Source Book for the Network of International Postal Art Activity
Reconsidering Mail Art, 1960-1980 (a paper delivered at CAA, 2010)
So why is this guy talking?
In 1974 I encountered the mail art network at an exhibition in NYC, organized by Ida Biard, a Yugoslav art historian, who had been organizing what she called the Galerie des Locataires, or Gallery of the Tenants, in Europe and the US. These shows happened in real, lived-in spaces, in artists’ studios or apartments and generally featured all manner of ephemera that could be easily, quickly and cheaply assembled. In the show was hanging a Xerox with rubber stamps, one of which suggested “Steal This Work,” and so I did. When I returned to Chicago I decided to make restitution and got out my rubber stamps and put together an officious, authentic-looking check for a million dollars and mailed it to the creator of the work, Klaus Groh in West Germany. Things got immediately interesting when he tried to cash the check. One thing led to another, but mostly I lucked into making contact with Klaus—who at the time was playing a central role in mail art by regularly sending out his International Artists’ Cooperation (I.A.C.) newsletter of names and addresses of folks from all over the world. These people were ready and willing to send you stuff, they exemplified the basic tenet of all mail art: send and you shall receive!
In 1976, I published the first magazine of Running Dog Press, called “Running Dog One and Done.” Half the artists were from Chicago, and half from around the world from the mail art network. The intent was to provide access to this alternative activity for those other artists struggling to make it here in the Second City, and I thought that mail art might provide a useful support system for discussion, experimentation and even collaboration—and sometimes it did.
A year later, I planned a second magazine tentatively titled, “A Brief History of Correspondence Art.” I had begun to wonder about where this activity had come from. Alas, the magazine never materialized. Instead, I took the advice of a few participants to take the time and put together a more in-depth look at the phenomenon. Seven years later what finally appeared was Correspondence Art: Source Book for the Network of International Postal Art Activity, Contemporary Arts Press, San Francisco, 1984. This book became seminal in telling the story of mail art, and is an anthology I co-edited with California art writer Mary Stofflet. It contains a history and analysis, and at the time assembled in one place all the major writings by the authors who had described and defined the activity.
So what is it?
Mail Art, or the term I prefer: Correspondence Art, is about communication, a shared discourse about our experiences. It is also a network, a complex of interweaving relations, which occurs among thousands of artists and individuals on an international scale.
During the decades 1960-1980, 10,000 or more may have participated, and among them were hundreds who were regular participants. Mail Art involved persons on all continents (except Antarctica) and stretched from Japan and Australia across the Americas all the way to Eastern Europe. This mailing activity expanded horizons beyond local or regional limits, and provided access to information unavailable elsewhere.
Correspondence Art could be about aesthetic issues, or, as it was most often, about sending aesthetic messages. Some saw it as a way to incorporate life into art, or vice versa, or didn’t care. Others saw the activity as a means to provide an international community with a sense of connectedness and to provide a form of psychological support—especially for those not living in a major urban art setting.
During the sixties and seventies this activity flourished and grew. These years were typified by an active and lively search for alternative forms of communication. During this period artists brought all manner of different media into the mix of changing definitions of art, and of art contexts—video, TV, radio, print, vinyl records, the postal system, and the art gallery as a form-in-itself were examined and probed and manipulated for communication, aesthetic and practical ends.
To assist gaining a perspective on what mail art was, it might be useful to consider what it was not. It was not new—this was an activity built upon images and texts for the most part—connected to the inventions of writing, the printing press, the postal system and to a broad history of transformations in art. It was not avant-garde. In an art world operating without overriding paradigms the notion of a rear guard that someone was defending had disappeared. It was also not an underground activity—because beginning in the 1970’s it began to go public and appeared in galleries, museums and art centers at exponential rates. Books, magazines and catalogues of this work achieved relatively wide distribution within the art world. Correspondence Art was not a movement or an “-ism.” The activity was pluralistic and diverse and defied easy classification. It cut across many historical traditions without subscribing to any one in particular. Finally, it was also not about the postal system, although it used those means for it ends. The postal system allowed the activity to occur and was the basis from which it operated, but the post office was not the object and was only rarely the subject of this art making.
In the correspondence art book, I approached a definition of the activity by overlaying a variation on a basic theory of communication that asks: who says what to whom, by what channel, for what purpose, to what effect?
The “who” and “whom” in the model were easy. They were the senders and receivers, whether intentional participants or not. Theoretically they were interchangeable, and the majority of works that constituted the field were sent and received between individuals. Later, emergent activities like mail art shows and publications revealed the activity to a wider public, and helped it spread at the same time.
The “what” of the paradigm refers to the content, or meaning in the message(s). This gets very unwieldy—imagine a cross-section all of the different content you might find in the pages of an art magazine…this would be analogous to the variety of contents sailing through the postal system at any given time. The proof in this pudding depended on the degree to which participants or viewers were informed, enriched, or nurtured despite the sheer volume and diversity of inputs. You quickly learned to sort through a lot to find meaning—sort of like surfing the web.
“Channel” referred to the “how” of mail art activities. Since all the works eventually entered the international postal system, there were inbuilt constraints. Letters, envelopes, postcards and objects weighing less than 70 pounds predominated. Also abundant was a use of postage-like stamps and rubber stamps that approximated their bureaucratic counterparts, often with tongue-in-cheek, or other delightful results. Some mail art was no different from ordinary mail—impersonal, and spam-like. But the works that embraced the spirit and intention of two-way communications, and, participating in a network helped identify mail art as a distinct entity.
“Purposes” and “effects” were sometimes difficult to discern. This might have been the fault of the sender—ambiguous or obscure message(s); of the receiver—misperception, misunderstanding, lack of other language skills; or of the postal service—destruction, loss, or censorship. The intended purposes were also a very mixed bag, as disparate and numerous as the senders themselves.
Where did it come from?
The short answer is: Ray Johnson, Fluxus and the French New Realistes, in descending order.
Ray Johnson was the most widely known mail artist. There have been more exhibitions, articles, interviews and reviews devoted to him and his mailing activities than any other artist on the network. Not only was Johnson the most persistent and prolific mail artist, his involvement can be traced back to the late 1940’s. He was personally responsible for spreading the activity—starting from a small personal list and eventually gaining enough critical mass to evolve into the activity we are examining here.
In most corners, Ray Johnson is considered to have been the father of the field. Johnson has been affectionately referred to as the Master, the Mr. Citizen, and the personage of mail art. To others he was seen as a grand eccentric. His role and reputation were maintained in part by the elusiveness, mystery and curiosity that surrounded the Johnson persona. He has been described as intimate, funny and hip—good at words, associations, and game playing.
Ray Johnson sought to bring extremes together. This notion was consistent in his work whether the approach he took was witty or seductive, or confounding and irritating. Johnson’s content was typically imbued with references to disparate people and relationships, or between people and objects. His work appeared as drawings, collages, Xeroxes and postcard messages, which combined image and text to delightful effect. “How to draw a rabbit,“ is just one example.
In a 1976 show catalogue from the North Carolina Museum of Art, curator Moussa Domit explains: “The meaning of Ray Johnson’s art is to call attention to reference as such, as the meaning of his correspondence is to call attention to correspondences as such, as part of the fabric of experience.”1 This element of “reference” in Johnson’s work was often concrete or idiosyncratic, but as Henry Martin has stated, “he (Johnson) assumes a relationship wherever he sees a possible mediation…Everything is part of some other something…Ray discovers the possibilities they contain, in which things can happen, in which things can get sorted out, (and) in which meetings can take place.”2
Johnson’s New York Correspondence School was an important contribution to mail art. Rather than a formal organization, the NYCS was a label and ID for Johnson’s mailings in the early 60’s. As he described it “The only way to understand something of my school is to participate in it for some time. It is secret, private and without any rule.”3
In 1972, critic Thomas Albright identified the NYCS as “the oldest and most influential of correspondence networks.”4 Albright continued, “the school consists solely of its head…Ray Johnson, and a corporate charter; and it teaches nothing. On a process level it encompasses hundred of persons.”
The NYCS lived until 1973. In a letter to John Willenbecher dated April 5, Johnson announced, “The New York Correspondence School died.” Johnson had killed it with a “dead letter” to the obituary column of the NY Times. But it didn’t really end. As Johnson pointed out, it had an “instant rebirth and metamorphosis as ‘Buddha University.’”
Ray’s book The Paper Snake (Something Else Press, 1965) includes typical Johnson correspondences, all messages to the publisher Dick Higgins. The book was a landmark for mail art, as it was the first to be comprised solely of correspondences-as-art. In an indirect way, this book foreshadowed a flood of publications that appeared along the network starting in the 70’s.
Ray Johnson is also responsible for launching the era of the mail art show. In 1970 Johnson and Marcia Tucker organized the New York Correspondence School exhibition at the Whitney Museum. This was the first show of correspondence art in a major museum, and it lent credibility to the activity and the network. This beginning was, within ten years, followed by mail art exhibitions in every other kind of art space literally around the world.
Johnson was born in Detroit in 1927, and his body was found floating in Sag Harbor, NY on January 13, 1995. He had presumably jumped off a bridge. But in typical Johnson fashion, we don’t know the exact circumstances, and his passing remains shrouded in mystery.
Many significant contributions to correspondence art prior to the 1970’s have come, directly or indirectly, from artists associated with Fluxus. Fluxus contributions were made across the board in all channels and media, from individual mailings to shows and publications. Fluxus impacted both the general development of the field and the personal work of many peers and younger artists.
Fluxus was a loosely organized collective, and it accentuated a fusion, or an interface, between art and life. It sought wider accessibility and social responsibility for art. The artists aimed to stimulate new forms for art, even seeing their Fluxus works as a “meta-form.”
At first Fluxus was centered on George Maciunas (1931-1978), as leader, organizer and theorist. The invention of the name Fluxus in 1961 is attributed to Maciunas, and was originally intended for a magazine of sorts that would focus on the arts in a state of change. Though the magazine never appeared the name Fluxus (from the Latin, fluere, to flow) caught on.
The association of Fluxus with mail art was not coincidence, but a result of Fluxus travels, performances, encounters, and a need for communications within the group. Most of the Fluxus group carried on mail art activity among themselves, friends and collaborators. The Fluxus contribution to the development of correspondence art was two fold: pushing evolutionary systems and processes further, and making input via direct participation.
“Ken Friedman, one of the most energetic of the Fluxus artists, and a member of the New York Correspondance (sic) School as well, has perhaps done more than anyone to foster mail art, and, in fact, to bring artists together generally in the awareness that the artists’ position is one of great social responsibility.”5
Friedman’s most important contribution to mail art was to help take it out of the private realm, which in the 60’s included roughly 300 active participants with Fluxus and the NYCS, and to make it public. In 1972 he published the International Contact List for the Arts, containing some 1,400 names and addresses. Revised and updated many times, this list has included as many as 5,000 contacts and was used along the network to expand its audience. In the early to mid-1970’s most correspondence exhibitions drew from this list and complementary lists such as those of Image Bank in Canada or the I.A.C. in Germany.
These big mailing lists were important for establishing and maintaining the network, remember that this was taking place years in advance of the Internet, and the digital networking options we enjoy today.
Dick Higgins, an original Fluxus and Happenings participant, was mail art’s self-proclaimed maker of “literary cognates.” His theories and practical applications—especially regarding intermedia—were significant contributions not only to mail art, but to all art. In addition to his graphic works he was a poet, playwright, filmmaker, musician, composer, scholar and publisher. Higgins was a role model for making constantly innovative and intelligent work.
Dick Higgins saw mail art as a fusion between poetry and the mail. In 1959 he wrote a play/happening titled “thank you” that incorporated the real time of the postal system into the action. In 1964 Higgins founded Something Else Press, which until its demise in 1974, produced some of the most beautiful and fanciful books by artists to ever appear. SEP was a true role model, and set a high standard for independent publishing.
Ben Vautier has been been associated with Fluxus, the Nouveau Realisme and correspondence art since the early 60’s. His highly personal works were both funny and conceptually acute. He mostly produced hand-written texts that functioned as poems, labels, signs, or direct social-political statements.
As a mail art participant he sent out small books, posters, brochures, and postcards. Ben also helped foster the use of rubber stamps, with some of his dating back to 1949. One of his postcards, Postman’s Choice (1965) is among the most well-known and frequently copied works on the network.
Fluxus poet Robert Filliou coined the term Eternal Network in 1963 to refer to the notion of the inseparableness of art and life. The term also refers to the lasting interconnection of spiritual events, whether animal, vegetable, mineral or thought-energy. As a name, Eternal Network has been substituted for, or used as a reference to, mail art. While this use may be somewhat out of context, it is an appropriate reference for the positive, spiritual qualities and communication potential of correspondences-as-art that Robert embraced and promoted.
Other Fluxus artists who used the mails for artful ends included (among others) Daniel Spoerri, Robert Watts, Nam June Paik, Joseph Beuys, George Brecht, Milan Knizak, Alison Knowles, Yoko Ono, Tomas Schmidt and Wolf Vostell.
In a 1972 article titled “The End of Art, the Beginning of Art,” British writer David Mayor assesses Fluxus as being directly involved in most of the trends that emerged during the 60’s and 70’s. According to Mayor, the success of Fluxus was in releasing art from itself, allowing a relaxation of the excessive baggage that surrounded the art world.6
Although official Fluxus activity subsided by the end of the 1960’s, it continued to give impetus and identification to many younger artists. There was a resurgence of interest in Fluxus in the 70’s, and then again in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, as artists once again turned to Fluxus because of the ideas, spirit, and transformations they brought to the arts.
The Nouveau Realisme and other influences
On Thursday, October 27, 1960 the Nouveau Realisme group was formed in France. Critic Pierre Restany coined the term, and the collection of artists who signed the original manifesto include Arman, Yves Klein, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely; and later, others such as Christo, Piero Manzoni and Niki de St. Phalle joined. Their position was simple and straight forward: “Nouveau Realisme = nouvelles approches perceptives du reel.”7 Their subject matter became the world of mass production, consumption and throwaway culture. It paralleled the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and preceded the appearance of the related Pop Art movement in the US.
The Nouveau Realistes made a two-fold contribution to mail art: they elaborated on the dissolution of the boundaries between art and life, and, they integrated the rubber stamp into contemporary art.
Another major influence on the history of mail art was Conceptual Art, including process, systems, earth, and body-art. The basic premise is that “Concept Art is first of all an art of which the material is concepts, as the material of (such as) music is sound.” 8
There were mainstream, or classic, Conceptual artists who used the mails for making art. Often they explored technical or structural characteristics of the postal system, rather than engaging in direct personal communication. Some of these artists included Eleanor Antin, Carl Andre, Daniel Buren, Robert Cumming, Jan Dibbets, Gilbert & George, On Kawara, Les Levine and others.
Pop Art addressed the problems of reevaluating man’s relationship to a rapidly changing world and reawakening dulled senses. The highly conspicuous Pop images eulogized, satirized, imitated and exaggerated the superficial aspects of 20th century life. Much of mail art sought the same outcomes. Among the Pop artists who participated in the network were Richard Hamilton, Robert Indiana and K.P. Brehmer.
The Arte Povera movement also influenced many mail artists. In it anything could be used to make art, if used literally and not symbolically. This resulted in a glut of guitar necks, shoes, socks, underwear, old keys and bottles, and all manner of flotsam and jetsam, coming through the mail.
And even historical precedents like Russian Constructivism (for their experimental use of text, rubber stamps and publishing) and Dada (for its revolutionary aesthetics, as well as letters, postcards and printed ephemera) played roles in influencing the art made along the network.
The breadth and diversity of influences on mail art is noteworthy. The field enjoyed a vitality and richness due to the inputs it absorbed from virtually all of the experimental tendencies of the 60’s, 70’s and beyond. This lineup also underscores the contemporaneous nature inherent in a communication-oriented activity. It must be current. It must be open to all. It must remain involved with the moment, whether it is for fashion, or more serious intentions. And it is subject to radical alterations or change as time, technology, and the energy of artists demand.
And through a lot of changes we arrive at today. Network is now a buzzword endemic to contemporary thought, and not limited to a relatively small group of artists talking to each other through the mail. Reaching out and making contact is easier (and more dangerous) than ever before. But what about the aesthetic experience embedded in mailed art objects?
Can this be retained in an email? What about the tactile properties inherent in objects yet missing in the ether, and does it matter? Is holding a hand-made thing the same as reading a text on your telephone? Do we relate to or respond to these different kinds of experiences in the same way, and if not, is it a positive evolution? Is mail art now just an exercise in nostalgia? What kinds of transformations are occurring in mail art today? Does it still hold sway, and how has it changed? For some of these answers I now turn to my colleagues and those of you in the audience to share your thoughts on this once meaty subject.
Anna Banana, Mary Stofflet, Michael Crane, Carl Loeffler
Moussa Domit, ed., Correspondence: an Exhibition of the Letters of Ray Johnson, Raleigh, N.C., North Carolina Museum of Art, 1976.
“Send Letters, Postcards, Drawings and Objects (about Ray Johnson),” Art Journal, XXXVI/3, Spring, 1977, pp. 238-239. Untitled segment by Henry Martin.
Jean-Marc Poinsot, Mail Art: Communication, A Distance Concept, Paris: Editions CEDIC, 1971, Ray Johnson entry.
Thomas Albright, “New Art School: Correspondence,” Rolling Stone, no. 106, April 13, 1972, p. 32.
David Mayor, “The End of Art, the Beginning of Art,” Schmuck, England: Beau Geste Press, April 1972, p. 8.
From the New Realist manifesto, October 27, 1960.
Henry Flynt, “Essay: Concept Art,” An Anthology, La Monte Young and Jackson Mac Low, eds., 1963. Flynt’s article was originally written in 1961.