Some Thoughts on the Life and Mail Art of Carlo Pittore

by Mark Bloch

Written September 15, 2004

I always wondered why Carlo Pittore spent so much time painting when he was such a magnificent mail artist. He can have all the "fame and fortune" he wants with his humorous, profound, plentiful mail art. Charles Stanley, or whatever his real name is, is not nicknamed "Carlo Mail Art." Pittore means "painting" and THAT, in fact, is the nom de plume he loves to use because Carlo Pittore loves to paint. I seem to remember that he was named that by some kids in Italy and it became a red and green badge of honor that he has worn ever since on a red and green jacket that he wears over a red and green shirt.

In addition to being in love with Italy and its tradition of sensual beauty- sensual meaning beautiful things to see, like red and green and the works of Michelangelo and Raphael, and also to eat, to hear, to feel in those ways that Italians have always done so well, he could also be one of those people that Marcel Duchamp said was "in love with the smell of turpentine." I am pretty sure Carlo would also wear THAT intended proto-conceptual put-down as yet another badge of honor because he does love turpentine because he loves the oil paints that the turpentine meanders through and tickles and brings to life. He LOVES painting. He loves paint. He loves TO paint. It is not an exaggeration. He loves the act of painting, he loves thinking about painting, he loves talking about paintings and painters, and he loves looking at paintings. He paints portraits of his friends. He paints portraits of mail artists that visit him. He finds students who he enthusiastically teaches about painting and then he paints portraits of them. He paints pictures of poets and musicians and other painters. He painted lots of boxers at one time. He paints people with no interest in boxing, for instance once he painted me.

I posed for a large portrait depicting me as my alter ego Pan-- the Greek demigod of fields forests and flocks. Carlo posed me with my right leg up, my left arm up, my mouth open and my right hand holding a panpipe in front of my chin. It gave us a long time to talk and I remember it fondly. Carlo urged me to start a publication to trumpet news from New York to the worldwide network of mail artists. Carlo urged me to bring my gesamtkunstverk, The Last Mail Art Show to completion. Carlo urged me to interview his friend and mentor Bern Porter. He urged me to paint and he urged me to draw. He admonished me to do my best work. I wish I had taken more of his suggestions. He invited me to parties and events and shows where I met wonderful people. The best people in New York always were friends of Carlo! But that was play and this was work. If it were not for those sessions in his studio I might never have known just how much he loves painting but also just how much he loves the international mail art network. But more importantly, I suspect that one thing that they share in his eyes is the call to do ones very best. Carlo was the one that told me about the laurel wreath that the triumphant Olympic athletes of ancient times wore on their victorious heads to signify they had reached the highest pinnacles of human achievement. Thus was it impossible for me to watch the 2004 Olympic games from Athens without thinking of Carlo and his call to do my very best. Thank you, Carlo!

Speaking of how things may appear to Carlo's eyes, he called the window gallery that displayed international mail art onto East Tenth Street the "Galleria dell'Occhio" or "Gallery of the Eye." When there was not mail art in that window (visible from the street but accessible only from a trap door in his studio) he would proudly display his latest paintings there. And there was always a new one. (Just as there was always new mail art he sent out. Indeed he pushes envelopes!) I remember the many artists that showed mail art and related ephemera there. People from New York and people visiting from far away lands. But I also remember he showed the boxer paintings and I remember the portrait he showed there of graffiti artist Keith Haring who later skyrocketed to fame thanks to his drawings in the subway as well as the Fun Gallery, just down the block, which turned art-for-the-people-art into Art World art.

Despite a healthy distance he keeps between himself and the Art World, Carlo loves people too. That's another thing that mail art and painting share. He is not a painter of abstracts or still-lifes. He loves to interact with people. He loves good gossip (please don't tell anyone) and good conversation and he loves controversy and he hatches plots and plans and he discusses them and refines them and molds them with his painting subjects as he paints. He loves new and exciting things and though mail art has been around for a long time, he finds the freshness in it.

Perhaps he chooses mail art but keeps his eye on the Art World because he loves anything that will make him "rich and famous." Carlo often uses the romantic term "rich and famous." But I think it is secret code for "appreciated and loved." I remember once when a group of us mail artists posed for a group photo at Katz's Deli, he bellowed in his best, familiar, makeshift, improvised, half-serious, half-hilarious operatic tenor "Smile your best smile... for we will all be rich and famous some day!" to no tune in particular. Mail art will not make Carlo rich (nor will his singing) but it has already made him famous. He is famously wonderful, he is wonderfully, famously enthusiastic, he is wonderfully, famously, enthusiastically prolific and adept when it comes to mail art. We are all richer as a result of our exposure to him. (He is loved and appreciated.) He loves mail art and it shows. Not only did he tell me as he painted me, but he shows me with his actions. In the things he sends to me, in the things he sends to others. In the things he sends to me to send to others, just like he shows a worldwide network of people≠ in mail art and today in e-mail. So a guy who loves to paint makes mail art too. He is constantly painting yet his contribution to mail art has been brilliant. Carlo Pittore is the Everyman of mail art, in a visual story already told by his exquisite creation Pittore Euphorico. He paints with red and green paint, he draws with thick black pen and ink and he collages his face over any face he can find. The world of everyday people becomes the very creative magical world of Pittore Euphorico. I am euphoric just thinking of it. He transforms long pages of faces into laughable litanies of his face by shamelessly overprinting the Euphorico face across them. Anything, any face, is fodder for his classical Italian happy hat, distinctive glasses and that ubiquitous Euphorico moustache and beard which he often, but not always, wears on his own face. He has a great facility for lovingly defacing every face by transforming them all into his Everyface.

Carlo makes up stickers and rubberstamps with inspiring slogans on them. He has a rubberstamp that says something like "International Mail Art is the most important, far-reaching and longest lasting art movement in the world today." And without his input it would not be true. Throughout the Eighties, he made it so. And he called it "International" Mail Art for a reason. He mails globally and works locally. He connects people all over the world. Many would pass through New York and stay at his apartment-- always the place to meet the visitors. Then Carlo made Maine famous and himself too by calling Maine by its abbreviation- the glorious state of ME!!!!!!!! He called his magazine ME and filled it with the work of his own AND his colleagues from around the planet. He created a world within a world called the Ntity that was short-lived yet important and boy was it fun while it lasted-- thanks to Carlo at the vortex! He also took one of those ads for inexpensive return address stickers and used it cleverly. Instead of ordering them to say his return address, he put in an order for several little pithy 3-line sayings. His favorite is "There's only two seasons in Maine-- winter and the fourth of July." When I think of this phrase I must admit it is enhanced by my memories of him singing it with lots of musical embellishment as he tirelessly painted my portrait. Yes, Carlo lives to sing, in paint and in pen and ink, in words and even with his voice. His beautiful esophagus has been the gatekeeper for many an inspiration! He can't sing or act but he is the Commedia Del Arte personified. His mere presence as a thought in one's mind calls forth everything wonderful about Italian opera. He is the comedy as well as the tragedy; he is all of the pathos and all of the ecstasy personified in a self-effacing yet larger than life way. Smoky Robinson sang, "Just like Pagliacci did, he has to keep his feelings hid." Carlo did not keep his feelings hid. He is a Pagliacci that is proud, that is passionate about sharing his thoughts and emotions with the world. He shouts his feelings from the rooftops and they are powerful words that later find their ways into manifestos and slogans. He sings without self-consciousness like the boldest, animated characters of Verdi, of Puccini, and of Rossini. But he pierces any hint of stale anachronism with the contemporary mirth of a Fellini energized by a Nino Rota soundtrack. But playing at an art theater in the USA.

Pittore has led several legendary fights. Some of his greatest battles ran simultaneously with those portraits of boxers. He parries and punches like a warrior for the rights of the artist. He does not let artists be pushed around by the "support system" of the Art World.

Tribute to Bern Porter by Carlo Pittore

Galleries, museums, curators, critics--all have been Carlo's opponents but never enemies. Carlo Pittore often says "Artists Must Lead." I do not believe that Carlo sees the Art World as his nemesis, only a stubborn student. In his own quest to lead and upgrade the business of art to a higher plane where he believes the spirit-filled content of art rightfully resides, perhaps he was caught off guard once too often, causing his outer punch-drunk Pagliacci to internalize this sacred fight. Thus did his red-hot inner and outer battles become one. Meanwhile, because he is human and vulnerable, emotion seeps out in these contests-cum-causes in a range that stretches from humility to bravado to a quixotic rage. Those of us that stand by his side, as well as those he appears to oppose, (he would welcome them in an instant under the right circumstances) know better than he might that what he vigorously protects is the pure creativity of his own inner artist child that he carries with him in a lovingly transparent way. A secret underdog is defending itself doggedly against the course, brute force of life's inequities. Fortunately, this tension permanently manifests itself more durably in the intelligence, sensitivity and precision of his paintings AND his mail art.

Many are the times that I have passed on to other artists some of the ideas that I have learned from Carlo. When he says "Artists Must Lead" I think he envisions a world in which the uninspired would simply take their cues from the creative, instead of the other way around. (Because the uninspired have lead and it does not seem to be working.) As I (and others?) carry that message with us in the world, Carlo's idea fans out. May it continue for a long time.

I do not know where Carlo gets his ideas. I am sure many are original brainstorms--I've seen them--but if any ripple into his world from elsewhere, he will be the first one to tell us. Carlo recycles. He recycles the classics. He recycles the winners of yesterday's laurel wreaths. He recycles other people's envelopes and makes them his own. He recycles age-old techniques. Carlo taught me to use pen and ink again-- on my mail art, as he did. One can find ballpoint pen in Carlo's mail art-- but not often. He likes things new and fresh but deep down he is an old-fashioned guy. He brings the classical, old school ideas to mail art in a new way. His Pittore Euphorico faces superimposed over other faces, making them unmistakably his own, are symbolic of the way he superimposes this classical energy over the postmodern international network he loves.

It is well known that Ray Johnson, the creator of mail art before it had a name, brought hundreds of people together. But it was Carlo that brought me together with Ray-- at a party in his studio on Tenth Street. That was the same studio where Bern Porter led us in chants of "Hail Nancy Reagan" before a long, serious meeting in which we collectively and democratically deconstructed our network and charted a course for the future. Carlo was a leader in mail art and a catalyst between Mail Art and the outside world, including Maine and the East Village art scene. And he influenced the latter at a critical moment in history. The important Galleria dell'Occhio that brought mail art and Carlo Pittore to the attention of everyone who mattered in Manhattan at that time was sorely missed when he finally packed up his things and turned his operations into The Academy of Carlo Pittore in Maine, permanently. But before he did, it was in his apartment that he brought together artists and creative people from all over the neighborhood and all over the world-- over large bowls of spaghetti with lots and lots of garlic that he cooked while his guests sat at his kitchen table watching and talking. In a crowded room he once whispered to me his secret. He said, "Use much more garlic than you would ever believe that you should, under any circumstances. Then add a lot more." Such unforgettable but careful excess in the service of tasty, tangy, zesty sustenance is also Carlo's recipe for life. Whether he is in the over-stimulating world of Manhattan or the quiet serenity of Bowdoinham, Maine, Carlo can always be counted on to live his life with a transferable verve and gusto that is second to none. He inspires everyone that he meets, in person, on paper, in or on an envelope; in print as well as in oil paint. He is a man who not only picked up his red and green spirit somewhere in the mountains of bella Italia but also can and does MOVE mountains with his faith, good spirit and energy. He lives like a man who knows things keep getting better. Sure there is hardship but no one else tackles it with such panache. I've heard that the word "enthusiasm" has its root in the phrase "theos" or "with god" and indeed, the creative forces of the universe show themselves in the enthusiastic smile of of Carlo Pittore.

I will never forget my first in-person meeting with Carlo in 1982. I was a relative newcomer to the network, having come from five years in a Los Angeles mail art scene that seemed to amplify my isolation. In the only local collaborative project I ventured into, I was never asked to be more than a stamp-licker. What a contrast when I moved to New York! One night at an evening of performances to honor the visiting mail art and self-historification maestro G.A. Cavellini, I saw the enormous, welcoming smile of Carlo beaming down on me from above in the stairwell of the West Village auditorium that had, moments earlier, seemed unfamiliar and lonely. Suddenly I was sure of my role. He instantly made me feel welcomed-- a much-needed contributor to the scene. He encouraged me, he affirmed me, he brought out creative powers dormant within me. His smile, then as now, invited me to collaborate.

I suspect from the many people who love and admire him that this is Carlo's effect on everyone that he meets. It is true he can and does emit this life-affirming glow through his oil paintings but it has always been my belief that he does so even more effectively and efficiently in the medium of the mails. Surely his life and his oil painting are woven inextricably through his mail art. His contribution to mail art as a visual artist is unparalleled and important but his greatest function has always been to illustrate something more elusive but no less unparalleled and important, qualities of boldness and leadership that emanate from the immeasurable, timeless enthusiasm that lies within his heart.

Back to Carlo. home page.

Back to P A N M O D E R N.com