How Mail Art Grew into an International Movement

Mail Art Envelope from CrackerJack Kid, aka Chuck Welch (Wikimedia Commons) Mail Art Envelope from CrackerJack Kid, aka Chuck Welch (Wikimedia Commons).

What started with Vincent Van Gogh mailing painting ideas to his brother, Theo was seized upon by Marcel Duchamp and transformed into an art form. It had no jury, no rules, and no restrictions and it grew into an international movement with the help of Ray Johnson and The New York Correspondence School. This is the story of Mail Art. 

“Mail Art has no history, only a present

Ray Johnson

Art has travelled by mail for centuries; there’s nothing new there. But, in the 1950s, mail and art collided, as a series of creative, hand-delivered pieces elevated Mail Art to a true artistic movement that delivered on a small scale, pushed the envelope of what’s considered art, and spawned a host of other movements, including the Net Art of today.

On Kawara - Untitled (I got up at).

On Kawara – Untitled (I got up at). Sold for €40,800 via Christie’s (April 2006).

In the years following World War II, it was New York artist Ray Johnson who first posted small collages, prints of abstract drawings, as well as poems to his friends in the art world, paving the way for the creation of the New York Correspondence School some years later. Mail Art can actually be traced back to Marcel Duchamp. In 1916, he sent a series of postcards to his neighbors, and used postcards and rubber stamps in his paper collage project, Rendezvous of 6 February, 1916

From postcards, to packages, faxes, emails, and blogs, Mail Art was at its height in the 1960s when Japanese Fluxus artist, On Kawarasent telegrams from the USA to friends and family. The mid-1990s welcomed a revival when artist and curator Matthew Higgs established Imprint 93, in which he posted art by young British artists, including Martin Creed, to critics and curators.

On Kawara – I Got Up.

On Kawara – I Got Up. Sold for £102,000 via Christie’s (June 2007).

Also known as Correspondence Art or Postal Art, the scope of Mail Art is as wide as the sender’s imagination and can incorporate any form of that can be placed in an envelope and posted. And, it was this that marked it out from any other art form in its early days. Not elitist in the slightest, Mail Art didn’t differentiate by status, at a minimum it needed only the most rudimentary of art supplies and a stamp, making it pretty universal. It’s the people’s art form, so it didn’t comply with the standard structures of commercial art, galleries, and museums where art has been housed for centuries. Instead, it’s pure in its simplicity of aesthetic communication and interaction, with only a few advisory rules. 

Sent by mail, the receiver would have complete freedom in their response. Aside from the joy of receiving personalised, hand-delivered art, the founding principle of Mail Art was to create a global community that used the postal service as a mass medium to emphasise the exchange and collaboration of art that’s free of language barriers, ideology, or religion. This level playing field resulted in displays in alternative locations, including private apartments, shop windows, and municipal buildings. It grew in popularity to the extent that group projects spawned and gained enough attention that they were placed in exhibitions without a jury, censorship, or admission criteria. The most recognised of these groups was The New York Correspondence School.

The New York Correspondence School 

First coined to describe Ray Johnson’s activities by fellow member Ed Plunkett, the creation of The New York Correspondence School in 1962 gave credence and weight to the blossoming free exchange of postal messages. This was a loosely associated group of artists, given an identity through their shared interest. 

Ray Johnson – Untitled collage. Sold for $1,560 via Christie’s (July 2007).

Neatly tucked away in their own metaphorical envelope, away from the influence of the art world, Mail Artist did occasionally exhibit works in major museums and galleries. And by 1970, Mail Art swapped letterboxes for the Whitney for the first exhibition of postal pieces. Organized by Ray Johnson and Marcia Tucker, the artworks attracted an interested audience. It was a busy period for the promotion of postal services in general, as in November 1971 mail processing in America was transformed by the founding of the quasi-corporate United States Postal Service. This boom in interest proved short lived, however, as the Correspondence School began its decline from the mid-’70s. 

Ray Johnson and Beyond

None of this would’ve been possible without Ray Johnson, the alternative Postmaster General of Art. His innovations and experimentations that began in 1943 in Detroit with the embellishment of envelopes led him to become the defining figure for the Mail Art movement. It was his pioneering drive of a previously unheralded art form that caught the attention of the Nouveau Réalisme artistic group, which used letters and rubber stamps in their conceptualism. 

Spearheaded by Johnson, Mail Art increased its reach through The New York Correspondence School, while further recognition came when the group, Fluxus, recognized a shared ethos with Mail Art’s fusion of performance and collage-making. The international, interdisciplinary community of artists that made up Fluxus engaged in experimental art performances that emphasized the artistic process over the finished product. Its spectrum of styles was a broad tree of movements that included Happenings, Nouveau Réalisme, Action Art, and Neo-Dada. Robert Filliou was one Fluxus artist who incorporated envelopes and paper into his art, which was recognized by founder George Maciunas. This shared approach was replicated by others, like Robert Watts and Ben Vautier, who used stamps and postcards in their work to help further the recognition of Mail Art as a concept. 

Johnson’s influence led to the creation of festivals and conventions showcasing Mail Art, while an exhibition of correspondence art was held in New York in 1984. Artists like Jeremy DellerMartin CreedPeter DoigChris Ofili, and Fiona Banner all contributed to the movement that became a common sight in Europe, the Americas, and Australia. And, it continued into the 1990s with Ruud Janssen mail-interviews, which were perhaps the movement’s last great contribution. 

A Broad Canvas

Throughout history, mail has been a vital vehicle for artists. As a medium, it’s equally popular as the materials are readily available at a fraction of the cost of paint, with techniques like painting, drawing, and collage allowing artists to express themselves and let their imagination reign.

Envelopes can even be their own artwork. From hand-written addresses, to painted or drawn elements, stitching, embossing, and any other imaginable design, Mail Artists have elevated the envelope into art. The decorated envelope is even celebrated at the Graceful Envelope Contest, which celebrates the role that letters have in bringing people together, after being established in 1995 by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum.

Sheet of artistamps by Piermario Ciani, c. 1995 (Wikimedia Commons)

Sheet of artistamps by Piermario Ciani, c. 1995 (Wikimedia Commons).

The stamp has also given artists the perfect opportunity to flex their imagination and creativity. Known as Artistamps, Postoids, and Faux Postage, they were inspired by those used by Fluxus artists. Jerry Dreva’s conceptual group, Les Petits Bonbons was perhaps one of the most famous examples and he even created a set of stamps for David Bowie, who used them as the inspiration for the cover of his Ashes to Ashes single in 1980. Similarly, rubberstamps were transformed for officially franking mail into trademark designs that often functioned as an artist’s signature.

It’s postcards though that are perhaps the most popular form of Mail Art. They’re even cheaper than standard envelopes, making them even more accessible. The Royal College of Art regularly invites its alumni to contribute a postcard. Postcards are made anonymous prior to a not-for-profit sale, so that you could just as easily get your hands on a one-of-a-kind postcard designed by a high grossing institution headliner as a new graduate. And for those (who haven’t graduated from the RCA) looking to join in this accessible approach to art, the Post Secret project invites participants to anonymously send postcards with a secret written on them, before they’re published online and in one of their books.

Only a Present

Requiring no specific training, specific approach, or the finances to afford supplies, Mail Art really is the people’s art form on a letter box size canvas. Anyone can be a Mail Artist, as the cheap and flexible movement is accessible to everyone, particularly those within communities encountering censorship and the inability to express their opinions and ideas. 

Considered the predecessor of Net Art, Mail Art surprisingly continued to evolve into the domineering digital era, as the concept set out by those early pioneers that celebrates inclusivity, community-building, and a mischievous playfulness with convention still resonate today.

Instead of being left behind in an analog world, Mail Art has kept pace with evolving communication technologies, with the Brooklyn space Ground Floor Gallery’s Mail Art biennial showing that demand is still very much there. Today, Mail Art tends to be a hybrid of the analog alongside the digital, but while the technology has changed since the days of The New York Correspondence School, the founding idea of creating a community through deliverable art remains just as strong. And, while the future of the movement is unclear, it has a strong presence in the present. After all, “Mail Art has no history, only a present”. 

Sources: Tate | MoMA | Widewalls | Wikipedia | ArtNews | Stuart Matthews Photography | Artsy | The Calligrapher’s Guild