The Daily Heller: What Does It Take to Be a Well-Known Outsider?

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On Dec. 20, the website Bowery Boogie ran an obituary titled “Ed Higgins, ‘Wingnut’ Artist of the Rivington School, Dies at 72.” (A wingnut implies someone off the wall, a state of body and mind common to many veteran NYC Lower East Siders.) I had never heard of Higgins before, nor was the Rivington School even on my radar until my frequent Daily Heller source, the street artist, photographer and trickster Adrian Wilson, sent me a folio of photos and books (some shown below). Higgins was well-known, but still outside my outsider ken.

Higgins was my age and we both hung on the Lower East Side, although his Rivington School of 1980s outsider street and mail artists seems to have belonged to a different clan of downtown denizens—and stayed downtown for a much longer time span. My time and place was from 1963-ish to early 1970s “East Village,” in and around Alphabet City. Higgins came later and perhaps had more in common with the punk/alternative art scene of that later (but not too much later) epoch. There were just so many distinct and cross-over subcultures below 14th Street, it’s hard to keep them straight.

Higgins was associated with anti-commercial artists who created ad hoc gallery and performance spaces in tenements and on vacant lots. He was invested in the ever-growing correspondence and mail-art movement, sending artwork through the mail via postcards, decorated objects and original (often illegally minted) perforated (as opposed to rubber) stamps. I once tried my hand at mail art but it never stuck!

Higgins lived on Ludlow Street (the hood where my immigrant grandparents lived after getting off Ellis Island, and before moving to the Bronx) in the same rent-stabilized apartment since arriving from Colorado in 1976.

Photo by Julie Turley.
Video by Adrian Wilson.

Per the Bowery Boogie, “You’ve probably seen him and his artwork around the neighborhood, but never thought twice about it.” I admit I had seen some Doo Da stamps, but was never a true mail art maven (save for occasionally receiving letters from Ray Johnson).

Thanks to the current Ed Higgins Mail Art Retrospective at Van Der Plas Gallery, I’ve become more maven-ish-esque; there’s an entire multiverse (sorry) downtown that I knew nothing about until Adrian Wilson sent me the get-to-know-it package.

From Van Der Plas Gallery and Ludlow Coffee Supply.

Higgins was one of the wing-kings of a slew of “wingnuts,” including friends from the Rivington School as well as Cowboy Ray Kelly, Monty Cantsin (founder of the Fluxus-related Neoism) and “One Line” Ken Hiratsuka, whose work I may have seen carved on NYC sidewalks. Higgins exhibited at various venues on the Lower East Side, including the Ludlow Coffee Supply and Van Der Plas at 156 Orchard St., where the “Doo Da Forever” show runs through June 5 (just minutes from Katz’s deli). I would see it, if I went below Houston Street.

Photo by Adrian Wilson.
Art by E.F. Higgins courtesy Adrian Wilson and Carl Chew.