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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Mail Art

Mail art by Jeremy's Dad.
Have you ever been part of an "art movement?" Most of us, even us artists, would say, no. If so, most of us would be wrong. Have you ever sent a letter to someone and taken the time to decorate it, sometimes even front and back with some kind of geometric or floral design? Perhaps you also addressed it with a great flourish of barely readable script? If so, the you were (probably unwittingly) taking part in the art movement called "Mail Art." I must admit, even though I've done all of the above at various times, I didn't know such "art" had it's own recognized "movement," which actually has a good deal more significance and a greater body of work than I would ever have guessed. The movement even has its own roster of artist icons to point out in giving legitimacy to their distinct genre.
Raymond Johnson in the 1950s: from performance art to postal art.
Ray Johnson mail art, 1978.
Surprisingly, there's nothing "new" about Mail Art. Although it's said to date back to a 1960s and New York artist, Ray Johnson, his followers like to point out that the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra VII (yes, the Liz Taylor lookalike) was the first mail artist. After all, she decorated herself up, then popped herself into a carpet "envelop" and mailed herself off to Julius Caesar. The postage must have been considerable, but stamps probably bore his picture. In 1962 the "happening" artist, Ray Johnson (above), founded the movement with what others came to call The New York Correspondance School (the misspelling is playfully intentional). As early as the late 1950s he had been sending out letters and postcards to artist friends and family that he'd created as works of art using any number of "mixed" media. He invited them to create their own art and send it back to him.
Mail art by Chriscrap (not sure if that's one word or two).

Ray Johnson mail art,
possibly a self-portrait.
It caught on. Remember, this was in the midst of the 1960s "hippie" era--art was anything anyone wanted to call art. Never before (or again) was the definition of art so broad. As to mail art, the only restrictions were those imposed by the United States Post Office Department as to size, and the fact that such art had to bear stamps and an address. Nudity and obscenities were frowned upon too, (though sometimes artfully disguised). There's some disagreement as to whether the movement spread from the U.S. around the world, or whether the International aspect was simply a simultaneous coincidence. In 1970, there was even an exhibition of mail art at the Whitney Museum in New York, In any case, Mail Art grew to the point its founder could no longer handle the volume. He send The New York Times obituary department a death notice for the New York Correspondence School. The newspaper laughed and sent it back.
Rund Janssen mail art.
Dutch mail artist, Ruud Janssen
Ray Johnson and others such as the Dutch mail artist Ruud Janssen, had a sense of humor. Though often warped, it was the key to understanding and enjoying their art. Others saw such art, not as a source of humor, but as a vehicle for free expression in promoting social change (again, in its broadest, dictionary sense). Moreover, as an avenue of creative expression it was a game virtually anyone could play. Pencil "doodles" and later colored pencils followed by Magic Markers, gave way to collage and the nearly unlimited possibilities allowed by discarded print media. The only requirements were scissors, a little glue, pencil, pen, and/or coloring agent, a small card or some sort, and way too much time on your hands. The most important element was outrageous, outside-the-box creativity. Humor was nice, but love, hate, anger, joy, frustration, and sexual innuendo could just as well be substituted for those lacking a funny-bone.
Okay, where's the gift shop and cafe?
Mail us your art, 1984
And lest you think this "mailbox museum" art was strictly a two-dimensional art form, origami artists found they could mail off their sculptural creations, folded into an envelope or tiny box. There have even been retrospective art exhibits such as the 1984 "Mail Art Then and Now" at the Franklin Furnace Archive in Brooklyn, New York, seeking to preserve the movement's best and brightest avant-garde mailings. However, selecting works for such an exhibit inevitably entailed a form of de facto censorship, an anathema to the free-for-all nature of such a disorganized organization. The ensuing "discussion" nearly led to a free-for-all among those entering works for displayed.
Mail art from E17 flies around the world.

Mail Art raw materials.
The Internet has very nearly spelled the demise of mail art. Postage costs went up, Internet charges went down. E-mail gradually proved cheaper, faster, and better. Today, mail art has joined the digital age and is pretty much limited to Internet blogs devoted to such foolishness. Surprisingly, there has evolved a art market for such work. The Ray Johnson estate (he died in 1995) now offers his mail art collages for sale (and with other Pop and Neo-Dada pieces) for upwards to a million dollars. There's no word on whether they've had any buyers. Yet in one form, mail art not only survives, but thrives. Not surprisingly such "fun" art has spread to schools as children are instructed in the aesthetic principles (limited as they might be) governing such art. After all, postal workers need to laugh too.

Mail art on the elegant side.


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