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Pushing the Envelope: Mail Art from the Archives of American Art

Alternative Art Worlds

Actively circumventing the art market and attempting to commandeer its communication networks


 

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John Baldessari mail art to Lucy Lippard, 1971. Lucy R. Lippard papers, 1930s-2010, bulk 1960s-1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

John Baldessari (b. 1931, American)
“The Best Way to Do Art” flyer to Lucy Lippard, 1971

Conceptual artist John Baldessari began his career as a painter. However, in 1966 he started to integrate text and photography into his paintings as a means of questioning the primacy of the medium among the fine arts. Eventually abandoning paint altogether, Baldessari turned to “intermedia” practices such as performance, installation, and mail art, which he used to humorously reject art world hierarchies. In this mail art flyer sent to the critic and curator Lucy Lippard, who was an important proponent of conceptualism, he recounts a young artist’s gradual move away from painting. Realizing the medium’s limitations, he concludes: “It’s difficult to put a painting in a mailbox.”

Conceptual artist John Baldessari began his career as a painter. However, in 1966 he started to integrate text and photography into his paintings as a means of questioning the primacy of the medium among the fine arts. Eventually abandoning paint altogether, Baldessari turned to “intermedia” practices such as performance, installation, and mail art, which he used to humorously reject art world hierarchies. In this mail art flyer sent to the critic and curator Lucy Lippard, who was an important proponent of conceptualism, he recounts a young artist’s gradual move away from painting. Realizing the medium’s limitations, he concludes: “It’s difficult to put a painting in a mailbox.”

— Miriam Kienle


 


 

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Buster Cleveland mail art to John Evans, 1993. John Evans papers, 1972-2012, bulk 1970s-2012. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Buster Cleveland (1943–1998, American)
Flyer for Art for Um series to John Evans, 1993

Buster Cleveland was best known for his neo-Dadaist collages and work in the Mendocino Area Dadaists (M.A.D.) and Bay Area Dadaists (B.A.D.) movements. After moving from Chicago to New York in the late 1970s, he began hocking postage-stamp-sized collages on the street in SoHo, thus participating in mail art was a natural progression. His best-known works are from his Art for Um series, collages of Artforum covers that satirize the elitism and commercialism of the magazine. He laser printed the collages, reducing them to five square inches and selling them by mail-order subscription.

—Jessica Perry & Miriam Kienle

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 


 

George Brecht mail art to Samuel J. Wagstaff George Brecht mail art to Samuel J. Wagstaff
George Brecht mail art to Samuel J. Wagstaff, 1964. Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1932-1985. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

George Brecht (1926–2008, American)
Mail art (Wadsworth Atheneum loan agreement) to Sam Wagstaff, 1964

Artist and composer George Brecht was a core member of Fluxus—an international group of loosely affiliated conceptual artists, many of whom made mail art. Brecht’s multifaceted practice aimed to disrupt the bureaucratization of daily life by attuning participants to the materiality of everyday things. In this mail art collage, Brecht returns loan paperwork to the Wadsworth Atheneum for its exhibition Black, White, and Grey, which would come to be heralded as an important early exhibition of minimal and conceptual art curated by Sam Wagstaff.  Rather than filling out the forms, he instead affixed materials ranging from a piece of foil stamped with the word “fantasia” to a book of matches that has the potential to ignite a fire in the archive. He also included a ticket stub, which he requested to be sent to the prominent mail artist Ray Johnson, who was curiously left out of the exhibition despite the large black, white, and gray portrait that he was known to be making of Wagstaff at the time.

— Miriam Kienle


 

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Ray Johnson mail art to Dr. Frye and Lucy Lippard, 1970 July 3. Lucy R. Lippard papers, 1930s-2010, bulk 1960s-1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Ray Johnson (1927–1995, American)
Mail art to Dr. Frye and Lucy Lippard, 1970

With this 1970 letter, Ray Johnson—known as the initiator of the mail art movement—invites Dr. Frye to contribute to his “correspondance [sic] by “sending letters, post cards, drawings and objects” to Marcia Tucker, the curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition of New York Correspondence School mail art mounted later that year. However, the content of the letter pertains to the curator and critic Lucy Lippard. As participants in Johnson’s “correspondence school” often forwarded mail to other correspondents, Frye has opted to send this request along to Lippard. Although Lippard wrote about Johnson’s work and participated in the mail art movement, she chose not to contribute to the show. As she stated in a letter to Johnson, published as part of a feature on the New York Correspondence School in the Spring 1977 issue of Art Journal, she had an ambivalent relationship to Johnson’s prompts: “Sometimes I’ve followed your instructions and dutifully forwarded esoterica around the city or the block or the world. . . . Other times I was opposed to doing what I was told. I’ve always had an authority problem. In any case, Ray, you are An Original, and now there are too many quick to copy. . . . You have quite a few debts to pay to society, having introduced mail art (sexist!) and encouraged the birth of the conceptual mutant and mystified the Post Office and dematerialized materialism. . . .”

— Miriam Kienle


 

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Elizabeth Was mail art to John Held Jr., 1987 November 3. John Held papers relating to Mail Art, 1973-2013. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Elizabeth Pearl Nasaw, aka Lyx Ish, aka Elizabeth Was (1956–2004, American)
Mail art to John Held Jr., 1987

Elizabeth Pearl Nasaw sent this envelope to John Held Jr. to illustrate her belief that art does not equal money. She was a musician, poet, and cofounder of Xexoxial Endarchy, is a nonprofit, artist-run Wisconsin organization that distributes, supports, and educates people about new and experimental arts through networking. These forms of art include permaculture, visual/verbal literature, audio and video cassettes, and mail art. The project evolved into Dreamtime Village, a cooperative compound centering on the idea that dreams are real and people’s waking lives are a dream. By stating “art ≠ money,” she asserts that people live in an illusion, where money regulates society, but in actuality it does not.

—Alexandria Gibson

 

 

 

 


 

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Ray Johnson mail art to Lucy Lippard, 1969 May 3. Lucy R. Lippard papers, 1930s-2010, bulk 1960s-1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Ray Johnson (1927–1995, American) and Richard C (b. 1941, American)
Mail art to Lucy Lippard, 1969

Ray Johnson and Richard C’s mail art to Lucy Lippard features these artists’ signature wordplay and self-referential humor surrounding a collage of a face, composed of two textured spheres for eyes and cutout lips. Johnson mailed this collage to Lippard through Richard C as part of a project in which he encouraged participants to “send slips to Lucy Lippard,” punning on Lippard’s last name. The process introduced chance and other artists into the creation and experience of his work, which leads to questions about autonomy, authenticity, and authorship. In this collaborative collage, it is impossible to say where exactly Richard C (who was also a prolific mail artist) added or removed items. Who is behind the “face collage”? Or the “fake collage”? While sometimes vexing for archivists and art historians, Johnson repeated this practice throughout his work, leading one to deduce that the obscuring of individual authorship was central to the experience.

—Matthew Goodwin & Miriam Kienle

 

 

 

 


 
 

 

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Carol Schneck mail art to John Held Jr., circa 1988. John Held papers relating to Mail Art, 1973-2013. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Carol Schneck (b. 1964, American)
Mail art to John Held Jr., 1988

Carol Schneck’s postcard features a photocopied picture of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s iconic former building (now housing the Met Breuer) protruding from a hand-drawn garbage can. The museum has presumably just been thrown away. With slogans like “Mail Art Is Not Museum Art,” “Stop Saving Garbage!” and “Mail Art Is Disposable Art,” Schneck voices the key ideologies of the mail art movement. In mail art, ideas are circulated freely through direct interpersonal networks. The practice demands participation, collaboration, and physical handling—both by the participants and by the postal system through which the mail is processed. Mail art is by nature transitory, intimate, and implicitly social. Consequently, individual pieces cannot be treated as precious, as “museum art,” as Schneck says. The network of communication is of value; the work is not. This postcard likely references the Whitney's 1970 New York Correspondence School exhibition in 1970, which was the first museum exhibition of mail art and was critiqued for diverging from mail art’s ideals.

—Lizz Hamilton

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Leonhard Frank Duch mail art to John Held Jr. Leonhard Frank Duch mail art to John Held Jr.
Leonhard Frank Duch mail art to John Held Jr., 1981. John Held papers relating to Mail Art, 1973-2013. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Leonhard Frank Duch (b. 1940, German)
Mail art to John Held Jr., 1981

Leonhard Frank Duch has been making mail art since 1975 and currently continues his practice in Berlin. Though born in Germany, he lived and worked in Brazil for over forty years (1951–94) and was an important member of the Latin American mail art community. For Duch, mail art was an elusive art form that could be used to protest Brazil’s military dictatorship and its censoring of art, as it enabled the circulation of messages whose origins were difficult to track. Here, Duch has stamped emphatic and slightly self-mocking coinages and phrases incorporating his surname, such as “Duchthings,” “Duch Post,” and “I am Duch, not Duchamp.” By further proclaiming “I am an artist / unemployed,” he expresses somewhat demeaning aspects of himself as well as his thoughts about the suppression of artistic expression under the dictatorship. Although envelopes are the public face of a letter and tend to be rubberstamped with official bureaucratic statements, Duch instead stamps them with highly personal and subtly subversive messages.   

—Liz Moore


 

Billy Al Bengston mail art to unidentified recipients Billy Al Bengston mail art to unidentified recipients
Billy Al Bengston mail art to unidentified recipients, 1973. Billy Al Bengston papers, circa 1940s-1989, (bulk 1968-1988). Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Billy Al Bengston (b. 1934, American)
Mail art to an unknown number of recipients, 1973

Billy Al Bengston is an artist living in Venice, California. Known for his flamboyant personality and creative exuberance, he was a protagonist of the West Coast postwar art scene. The playful humor of his practice is evident in this mail art postcard. It is presented as a request for ideas for an exhibition announcement, but because it includes all the relevant show information, it actually serves as the announcement itself. Even if the recipients had no intention of sending Bengston ideas for his mailer, they’ve still learned all the details about the exhibition and have been invited to it. The card is an example not only of Bengston’s wit, but also of how the mail art network served its participants—as an avenue for self-promotion, personal connection, and communication.

—Jessica Perry


 

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Felix Partz mail art to Billy Al Bengston, 1973. Billy Al Bengston papers, circa 1940s-1989, (bulk 1968-1988). Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

General Idea (active 1967–94)
Submission in response to Billy Al Bengston’s request for exhibition mailer ideas, 1973

General Idea was a Canadian artist collective whose work included performance and conceptual art, video, installation, serial publications, and ephemera. It was founded in the late 1960s by Jorge Zontal, Felix Partz, and AA Bronson. Their work propagated underground and counter cultures, using promotional and participatory objects. Mail art was a perfect fit for their audience and endeavors. This piece was sent to Billy Al Bengston in 1973 in response to his postcard offering ten dollars for any idea for an exhibition announcement. Partz writes that General Idea specializes in “hard hitting to the point blatant self promotion,” which they found worked quite well.

—Jessica Perry

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