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

Queer Correspondence

Subverting gender and sexuality norms


Les Petites Bons-bons mail art to Lucy LippardLes Petites Bons-bons mail art to Lucy Lippard
Les Petites Bons-bons mail art to Lucy Lippard, 197-. Lucy R. Lippard papers, 1930s-2010, bulk 1960s-1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Les Petites Bon-bons (active 1971–75, American)
Mail art to Lucy Lippard, ca. 1971–75

Les Petites Bon-bons was a queer artist collective from Milwaukee that grew out of the international mail art movement and the gay activist scene of the early 1970s. As members relocated to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, the city’s glam-rock culture also came to inform their practice. Self-described as a “group of gay life artists who live and play in and around Milwaukee, Hollywood, and the World,” they invite us to “imagine a gay universe” with enticing performances and mailers such as this one sent to the critic and curator Lucy Lippard. Early members included Chuckie Betz, Jerry Dreva, J. P., Gary Pietrzak, Mark Slizewski, Dick Varga, and Jim Sullivan, who together explored the relationship between the publicity and performance, image and actualization, art and life.

—Miriam Kienle


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

Pat Larter (1936–1996, British, lived in Australia)
Mail art to John Held Jr., 1981

Pat Larter was a British-born, Australia-based artist who emerged as one of the most prominent participants in the international mail art movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Her films, performances, and mail art interrogated the gendering of the body and parodied what she called “male-given sexual stereotypes.” With ostentatious outfits and exaggerated poses, she disrupted the binaries and hierarchies that structure gender and sexual relations. Her mail art, which served to document and extend her performances, calls attention to the male gaze and stresses sexual liberation through gender-bending erotica. Subverting the male dominance of mail art, it was Larter who first coined the term “fe-mail art.” Her postal performances thus offer an alternative reality of how to “get arted.”

—Miriam Kienle










Semina no. 1, 1955. Wallace Berman papers, 1907-1979, bulk 1955-1979. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Wallace Berman (1926–1976, American)
Semina no. 1, 1955

Semina was a loose-leaf journal of collage and poetry—a proto-zine—produced by Wallace Berman for his friends between 1955 and 1964. Each copy of the nine issues was hand-printed, hand-assembled, and designed to be read in no distinct order. Semina no. 1 contained a drawing by the artist Cameron, two photographs by Walter Hopps, and poems by Jean Cocteau, Marion Grogan, and Hermann Hesse, among others. The front cover features a photograph of Cameron (Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel), the mysterious underground darling with whom Berman became friends in the early 1950s. Cameron was a notorious occultist, and both she and her husband, Jack Parsons (a key founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, student of Aleister Crowley, and former collaborator of L. Ron Hubbard), were investigated by the FBI for their practices in sex magic.

—Lizz Hamilton










Jay DeFeo mail art to Wallace Berman, 1965. Wallace Berman papers, 1907-1979, bulk 1955-1979. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Jay DeFeo (1929–1989, American)
Mail art to Wallace Berman, 1965

During Wallace Berman’s time in San Francisco in the late 1950s, he and beat artist Jay DeFeo developed a close friendship, bonding over their shared interests in jazz, poetry, baseball, and mysticism. DeFeo contributed to Berman’s publication Semina, which also featured West Coast artists like Bruce Connor and George Herms; poets such as Michael McClure, Allan Ginsburg, and Diane di Prima; and cult figures like Russ Tamblyn and Dennis Hopper. These artists received copies of the journal in exchange for their participation, thus helping to establish an arts community around Berman in both Los Angeles and San Francisco. DeFeo and Berman grew close through collaboration, carrying on a photocollage correspondence after Berman returned to Los Angeles in 1961.

In this piece, DeFeo sends Berman an altered copy of his poster for the third annual Los Angeles Film-Maker’s festival. The poster, which features Berman’s signature transistor radio motif, has been collaged with a photo of   DeFeo as a young girl, and a piece of paper with a cryptic typewritten message that makes reference to DeFeo’s monumental painting, The Rose, which weighed nearly one ton, as well as baseball’s loveable loser, Casey Stengel.

—Lizz Hamilton


Les Petites Bons-bons mail art to Lucy LippardLes Petites Bons-bons mail art to Lucy Lippard
Stacey Aspey mail art to Gregory Battcock, 1980. Gregory Battcock papers, 1952-circa 1980. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Stephen Varble (1946–1985, American)
Mail art to Gregory Battcock, ca. 1975

Stephen Varble was a playwright, fashion designer, and performance artist who mailed confounding press releases and newsletters to notable figures in the art world as an extension of his performance practice. Varble’s early work was informed by queer performance artists like Robert Morgan and the Pagan Babies, whom he knew while living in Lexington, Kentucky, during college, as well as the radical underground cinema of Jack Smith and the Fluxus performances of Geoffrey Hendricks that he encountered after moving to New York about 1970. Through his intimate relationship with Hendricks, he became connected to the mail art scene. Inspired by mail artists like Ray Johnson, who used camp aesthetics to produce subversive publicity, Varble created press releases—like this one mailed to the art critic Gregory Battcock—with hyperbolic language and queer erotic imagery to lampoon art world elitism and mainstream consumerist spectacle.

—Miriam Kienle