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Mail art

Mail art—along with the synonymous terms Postal art and Correspondence art—refers to small-scale works that utilize the mail as a distribution system. These terms have also come to refer to related formats, including artist-designed “postage stamps,” postcards, and even impressions from rubber stamps. (Rubber-stamp impressions have been utilized in art since World War I, initially by the Dada artist Kurt Schwitters, but only as one of many decorative, collage-like elements.) The first self-conscious network of Mail artists was begun in 1962 by Ray Johnson, who dubbed the endeavor the New York Correspondence School. Its collective output was featured in a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970.

Ordinarily, Mail art has seldom been given a place in museums; it is one of the most populist art forms in history. Instead of creating objects and finding a place to exhibit them, Mail artists need only postage and the often copy art–based means to make letters or postcards. Mail art exhibitions (often unjuried) featured eclectic themes, ranging from opposition to the Vietnam War to homages to comic-strip heroes. The egalitarian aims of mail art, in fact, dovetailed closely with those of Fluxus, which provided a cadre of artist-correspondents. Unusual Mail art works have been produced by conceptual or Fluxus artists such as On Kawara, who for years sent rubber-stamped postcards proclaiming the location and time he got up each morning, and Tom Marioni, who sent engraved announcements of his (fictitious) appointment as director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1973.

Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.