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A profile of Ed Higgins, artist with unique marketing styles

Ed Higgins III in his bedroom/studio, where he has lived since 1976. (Photos by Bob Krasner)

BY BOB KRASNER

Ed Higgins III has always had an unconventional approach to marketing his artwork. His first show was in a bathroom – the first gallery space of renowned art dealer Gracie Mansion – and his latest is in a hallway, courtesy of the Apt. Gallery. Much of his work is Mail Art, so many of his more unique pieces are scattered around the world. 

Since arriving in New York in 1976, where he found a small apartment on Ludlow Street for $100 a month, Higgins has been steadily creating work in that same apartment.

“I’ve probably done more than 2000 paintings right there,” he says, pointing to the only clear spot in the somewhat cramped bedroom/studio.

1/4 of Ed Higgins bedroom/studio. Higgins estimates that he created about 2000 paintings in that chair.
Everything and the kitchen sink, in Ed Higgins’ apartment.

The paintings are not the final product, though. The portraits end up reproduced as a sheet of stamps, printed as a color xerox and perforated like actual stamps. These sheets are generally printed in a signed and numbered edition of 100, but they don’t always stay intact. Some are sold, some traded to friends and many end up decorating correspondence and other art. 

Following the lead of Mail Art pioneer Ray Johnson, Higgins began corresponding with artists like Buster Cleveland, Anna Banana, G. A. Cavellini and Johnson himself to create a body of work that collaborated with the Postal Service to create the final piece, as it isn’t really complete until there is a postmark on the work.

There was a time when the USPS did not have stringent rules about what could be delivered to one’s mailbox and Higgins happily recalls  that “the wackiest thing I ever got was a coconut from Hawaii – no box – with the stamps and address on the coconut!” 

Higgins declared his end of the bargain to be the “Doo Da Post” and created his own zip code – 10000 – as part of his mailing address. As it turns out, this was all just a step in a direction that started as a teen, when he carved a set of erasers into rubber stamp feet and stamped a set of marching footprints onto envelopes that were sent off to his girlfriend. 

One of the vitrines in the “Kool Club” show at the Apt. Gallery. Note that the postcard was addressed to his personal zip code, 10000 .

Since the Mail Art movement was more about communication than commerce, Higgins stayed solvent by working for moving companies, construction companies and art galleries, notably hanging exhibits at the Leo Castelli gallery. But, as he put it, “you don’t have to make a lot of money when your rent is a hundred dollars a month.”

Higgins learned to weld in high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan – which he attended with Iggy Pop – and brought that skill to the Rivington School, where he helped build their (long gone) sculpture garden. He also spent some time involved with Performance Art, appearing at Club 57 and the Pyramid Club, among others.

Those shows are fondly remembered by longtime East Village resident and performer Phoebe Legere, who recalls that “he was a huge presence – we all looked up to him as a hero.” She further muses on the art in the current show, stating that, “his work is so beautiful and strong. It should be in MOMA.”

After a string of one-man shows and participation in many group exhibitions, he decided that the best way to send his many portraits out into the world would be with auctions, which he set up himself. 

After the first two, which were run by a professional auctioneer, Higgins thought, “hey, I can do that myself!”  And he did, for six more.

Not all of the art left, though. Luckily for gallerist Brendan Brulon, there was “a time capsule” waiting for him when he contacted the artist about showing his work. His Apt. Gallery, which exists in the hallway of Brulon’s apartment, just opened a one man show of Higgins’ work – “Kool Club” – which includes work that the artist himself says he “hadn’t seen in forty years.”

Ed Higgins III, left. Apt. Gallery owner Brendan Brulon, right. Large painting is a Higgins self portrait.

“I buy and sell ephemera,” explains Brulon. “I had bought a collection of mail art and I found some of Ed’s pieces in there. I was intrigued, so I found his number, called him and he invited me over.” 

We imagine that going through the archives stuffed into Higgins’ tiny apartment must have been something akin to a treasure hunt, which Brulon confirms, saying, “digging through his work was really exciting – I was unearthing work that nobody has seen in decades.” 

A few of the “Firecracker” paintings from the mid 90’s, which feature Higgins’ “wingnut” logo.

Typically, Brulon says, his gallery shows younger artists. But the nature of 71 year-old Higgins’ art,” a very anti-capitalism and almost an anti-art type of work,” was what struck him and made him decide to mount the show.

In addition to the paintings, there are three vitrines holding examples of the stamp sheet multiples, patches, mail pieces that other artists sent to Higgins and various other odds and ends. “My favorite part of the show!” declared the artist. 

Included in the show is a set of portraits, both executed in Higgins’ apartment. One is Higgins’ portrait of Ray Johnson, the other is Johnson’s portrait of Higgins, which they subsequently traded. The portrait of Johnson is on loan from his estate, the other is for sale. 

At left, Higgins’ portrait of Ray Johnson, on loan from the Johnson estate. At right, the portrait of Higgins by Ray Johnson.

Artist Mark Bloch, who has been corresponding with Higgins for a very long time, pondered the overall effect of the show at the opening. “I’ve seen a lot of this before in different places,” he said. ” But it’s so rewarding to see it all in one place. This is who Ed Higgins is to me.”

Artist Mark Bloch gets a closer look.

More info on the artist: www.doodapost.com

To make an appointment to see the show at the Apt. Gallery, send an email to info@driftprojects.com

The Villager