Mail Art for Neophytes, Part One: An Initiation

Affinities, Ray Johnson

July 30th, 2014


On the occasion of Siglio’s publication of two Ray Johnson books, The Paper Snake and Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson, 1954-1994, we have created two blog posts designed as a rudimentary introduction to mail art. Part One includes several quotations from a variety of writers, artists, and critics that suggest a general history of the art form.  Also included are resources for further reading. Part Two sketches a picture of Ray Johnson’s mail art.

—Patrick Disselhorst




Examples of communication as an art form can be cited throughout history. Cleopatra had herself rolled up in a rug and presented to Julius Caesar. In the Middle Ages, Charlemagne received an elephant from Haroun al Rashid (the Caliph of Baghdad of Arabian Nights fame). During the Renaissance, courtiers might present each other with cakes in the form of palaces, inhabited by dwarfs. Charles I of England, and his Queen Henrietta, were favored by the Duke of Buckingham with a pie that contained a famous midget. Today’s heads of state take their communications more seriously, even if they miss the Dada aspect of much of it.

—E.M. Plunkett, “The New York Correspondence School”



Two blocks south of my house on 25th Street, at 464 West 23rd Street, stands a bleak building, its original façade and upstairs entry-way demolished for profit from rental space. The building lost all decorum when this 19th century private house became an apartment building, making no claim to shelter the souls within it. During the prelude and first act of the Depression, an Italian artist, Fortunato Depero (1892-1960), occupied a studio in the building. He received decorated postcards mailed to him from Italia by Giacomo Balla (1871-1958). Balla did not address the postcards to Fortunato Depero, but in a Futurist truancy from conventions, “…All Futurista Depero.”

—William S. Wilson, “Retrospections on West 23rd Street”


futurism (Panmodern)



We all know about Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo that were packed with drawings for painting ideas. Today’s mail artists only wonder why the hell he didn’t mail that severed ear off to Gauguin in Tahiti. Anyway, as long as there have been artists and there has been post, there has been postal art…The more theoretical branch of postal art probably has its roots  in the Italian Futurists at the turn of the century. They actually used the mail as an artistic device. They sent letters back and forth from World War I praising the beauty of war (they were a sick bunch, what can I tell ya?) but they also used the mail imaginatively, creating innovative stationary, letterheads, logos, postcards and rubber stamps.

—Mark Bloch, “A Brief History of Postal Art”



On Thursday, October 27, 1960 the Nouveau Realisme group was formed in France. Critic Pierre Restany coined the term, and the collection of artists who signed the original manifesto include Arman, Yves Klein, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely; and later, others such as Christo, Piero Manzoni and Niki de St. Phalle joined. Their position was simple and straight forward: “Nouveau Realisme = nouvelles approches perceptives du reel.” Their subject matter became the world of mass production, consumption and throwaway culture…The Nouveau Realistes made a two-fold contribution to mail art: they elaborated on the dissolution of the boundaries between art and life, and, they integrated the rubber stamp into contemporary art.

—Michael Crane, “Reconsidering Mail Art, 1960-1980”



vautierPostcard by Ben Vautier, 1965. (Mail Artists Index)



In March ‘68, artists Robert Filliou and George Brecht emerged from a ‘sort of workshop’ and ‘international center of permanent creation’ in the south of France called La Cedille qui Sourit and announced they “had developed the concept of the Fête Permanente or Eternal Network, as we chose to translate it into English, which we think should allow us to spread this spirit more efficiently than before… we announced our intentions and sent it to our numerous correspondents… The artist must realize also that his is part of a wider network… going on all around him all the time in all parts of the world.”

—Mark Bloch, “Communities Collaged: Mail Art and The Internet”



Think of a camp fire. Shadowy figures are in conversation, laughing and talking; what they say makes sense mostly among themselves. A stranger wanders in and listens. The stranger understands almost nothing – to him what is said is all but meaningless – and the part which he understands seems trivial to him. The stranger has two options: he can stay and learn why what is being said is necessary, or he can go away and suggest that all such campfires are silly and should be ignored or banned. Mail art is like that.

—Dick Higgins, Mail-Interview conducted by Ruud Janssen



Letter from Ray Johnson to Mark Bloch, 1994. (Jennifer Kosharek’s Mail Art Blog)




Is mail art art? Is networking art? Of course the established art forums are mostly avoided by the mail artists, because they select for exhibitions, they ask fees for entering an art show, they in general select who they think is important enough to expose to an audience. This is what makes the mail artists tick. They want to have control over their own art. But this “art” is not the traditional art. It all has to do with communication.

—Ruud Janssen, Mail-Interview conducted by Mark Greenfield



Mail art people have their own, strongly held opinions. When you combine strong opinions with a lack of historical knowledge, what outsiders write on mail art can seem strange. There’s another reason people don’t write about mail art. It’s easy to be attacked. From time to time, a writer or curator who generally does an excellent job offends part of the network. When the offended parties involve their friends in harsh response, the noise grows to deafening proportions. I recall several highly visible examples and they’ve been a reason for some excellent writers and historians to stop writing on mail art. Mail art is a minor field for art historians and art journals. You don’t get much credit for working on mail art but you can get a lot of anger. In a situation with few rewards and plenty of ways to find trouble, there’s little reason to write.

—Ken Friedman, Mail-Interview conducted by Ruud Janssen



Perhaps a more important question is whether the acceptance of mail art by the “official” art world would be a good thing or a bad thing? Is mail art not more interesting as a personal expression in a guerrilla relationship with museums? Museum shows might co-opt mail art? Kill it?

—Clive Phillpot, Mail-Interview conducted by Ruud Janssen


An Interview with Mail Art Chronicler John Held, Jr.

La cédille qui ne finit pas: Robert Filliou, George Brecht, and Fluxus in Villefranche by Natilee Harren (Further information on the Eternal Network)

The Mailed Art of Ray Johnson by Clive Phillpot

Panmodern (Artist and critic Mark Bloch’s writings on mail art)

Remembering the West Coast Mail Art Scene by An Xiao

TAM Mail-Interview Project (Ruud Janssen’s interviews with mail artists)


An Annotated Inventory of Mail Art Periodicals (John Held Jr’s collection at the Museum of Modern Art Library)

1st Annual Nordic International Mail Art Biennale

International Union of Mail Artists (IUOMA)

Mail Art Archive (Findings from the Mogens Otto Nielsen archive at the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Denmark)

Mail Artists Index (List of mail artists, biographies and selected works)

Mail Art @ Oberlin (Contains several short biographies on mail artists such as Johnson, Anna Banana, and Guglielmo Achille Cavellini)

Mail Art Projects & Mail Art Discussion (Both sites maintained by the IOUMA)

Oberlin’s Mail Art Bibliography

SF Correspondence Coop (Collection of mail art images)

University at Buffalo’s Digital Mail Art Collection


Arriving and Outgoing Mail Art (Mail art sent & received by Roland Hallbritter)

Gallery of Ornamental Post (Mail art curated by Helene Lacelle and Peter Evanchuck)

Ka-Mail-Art (Mail art sent & received by Ka van Haasteren)

Poeticpaper (Mail art sent & received by Brittany Lee)

Red Letter Day (Jennie Hinchcliff’s blog)

Ryosuke Cohen (Website of influential mail artist)