it was only a joke of a prankster and he is still alive.
Writing letters was David's main occupation as a form of communication with hundreds of others around the world. He was an interface and his interactive mind was triggered constantly by the users of the mail art network. The idea that art was direct communication between participating artists ruled the network of correspondence art also known as mail art and postal art. It was not a typo when in David's letters the word correspondence appeared as correspondense, with the s replacing the c, that turned the word into a descriptive term serving better David's vision of the art of letter writing.
He wrote his letters fast and in one dynamic movement mostly on typewriters but also by hand. Unfortunately he didn't live long enough to explore the electronic networks and it's up to our fantasy to imagine what he could achieve as a net-artist. He was definitely a precursor of it and he was very conscious about that. "Mail Art will always be useful, though it may change its name to Correspondense as the electronic communications mechanisms make it more generally practical for everyday use." (Interview with Istvan Kantor, sept/1983, on page 6). I have no account how many letters he wrote throughout his mail art adventure but if I calculate that for about 20 years he wrote 5 letters per day (probably more) than we talk about 36 500 letters. That's quite an impressive production of art works especially if we consider that the length of his letters were often 5-10 pages long.
David had no real interest in the gallery world. While his work has been included in countless mail-art exhibitions, from the early 70's until his death, organized by mail-art participants, he only had a single museum show and only a very few solo exhibitions in galleries. Among gallery shows during his lifetime important to mention his first solo exhibition entitled "CV Nut-Art Show" at Ecart in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1974, organized by John Armleder, followed by the historically important Young Artists' Club show in Budapest, in 1976, organized by Laszlo Beke. I talk a great deal about the Budapest show in this essay and this Zack retrospective includes a few examples of that show thanks to Laszlo Beke and Artpool. I'm proud to have an example of his "glitters", works he made on cardboard covered by fabric and ornamented with bright lines and figures made with glitter and glue. David created the "glitters" in New York, in 1974, staying somewhere close to Union Square. According to him he collected most material for the works from the streets. The show in Budapest included 8 of the glitters. David describes them in his typewritten and photocopied catalogue as follows: "The pieces incorporate hand-cut rubber stamp images as well as transparencies of musical scores and letters from correspondents (mail artists). They are childlike in spirit, a kind of 'learning to draw' phase of development." The example included in the show is entitled "Follow that Macadam Highway" (from song by Geaorge Tregido).
I have a catalogue of the Ecart show that was printed in 450 copies, all numbered from 1 to 450. It's a big envelope (the one in my collection is No 165) that includes selected photocopies of the works, mostly list of addresses and scribbled collages. David told me at several occasions that a complete show of his works were stored at Ecart, in the care of John Armleder. For years I made efforts to contact John Armleder but unfortunately I couldn't get hold of him. Finally just a few days ago, today is july 7, 2008, I reached him through a cell phone number I received from IPUT in Budapest. John told me that Ecart had some Zack works but when Ecart was over the Ecart archive went to a museum in Geneva. He promised to contact the museum and see if he can get me the Zack works. But according to him the works of the Zack show was sent back to David. So where are they today? Who has them? Were they thrown into the garbage? Burned? Maybe, but eventually they might resurface and maybe this exhibition will help the process.
On july 16, 1978, a Zack exhibition of correspondence works was part of the Correspondence Arts Service Foundation show in a booth under the Morrison bridge, produced for the Portland Neighbor Fair. Though it wasn't a gallery show, I mention it here because it was a very unique experience involving many local artists and featuring the Monty Cantsin project. And actually the booth can be considered as a temporary instant gallery. I organized him a small scale solo show, Modern Myth, as part of the Production Room series I ran at Vehicule Art, in Montreal, february 9 - 25, 1980. For Modern Myth I used a bunch of David's drawings, mostly portraits with some scribbled notes and displayed them on the walls of the Production Room. My series was focusing mostly on mail-artists, dr Ackerman was another one.
It's important to note that David wasn't very interested to see his works on gallery walls, in fact he had a problem with it. "I am just a little embarrassed to show my art on walls, yet glad to do it for a good cause" he noted at the end of his self-made "Catalogue for David Zack's Communications Art Show", march/1976, Regina, Sask, Canada.
The only solo exhibition he had in a museum was the "My Pals" show at the Nickle Arts Museum in Calgary, march 6 - 29, 1981. This was probably his most ambitious exhibition with works created for this special occasion. It included 63 works presented in 7 groups, mostly collage works with texts, photographic documents, handwritten notes and color Xerox images. They were all double sided and laminated made for the purpose of hanging them from the ceiling of the gallery. David called them formular publications and described them in his introduction as "colorful, entertaining, and verbally interesting." In his four page introduction he also notes: "Clearly communication is the key to the door away from misery for mankind. I try to work as openly as I can, in an open-ended way, and am amazed to keep getting in touch with people who are also doing this."
It is little known that David was also producing video art since 1968. He used portable VTR equipment, the Sony portapack. He also did studio work with KQED-TV in San Francisco. His video tapes were low budget or no budget experimental productions, fusing documentary with narrative semi-fiction. He kept boxes of reel-to-reel tapes while living in Portland and apparently left them at the Smegma House before taking off for New Mexico. My efforts to find these tapes and include some examples in the show were unfortunately again unsuccessful. But it is a fact that David kept exploring the form of video whenever he could. While living in Portland Zack worked with the Neighborhood Cable Television Center and initiated the Video Party project. He video taped the first party and then showed an edited version at the second one. Then he overlayed images of the second one on the first tape and planned to continue this process party after party. These collaborative electronic collage works were similar to his corresponence art works, always accumulating ideas from previously produced material. An article written by Penny Allen entitled "Zack's Video: Technology Made Art" and published in a local community paper in Portland, dated february 1, 1977, is the only documentation I have about David's video art experience. The article includes a picture of David sitting in a studio in front of video monitors and video decks. Seeing him as a man of technology is quite different from the image he mostly reflected as a crazy mail-artist. But David's fascination with technology is present in his correspondence works like for example his double or triple exposure photos, his electronic typewriter ramblings and his audio recordings. He expressed constant desire for new communication devices to turn correspondence art into a global collective game where everyone can participate. When this idea got fully realized through the internet during the late 80's and early 90's David was in prison and soon after he died.
In the late 60s David and his second wife Maija Peeples, a remarkably beautiful woman. a person with great humour and wit and an excellent painter, owned a house in San Francisco which was known as the Rainbow House. The Rainbow House became a breeding place for the Funk Art movement including artists Robert Arneson, William T.Wiley, Peter Vandenbergh, Jerry Gooch, Harold Schlotzhauer, David Gilhooly, Roy DeForest and Maija Peeples. David who was then an emerging academic art writer, contributing editor for Art and Artists, was especially inspired by their provoking living style. Funk Art represented a counterculture philosophy fused with an anything-goes anti-art attitude. According to David Gilhooly, Roy De Forest disliked the term Funk Art and coined another term Nut Art. But in an interview I initiated with David Zack through correspondence in 1983 David tells a different story.
"Nut Art is a name I gave to a particular group of 15 people that were producing art works in the Bay Area around San Francisco in Davis, California during the period that I lived in Rainbow House, San Francisco, with Maija Woof the Beast Painter, from 1965 to 1970." And later he ads: "I got tired of taking other people's categories as a basis for my writing, and devoted myself to writing about the Nut Art movement." In this very informative and also hilariously humorous interview of a total of 40 densely typed pages David gave an account of his whole life. It includes a detailed description of Nut Art at the length of an essay. "Nut Art is a secret to those who read the history books. The publicity campaign for Pop and Surrealism has been so much stronger (because so much easier to define) that the Nuts are more underground than many underground artists who claim to be underground. The Nuts are living in nice houses and driving nice cars. They have clean families and travel a lot. But who has heard of the Nuts?... Very few people. I'm willing to take the blame for this, since when I wrote about the Nuts I made point of not saying anything "art historical" about them. I made no claims about their greatness or importance. I reported on the Nuts…from the viewpoint that California had already toppled into the ocean and the Nut artists were living in the bodies of four foot pink frogs on the Canadian shield."
Nut Art remained an iconic term for David who kept using it and referring to it throughout his life. "Nut art will always be… funny. There can never be another fifteen original Nut Artists. But there can be fifteen million, or fifteen billion given time and space, Nut Art type movements. Nut Art can be the basis for social organization in the emerging correspondense oriented world." The Monty Cantsin open-pop-star project is an outgrow of the Nut Art cosmology, a lonely meteorite desperately seeking for community followed by the comet-like Neoism. In his Art in America article about Mail-Art David tried to connect Nut Art and Mail-Art with more less success. With the Monty Cantsin project the connection was complete and both the open-pop-star project and later Neoism were spread around the world through the communication vehicle of Mail-Art. I was introduced to David Zack by Laszlo Beke, art-historian, exhibition organizer, a theoretical writer and leading mind of the Hungarian young avant-garde throughout the 70's, who invited David to show his correspondence work at the Young Artists' Club. It was around Spring time. I also had a concert/exhibition with my band, Kantor Inform, almost at the same time at the same place, in a different room. I was 26, best known in the pop and folk music scenes as singer/songwriter. I was a drop out of medical university trying to become what I always wanted to be, an artist, a pop-star and a revolutionary at once.
Seeing David's show that was highly estimated by Laszlo Beke with these words "In ten years here also this will be the trend" I was completely and totally fascinated, amazed, seduced, and hypnotized. Later I realized that this was exactly what David wanted, he was searching for someone like me who had the interest in the world of communication arts and had the potential to become Monty Cantsin. I didn't want to wait ten years so I left almost immediately. About two years later I met David again in Portland, Oregon, USA. It was june 12, 1978, David's 40st birthday. He and her daughter Rose were waiting for me at the airport. By then I was through two years of adventures, being a political refugee in Paris and a landed immigrant in Montreal. My English was still very bad but I spoke French well enough to discuss things with David who spoke several languages. We celebrated David's birthday that night with a couple of bottles of red wine and lots of improvised songs in the kitchen of Correspondence Art Service Foundation, his home.
From the moment of my arrival I introduced myself as Monty Cantsin. While I often tell people that David proposed me to become Monty Cantsin right at the time of his visit in Hungary, the reality is that he coined the name only later, after the meeting and initiated the open-pop-star idea in 1977 with Latvian artist Maris Kundzins. David sent me the following note on November 9, 1977: "This MONTY CANTSIN character is a blank legend ---could sing Hungarian as well as Latvian---If you need a new name try MONTY CANTSIN." I did.
I like to believe that he was sent to Budapest by the 14 Secret Masters of the World to find me for the Monty Cantsin role. The pure fact that soon after his visit I left the country and less than 2 years later I reappeared as Monty Cantsin in Portland makes the story mysterious enough to accept David's important assignment as an agent of The 14 Secret Masters of the World. In reality the 14 SMW was only a small rubber stamp made by Blaster Al Ackerman, another mail-art genius and a close friend of David. He marked his letters with the 14 SMW stamp and this stamp inspired my fantasy. It was part of my work to take already existing ideas together with bits of circulating information and connect them within the growing Monty Cantsin mythology. It wasn't simple appropriation or plunder but rather a kind of re-mix method that I kept perfecting eversince. It was of course a result of my correspondence with David. He was a master in multi-dimensional correspondence where he could communicate with several person about limitless subjects simultaneously mixing up everything without fear of confusion. The Monty Cantsin project made possible what was the most important for me at the time: to restart my life under a brand new identity as part of a collective game.
Because of my strong identification with the Monty Cantsin role I really became the embodiment of Monty Cantsin according to David's plans. Basically I was his extended identity. David used his vain as his office. It was basically the only place where he could get away from the kids and family duties and write letters. He installed a table with a typewriter in the back of the vain and that's where he interviewed me almost every day. He kept posing almost the same questions over and over again. But at the end he wrote the entire interview out of his own brain not trying to be authentic at all. I liked his method and later I always told to interviewers and writers to do the same thing and use their own brilliant or stupid ideas in the name of Monty Cantsin.
With the Monty Cantsin project David liberated lots of new energy not only in Portland but all around the world. Everybody was in love with Monty Cantsin, the open-pop-star. Eventually the idea was plundered and was repeated under different names, among them the best known are Karen Eliot and Luther Blissett. But these names never achieved such popular success as Monty Cantsin as their creators only tried to use them to promote their own academic advancement and institutional recognition in post-modern art circuits. One of them published many books to earn fame through the blatant and mindless falsification of the Monty Cantsin love story. The Monty Cantsin network remained a subversive marginal group always experimenting on the edge of pop culture, opposing institutionalization and mainstream aesthetics. The early Monty Cantsin rebellion in Portland was an evocatory event of the Neoist Conspiracy.
Soon after my return from Portland to Montreal I initiated Neoism, in may, 1979. While art history writers often like to credit David Zack and dr Ackerman for inventing Neoism I see them as the official protectorate of the movement. I coined the term and developed the concept in Montreal first as a multi-media performance group, followed by a propaganda campaign through the mail-art network that culminated in a long series of international apartment festivals.
Living permanently at the Immortality Centre in Tepoztlan, David more and more often signs his letters as Nazario Zarakanustra or Monty (Nazario Zarakanustra) Cantsin. Who is Nazario Zarakanustra? According to Naomi Zack, David's cousin, the family's original name was Zarakadusha that was later shortened to Zack. According to a note by David it was "Zarakanusthra. which means, Children of the Prophet, seed of the chosen one." The family lived in Vilnius until the beginning of 20st Century. They immigrated to New York via London in 1903. David's Zarakanustra seems to be a fusion of the original family name and Zarathustra. Did he try to associate himself with Nietzsche and used the name Nazario Zarakanustra as his own version of Zarathustra, or Zarakanustra was just a different spelling of the original family name? David talks about his father's father who "was writing his prophecies and giving his vinegar baths" and, on the same page he notes that his father "had been reading Nietzsche who wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra." If we consider Monty Cantsin an (anti-)Ubermensch figure then Monty (Nazario Zarakanustra) Cantsin is definitely a clear implicative of Nietzsche. David's inclination for philosophizing is clearly a result of family traditions that made his image reflect a mad philosopher's character. In fact while reading David's letters I often thought about Nietzsche's Thus spoke Zarathustra, way before David moved to Tepoztlan. His writings were always full of wise notes of an insane prophet who is connected with a whole universe of iconic people and places. David himself was very conscious about his prophetic talents. "My talent is to see something early and project its development - it used be called prophecy and got a bad name from gloom & doom." (Quote from a Zack letter to Richard Olson)
In David's mind art and life were equal and never separated. Lots of artists think the same way but David turned it into reality like nobody else before. The "everything is art" and "everybody is an artist" slogans were not just signifying a philosophical attitude like in the work of Joseph Beuys or Robert Filliou for example, but they were truly realized through his life. The fact that he has given away always everything what he produced and when he died no materialistic products were in his possession, backs up perfectly his thinking. What he left behind was an unwritten correspondense novel that survived in the collective memory of Nut-Artists, Mail-Artists, Neoists, friends, landlords, bank managers, ex-wives and his 6 grown up children, Rachel, Ezekiel, Regina Rose, Jesse Art, Zoa and Opal.
That's how David Zack was born.
Text: © Istvan Kantor. All rights reserved.
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