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The brainchild of American Surrealist William Copley, the SMS (Shit Must Stop) workshop's periodical was a portfolio of works mailed directly from the studio (Copley's own, opened to all artists) to its subscribers, for the year of 1968. Compiled of art in various media, from prints to die-cut assemblages to handwritten letters to cassette tapes and more, the result was a collaborative effort in presenting the artists to the public directly, forgoing galleries and dealers for a more intimate and powerful approach. Despite his or her position in the art world, every contributing artist received a flat rate of $100 as payment. Published by The Letter Edged in Black Press, the works created by each artist had to be duplicated 2000 times. These included traditional techniques that could be easily reproduced, such as prints and cassette tapes, but also included unique items more laborious to replicate, such as bowties that had to be burnt individually, or empty pill capsules assembled and carefully placed into each portfolio box. Accidents were often preserved to maintain the immediacy and personal nature of the work. Included in the collection of SMS were works by Marcel Duchamp, Roy Lichtenstein, Man Ray, Alain Jacquet, Christo, Claes Oldenburg, Meret Oppenheim, Yoko Ono, and many others.
It was 1968, a time so unsettled in America that some spoke of revolution. Political unrest produced two assassinations and would turn the Democratic National Convention into a riot. In the world of art, Color Field painting and Pop Art were reaching maturity while new developments were appearing with extraordinary rapidity as Minimalism splintered into Conceptualism, Performance Art, and Earthworks. New York's Lower East Side was generating a new neighborhood known as the East Village. On Manhattan's Upper West Side, the American Surrealist William Copley had leased a third-floor loft and invited his fellow artist to exercise a collaborative freedom few had experienced before or would experience again.
Lew Syken, the project's chief designer, remembers the SMS studios as a place where "it was impossible to anticipate what would happen next. On a given day, you never knew who would show up." It might be Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, Alain Jacquet, representing French Pop, Marcel Duchamp, or Richard Artschwager. Meret Oppenheim and Man Ray, veterans of Surrealism and Dada, contributed to SMS. There were many others, some as renowned as Christo,Claes Oldenburg, and John Cage, others known only as the authors of works included in one of SMS's six portfolios. Like an astronomer's time-lapse photograph, SMS caught many bright and familiar stars. It also registered the presence of the most elusive comets.
Details of SMS's complex, often round-the-clock and always chaotic working days were managed by Copley's associate, Dimitri Petrov. Copley himself (who had made his reputation as a painter under the abbreviated signature "CPLY") occupied a corner office with a view of West 80th Street and Broadway. Here, with his long flowing hair and red velvet bell-bottom suit, he greeted visitors and presided over a buffet perpetually replenished by nearby Zabar's Delicatessen, an open bar, and a pay phone with a cigar box filled with dimes. It was no small wonder that the SMS loft was a haven for both accomplished and aspiring artists.
No manifesto made the claim then, so one must make it now: SMS turned art into the vehicle of Utopian wishes. First, it removed all boundaries between the mediums. Everything, from poetry to performance to traditional print making, received equal treatment. This principle of equality carried over to money matters: every contributor, no matter how illustrious, received a flat $100 for his or her work. Moreover, SMS bypassed the hierarchical labyrinth of museums and established galleries. Portfolios were sent directly to subscribers on the faith that an audience put in immediate contact with art would have a direct and therefore powerful response.
This faith, the foundation of the SMS Utopia, was to some extent justified. Yet some of the potential audience must have felt bewildered by the prospect of receiving in the mail a heterogeneous bundle of artworks announced but unexplained. You undid the parcel and made whatever you could of the plenitude that tumbled out. Every work had its own thoroughly independent meaning, for SMS was at its most Utopian in the respect it paid to artists' intentions. On the other hand, the sheer lavishness of that respect for individuality generated a significance that belongs to the project as a whole. Art aside from ordinary life by the aura of galleries and museums, and art history is somehow separate from our larger history. But SMS's Utopian impulses overcame that separation. Sending art into the world through the mail, it immersed art in the currents of real time.
Because Copley ensured that money was no object to the realization of any proposal, it was possible to replicate a fragment of an artist's oeuvre with astonishing accuracy. As just one example, Rotella's "Six Prison Poems" written during the artist's Roman imprisonment on drug charges, have the look and even the feel of the paper scraps on which they were clandestinely written.
Each of the six portfolios bulges with similar examples of texts or images or combinations of the two that give us intimate proximity to aesthetic intentions. Even accidents were preserved with extraordinary fidelity. Having completed a drawing for the cover of SMS No. 6, Richard Artschwager happened to splash it with coffee. Instead of removing th stains, he preferred it to be produced stains and all, with results that show at full, ironic force the delicacy- and bluntness- of Artschwagerian wit. The visionaries of Constructivism, de Stijl, and the Bauhaus used technology as a springboard to a realm unencumbered by accident or artist's touch. They defined Utopia as individuality transcended. SMS defined it as individuality enhanced.
Each portfolio is a dossier on the subject of personal singularity and the way to establish a favorable relationship between an artist's impulse and the impersonal means of mechanical reproduction. Gathering up traces of those individual impulses, preserving them through replication, then merging them with the flow of daily life, SMS showed artists how to come to terms with forces that often drive them into the seclusion of the studio. Often crowded with students hired to carry out some particularly laborious procedure (for example, to open the 8,000 H.C. Westermann letters sent to William Copley for inclusion in portfolio No. 3, or to burn 2,000 of Lil Picard's bowties), the studio at Broadway and 80th was nothing like a sanctuary. The city - and the decade of the 1960's - coursed through it, leaving marks we can now detect and decipher in the contents of the SMS protfolios.
As a surrealist, William Copley believed in the unity of art and life. With SMS, he helped generate that unity. Nothing like it has appeared in the intervening twenty years. It is a reminder of what is possible when artists have the opportunity to work without impediments. To have an impulse was to realize it. SMS makes a brilliant case for art in real time.
1. Diane Wakoski (1937-) American poet who is primarily associated with the deep image poets, as well as the confessional and Beat poets of the 1960s. The Magellanic Clouds. A folder, the cover of which is a photographic portrait of the poet impressed with grooves so that it can be played as a mellifluous recording of the poet reciting the poem printed inside. 7 x 7". From Vol. 5.
See Wakoski work
2. Mel Ramos (1935-) American Pop artist and figurative painter. Candy. Materials and instructions are given for assembling this three-dimensional Pop Art sculpture. Approx. 11 x 13-3/4 unfolded. From Vol. 5.
See Ramos work
3. Robert Rohm (1934-) American sculptor. Cut Corners. Heavy silver paper printed with a weave pattern and scored for easy folding to form three conceptual sculptures. Approx. 11 x 7". From Vol. 5.
See Rohm 1
See Rohm 2
4. William Copley (1919-1996) Surrealist, painter, publisher of SMS. The Barber's Shop. Marvelous dossier of a Chicago barber's battle to reproduce on his appointment cards a sketch of a Picasso sculpture that had been donated to the city of Chicago by the artist. Includes correspondence with Picasso, newspaper clippings, the barber's appointment card, and a legal opinion with exhibits rendered by noted art counsel, Barnet Hodes. 6-3/4 x 10". From Vol. 5.
See Copley work
5. Edward Fitzgerald (1927-) Realist painter and sculptor. 24 Still Lifes. A sheet of 24 color stamps depicting a still-life paining of a pipe and an open box of matches from Martell's, a New York pub. 10-1/4 x 7-1/4. From Vol. 5.
See Fitzgerald work
6. Wall Batterton (1932-) Abstract painter. Splendid Person. Large card with photograph of a decked-out dandy next to a series of international newspapers clipped to appear as fabric swatches, satirizing the concept of style. 9-7/8 x 6-1/2. From Vol. 5.
See Batterton work
7. William Schwedler (1942-1982) Chicago-based contemporary painter. Against the Grain. A conceptual assemblage in which one constructs from diagrammed instructions a three-dimensional scene comprised of a floor, earth, the sky, two stairways, and a beam. 13-1/2 x 10-3/3. From Vol. 5.
See Schwedler 1
See Schwedler 2
8. Congo - Chimpanzee. Cover design. In a study of the creative potential of chimpanzees by Desmond Morris, author of "The Naked Ape", Congo was the only chimp who painted with a brush and appeared to make aesthetic decisions in his choice of paint color and the extent of its use. Front cover 11 x 10. From Vol. 5.
See Congo cover
9. Roland Penrose (1900-1984) British Surrealist painter and critic of 20th century art. Bush in Hand. Elaborate die-cut heavy paper construction, one side of which is a photograph of a bush in the form of a fish around which wraps folded finger extensions. Approx. 10-1/2 x 6-1/2. From Vol. 3.
See Penrose work
10. Ronnie Landfield (1947-) Abstract landscape painter. Two Drawings. Two colored preparatory drawings for two color field paintings drawn to scale on authentic parchment paper with hand-written philosophical notations. 10-7/8 x 7. From Vol. 3.
11. William Bryant (Billy Copley) (1946-) Contemporary American painter and draughtsman. Clouds. Eighteen page folio of "sheet music" in which renderings of cloud formations are arranged as a musical score. 12-1/4 x 9. From Vol. 3.
See Bryant work
12. Joseph Kosuth (1945-) American Conceptual artist. Four Titled Abstracts. Four hand-folded black sheets, each numbered and titled in white, "Titled (Art as Idea as Idea)". Each sheet contains an entry from four different dictionaries for the word "abstract" and all are enclosed in a large black folder. From Vol. 3
See one of the Kosuth