History of mailart
Artist Edward M. Plunkett has argued that communication-
tradition; he posits (tongue in cheek) that mail art began when Cleopatra had herself
delivered to Julius Caesar in a rolled-
the term "mail art" was not coined until the 1960s. "The Futurists already had taken
an interest in mail art, but the official birth of the phenomenon dates to the early 1960s
when Ray Johnson's New York Correspondance School, institutionalized the free
exchange of postal messages between artist and artist or between artist and audience."
Ray Johnson, the New York Correspondance School, and Fluxus Ray Johnson's
experiments with posting instructions and soliciting activity from his recipients began in
the late 1950s, and provided mail art with a blueprint for the free exchange of art via post.
In 1962, Plunkett coined the term "New York Correspondence School" to refer to
Johnson's activities; Johnson adopted this moniker but intentionally misspelled it
as "correspondance." The deliberate misspelling was characteristic of the playful spirit
of the Correspondance School and its actions.
Most of the Correspondance School members are fairly obscure, and the letters
they sent, often featuring simple drawings or stickers, often instructed the recipient
to perform some fairly simple action. Johnson's work consists primarily of letters,
often with the addition of doodles and rubber stamped messages, which he mailed to
friends and acquaintances.
The Correspondance School was simply a network of individuals who were artists by
virtue of their willingness to play along and appreciate Johnson's sense of humor.
One example of the activities of the Correspondance School consisted in calling
meetings of fan clubs, such as one devoted to the actress Anna May Wong.
Many of Johnson's missives to his network featured a hand drawn version of his
personal logo, a bunny head.
In a 1968 interview, Johnson explained that he found mailed correspondence
interesting because of the limits it puts on the usual back and forth interaction and
negotiation that comprises communication between individuals.
Correspondence is "a way to convey a message or a kind of idea to someone
which is not verbal; it is not a confrontation of two people. It's an object which is
opened in privacy, probably, and the message is looked at ...
You look at the object and, depending on your degree of interest, it very directly
gets across to you what is there ..." In 1970, Johnson and Marcia Tucker organized
The New York Correspondence School Exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York,
which was the first significant public exhibition of the mail art genre.
On April 5, 1973, Johnson declared the "death" of the New York Correspondance School
in an unpublished letter to the Obituary Department of The New York Times and in
copies that he circulated to his network. However, he continued to practice mail art
even after this.
Although much of Johnson's work was initially given away, this hasn't prevented it from
attaining a market value. Andy Warhol is quoted as saying he would pay ten dollars
for anything by Johnson."
In his 1973 diagram showing the development and scope of Fluxus, George Maciunas
included mail art among the activities pursued by the Fluxus artist Robert Filliou.
Filliou coined the term the "Eternal Network" that has become synonymous with mail art.
Other Fluxus artists have been involved since the early 1960s in the creation of artist's
postage stamps (Robert Watts, Stamp Dispenser, 1963), postcards (Ben Vautier,
The Postman's Choice, 1965: a postcard with a different address on each side) and
other works connected to the postal medium. "Indeed, the mail art network counts
many Fluxus members among its earliest participants. While Johnson did not consider
himself directly as a member of the Fluxus school, his interests and attitudes were
consistent with those of a number of Fluxus artists.
In the 1970s, the practice of mail art grew exponentially, providing a cheap and flexible
channel of expression for cultural outsiders and demonstrating a particular vitality where
state censorship prevented a free circulation of alternative ideas, as in certain countries
behind the Iron Curtain or in South America.
The growth of a sizable mail art community, with friendships born out of personal correspondence
and, increasingly, mutual visits, led in the 1980s to the organization of several festivals,
meetings and conventions where networkers could meet, socialize, perform, exhibit and
plan further collaborations.
Among these events were the Inter Dada Festivals organized in California in the early 1980s
and the Decentralized Mail Art Congress of 1986. In 1984, the evolving norms of the
mail art community were tested when curator Ronny Cohen organized an exhibition
for the Franklin Furnace, New York, called "Mail Art Then and Now."
The exhibition was to have an historical aspect as well as showing new mail art, and
to mediate the two aspects Cohen edited the material sent to Franklin Furnace,
breaking an unwritten but commonly accepted custom that all works submitted must
be shown. The intent to edit, interpreted as censorship, resulted in a two-
discussion sponsored by Artists Talk on Art (organized by mail artist Carlo Pittore and
moderated by art critic Robert C. Morgan) in February of that year, where Cohen and
the mail artists were to debate the issues.
On the second night, the mail artists read a prepared manifesto penned by Pittore,
and Cohen was jeered from the stage; during the ensuing meleeall of the panelists
also walked out. The excluded works were ultimately were added to the exhibition by
the staff of the Franklin Furnace, but the events surrounding it and the panels revealed
ideological rifts within the mail art community. Simultaneously fanning the flames and
documenting the extent to which it was already dominated by a small, mostly male,
coterie of artists, the discussions were transcribed and published by panelist JP Jacob
in his short-
(who was not a panelist) commentedon the reverse-
The rise of mail art meetings and congresses during the late '80s, and the articulation of
various "isms" proclaimed by their founders as movements within mail art, were in part
a response to fractures made visible by the events surrounding the Franklin Furnace exhibition.
Even if "tourism" was proposed satirically as a new movement by H.R. Fricker,
a Swiss mail artist who was one of the organizers of the 1986 Mail Art Congress,
nevertheless mail art in its pure form would continue to function without the personal
meeting between so-
part about mail art is that you don't have to be there in person to be in on the action.
1990s and the impact of the Internet era:
By the 1990s, mail art's peak in terms of global postal activities had been reached,
and mail artists, aware of increasing postal rates, were beginning the gradual migration
of collective art projects towards the web and new, cheaper forms of digital communication.
The Internet facilitated faster dissemination of mail art calls (invitations) and precipitated
the involvement of a large number of newcomers] Mail art blogs and websites became
ever more frequently used to display contributions and online documentation,
even if manymail artists still preferred the surprise of a catalogue found in their mailbox.
Wikipedia English: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mail_art