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

Political Dissent

Leveraging national mail against governmental constraints


 

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Sheet of artistamps, circa 1990. John Held papers relating to Mail Art, 1973-2013. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

John Calvert Palmer, aka Rudi Rubberoid (1927–2012, American)
Sheet of Artistamps, ca. 1990

John C. “Jack” Palmer, aka Rudi Rubberoid, was an artist who got involved with the international mail art community in the early 1980s. Palmer owned and operated a stationery store in Bellingham, Washington. His first contacts with mail art came from his friend Bob Urso, who encouraged Palmer to use his rubberstamp designs for mail art. Though Palmer went by many aliases, he was most well known as Rudi Rubberoid and as the editor of the Rubber Fanzine. While Palmer is most remembered for his sense of humor, his work also had a political bent. These artistamps, bearing a rubber-stamp image with the phrase “What About Politics?” and the words “anarchy,” “pornography,” “homosexuality,” and “gonzopost,” demonstrate how mail artists were using the postal system to circulate materials and increase communication about topics that were banned from distribution through the post, an indicator to the recipient that mail art is a form of communication in which no topic is censored.

—Jessica Perry


 

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Tony Lowes mail art to John Held Jr., 1988 May 29. John Held papers relating to Mail Art, 1973-2013. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Tony Lowes (b. 1944, American)
Mail art to John Held Jr., 1988

This work of mail art, created by artist Tony Lowes, resembles a propagandistic, wartime “call-to-action” poster. Lowes constructed this satirical manifesto in the long-standing tradition of art critique, painting art as the purveyor of starvation. By likening art making to drug use, with phrases “opiate of the people” and “art has become an addiction,” he suggests that the world of art has become a hallucinatory world of “glamorous escape.” An important component of mail art was the rejection of the institution and the elitism of the art world. While the manifesto vilifies art, it also stresses how it may alternatively be used to express the passion, humanity, and power. The piece appropriates the anarchistic authority of its propagandistic precedents while also staying true to the self-referential aspect of mail art.

—Isabelle Martin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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Clemente Padin, Montevideo, Uraguay mail art to John Held Jr., Dallas, Texas, 1992. John Held papers relating to Mail Art, 1973-2013. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Clemente Padin (b. 1939, Uruguayan)
Mail art to John Held Jr., 1992

Clemente Padin is an Uruguayan artist who has participated in the mail art network since the 1960s. Similar to other Latin American artists with whom he has collaborated, such as Edgardo Vigo and Guillermo Deisler, his work often spoke in opposition to the oppressive dictatorships and US military presence that characterized many South American countries during the second half of the twentieth century. Despite suffering imprisonment, torture, and decades of censorship, Padin continued to espouse messages of social justice and peace. This intense portrait of a suffering child, collaged with calls for peace and an end to the US blockade of Cuba on the back of the postcard, is a succinct call to action. The grave political situation in many Latin American countries impelled young artists to engage the subject head on.

—Matthew Goodwin

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Clemente Padin, Montevideo, Uruguay mail art to John Held Jr., Dallas, Texas, 1990. John Held papers relating to Mail Art, 1973-2013. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Clemente Padin (b. 1939, Uruguayan)Mail art to John Held Jr., 1990

The sociopolitical potential of mail art is central to an understanding of Clemente Padin’s work. This postcard features a collage calling for direct political action, the swift end to apartheid in South Africa, and the release of longtime political prisoner Nelson Mandela. Padin’s home of Uruguay was controlled by a repressive civic-military dictatorship for much of the 1970s and 1980s. Censorship, torture, and “disappearing” political dissidents were common occurrences under this regime, in a manner not dissimilar to South Africa’s governance under apartheid. Padin’s mail art practice put him at great risk, but the political imperative deeply motivated and influenced his practice. Mail art served as a means to subvert the state propaganda machine and keep alive radical discourse and dissent. He explains that, “During the period of the dictatorships mail art turned totally to the denunciation and exposing of the national internal situation.” Padin’s network of mail artists was essential in communicating ideologies that otherwise would not have been allowed to be voiced.

—Matthew Goodwin

 

 

 


 

 


 

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Eduardo Vigo, Buenos Aires, Argentina mail art to John Held Jr., Dallas, Texas, 1990. John Held papers relating to Mail Art, 1973-2013. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Edgardo Vigo (1928–1997, Argentinian)
Mail art to John Held Jr., 1990

Poet and printmaker Edgardo Vigo was a pioneering mail artist who lived and worked in La Plata, Argentina. Similar to many other Latin American artists, Vigo lived in a country that was marked by a violent and oppressive dictatorship through much of the 1970s and 1980s, and, as such, many of his works centered around themes of political and social justice. A prominent feature of this piece is the rubber stamp message “Poetry is our utopian marginal resistance,” which appeared throughout Vigo’s work. Writing in the magazine Buzón de Arte in 1976, Vigo called on mail artists to include in their art an, “appropriate dose of inconformity, subversion, and both international and private relationships that turn them into a CRITICAL TESTIMONY OF ‘SOCIO-POLITICAL-ECONOMIC’ REALITIES, creating the means of eluding the ‘Official,’ the principal agent of all the traps and difficulties imposed upon Creation.” The year 1976 is also when the Argentine military junta “disappeared” Vigo’s son, who became one of the estimated thirty thousand persons murdered during the dictatorship’s rule.

—Matthew Goodwin









 


 

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Rea Nikonova, U.S.S.R. mail art to John Held Jr., 1988. John Held papers relating to Mail Art, 1973-2013. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Ry Nikonova (1942–2014, Russian)
Mail art to John Held Jr., 1988

This work is part of a letter that Russian artist Ry Nikonova (aka Rea Nikonova) sent to John Held Jr. in 1988 as a response to his invitation to attend an international mail art symposium in Japan. In the text, she explains that she and her husband cannot go, and would not be able to go to any foreign country, because the Soviet government does not allow them to leave. Nikonova depicts Held and herself beneath their respective country names—the USA and the USSR—visually dividing the image into two parts. In his speech bubble, Held suggests that Nikonova “go to symposium in Japan.” His figure reaches out his hands toward Nikonova, crossing an invisible border between the two countries and almost touching her, a gesture of embrace. Nikonova’s representation, in a more pragmatic pose, replies “I cannot,” while a disembodied hand firmly tugs at a rope encircling her neck, underscoring her lack of autonomy and the danger she faces if she defies it. In many of her artworks—mail art, visual poetry, and drawings—Nikonova made a critique of the Soviet regime and ideology. Personal freedoms restricted by politics was one of her main concerns.

—Mariia Spirina

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