Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution Acquires the Papers of Conceptual Artist Jerry Dreva

By the Archives
November 1, 2021


Photograph of Jerry Dreva and Gronk standing on top of leaves

Photograph of Jerry Dreva and Gronk, n.d.  

The Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, has acquired the archival materials of Jerry Dreva, the noted contemporary artist and founding member of conceptual rock band Les Petites Bon-bons. Born in 1945, Dreva was an artist, writer, performer, activist, and teacher from South Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A leader in the mail art movement of the 1970s and 80s, he was a longtime participant in the medium, as made clear by dates on dozens of mail art works in the Archives’ collection. In his work, Dreva concentrated on self-documentation and performance art, often utilizing his wry sense of humor and cunning wit. Acquired more than 20 years after his passing, the Dreva papers will become a key collection in the Archives’ holdings of queer and performance artists. 

Measuring one linear foot, the collection features everyday gems from Dreva’s life including a letter from Patti Smith’s mother, letters of support for the landmark exhibition DREVA/GRONK 1968-78: Ten Years of Art/Life (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, 1978), and unique zines and rare small artist books exchanged with collaborators and friends over the years. Highly staged photographs, candid snapshots, correspondence, and striking ephemera document Dreva’s formative relationship with performance artist, Gronk. In addition to documenting the two significant artists’ longtime relationship and shared practice, these items trace the evolution of overlapping glam Hollywood, activist Chicana/o, and queer scenes in 1970s and 80s Los Angeles.

The papers of Jerry Dreva are a significant addition to the Archives’ resources for the study of the mail art movement. Our current traveling exhibition, Pushing the Envelope, that explores the international mail art network through our collections, is now on view at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College and can be experienced virtually here. A highlight of that exhibition was a colorful fruit sticker-adorned mailer sent from Dreva’s rock band Les Petites Bon-bons to the critic and curator Lucy Lippard.

Dreva died unexpectedly in 1997 without a will or instructions on the placement of his work. When relatives were informed by an appraiser that he found the papers to be of insignificant value, the material was left with the attorney for Dreva's estate, Patrick S. Vida, for disposal. Vida believed the papers had intrinsic worth and, feeling a duty to Dreva and queer history preserved them for over two decades. In May of 2020, Vida came across critic Johanna Fateman’s review of Pushing the Envelope in The New Yorker magazine. Following this, he quickly contacted curator Miriam Kienle, who notified the Archives of American Art, to donate the papers. The Jerry Dreva papers further enrich the Archives’ holdings related to mail art, Southern California, and expand resources related to LGBTQIA+ artists and activists.

“This is a very unique collecting story for the Archives,” said Liza Kirwin, interim director, Archives of American Art. “We are grateful to Patrick S. Vida for recognizing the value of the Jerry Dreva papers, preserving them, and donating them to the Archives. We look forward to making these significant resources available to researchers as soon as possible.”

Jerry Dreva’s notebook, n.d. 

The Dreva papers retrospectively complement recent projects such as the highly lauded 2017 exhibition Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A. curated by Ondine Chavoya and David Evans Frantz at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. “The impact of this exhibition continues to be felt and referenced. It will be a touchstone for a long time to come. We are pleased that providing access to the Jerry Dreva papers will expand his legacy and the history of queer networks in L.A. presented to us by such scholars as Chavoya and Frantz,” stated Josh T Franco, national collector, Archives of American Art.

Jerry Dreva (1945–1997) was a performance artist, writer, activist, and teacher based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Los Angeles, California. Throughout his life, Dreva was actively involved in both local and national anti-war and civil rights movements. In one of his most famous performances from the 1970s, Dreva would spray-paint graffiti on buildings throughout Milwaukee, and the next day he would report on this alleged “Art Gangster” at his day job as a journalist for the South Milwaukee Voice-Journal, never revealing their true identity. A leader in the mail art movement, Dreva was involved in numerous exhibitions including Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art at the New Museum in New York in 1982 and was a founding member of the art collective Les Petit Bon-bons. He passed away suddenly at his home in Milwaukee in 1997 at the age of 52.

Les Petites Bon-bons was a queer artist collective from Milwaukee that grew out of the international mail art movement and the gay activist scene of the early 1970s. As members relocated to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, the city’s glam-rock culture also came to inform their practice. Self-described as a “group of gay life artists who live and play in and around Milwaukee, Hollywood, and the World,” they invited the world to “imagine a gay universe” with enticing performances and mailers. Although they posed as a rock group to the media, Les Petit Bon-bons never recorded music or played a single concert. Early members included Dreva, Chuckie Betz, J. P., Gary Pietrzak, Mark Slizewski, Dick Varga, and Jim Sullivan, who together explored the relationship between publicity and performance, image and actualization, art and life.