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Jasper Johns, Flag Study, 1959, watercolor and graphite on found paper envelope, 4 1/8 × 9 1/2". © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

IN LATE 1993, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, opened the one-person exhibition “To Disembark,” by Glenn Ligon. It included what would come to be some of the artist’s most recognizable efforts, including wall drawings featuring stenciled texts and a suite of lithographs borrowing imagery from nineteenth-century fugitive-slave handbills. Alongside these two-dimensional pieces, Ligon activated the exhibition space with a grouping of wooden forms constructed to look like packing boxes, each emitting a different snippet of recorded sound from within. Though an observer trained to look primarily for art-historical references might see in those objects an echo of such works as Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961, one of Ligon’s major sources of inspiration was the story of Henry “Box” Brown, an enslaved man in Virginia who in 1849, with the help of two associates, escaped to freedom in a wooden crate mailed from Richmond to Philadelphia.

Brown’s story, which he would go on to publicize in an autobiography and via a lecture tour, might seem like a singular case. But, in fact, beyond all of its other functions as an engine of modernization, the postal system had a robust linkage to abolitionist efforts in the nineteenth century. (Brown’s crate, for the record, was shipped via a private mail service.) Northern reformers in the 1830s undertook a campaign to mail large numbers of antislavery tracts to the South, while the advent of prepaid weight-based postage increased the privacy of the mail service, which was offered largely without a color bar.1 That an accessible, inexpensive, and equitably functioning postal system was considered a crucial tool of emancipation is attested to by the fact that it was the focus of frequent items in Frederick Douglass’s antislavery newspaper, the North Star. Douglass wrote on one occasion of the “immense moral bearing” of cheap and uniform postage, and on another opined that “every improvement in the means of carrying and spreading intelligence is a step towards the destruction of slavery and other forms of injustice in our land.”2

Beyond all of its other functions as an engine of modernization, the postal system had a robust linkage to abolitionist efforts in the nineteenth century.

One could certainly mount a response to the Trump administration’s assault on the US Postal Service by paying homage to the post as an iconographic subject in art, from van Gogh’s multiple portraits of the postman Joseph Roulin to Eldzier Cortor’s intimate scenes built around the motif of the night letter. Or we could consider the myriad examples of mailed correspondence becoming the machine that makes the art, such as On Kawara’s time-stamped postcards or Ray Johnson’s entire corpus of epistolarrheic mail art (the latter’s distinctive approach warranting, I would argue, its own neologism). But following Douglass and other abolitionists of his era, we might be equally attuned to examples that don’t highlight or celebrate the postal service so much as suggest instances when it recedes into the background, taken as a given precisely because it functions as a relatively anonymous, inexpensive, and dispersed system. In other words, those times when it is doing the job for which it was intended as a dependable and accessible public service—exactly what the current administration is trying to undermine.

That’s the case with one of my favorite objects in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York: not a painting or a sculpture but an ordinary envelope that documents Jasper Johns’s working process. Scrawled all over it are notations likely relating to measurements and sizing, while its front features a watercolor study of two American flags nestled beside each other. What is remarkable about this object is not the presence of this iconic Johnsian imagery on its own, but rather its interaction with various remainders of the envelope’s life as a piece of mailed postage. These include the typed names and addresses of the letter’s sender and recipient, with the postmark fixing the correspondence to a date in early 1959. Johns’s offhand appropriation of an envelope sent to Robert Rauschenberg bespeaks their closeness at the time, while the sender’s name underscores their connection to another same-sex couple—Merce Cunningham and John Cage—revealing the exchanges within a small circle of intimate partnerships that arguably changed the course of twentieth-century art. Adding a further charge is the proliferation of symbols in the envelope’s upper right, including a stamped eagle and an embossed silhouette of George Washington, emblems of national identity that resonate with Johns’s most famous motif. Their presence on the envelope, alongside the names of sender and addressee, lends a unique pathos to Johns’s artistic devotion to the US flag, given that during the era of the so-called Lavender Scare, thousands of LGBTQ individuals were hounded and purged from the federal government as perceived threats to national security and “American” values.

One thing that Johns and Ligon share is the assumption that a central function of the creative act (to echo Duchamp’s phrasing) is not to invent anew but rather to recirculate existing information and imagery and common cultural motifs. This manifests in Ligon’s borrowing of texts by others, in Johns’s use of pregiven symbols, and in both artists’ adoption of readymade stenciling techniques. And that’s precisely what’s at stake, in another register, in attacks on the post office and other such public institutions, part and parcel of an intense and unrelenting effort—by the Trump administration and by the Republican party in general—to dismantle the commons. As the internet meme so succinctly puts it, “We live in a society.” One that is currently under assault from all sides.

Michael Lobel is a Professor of Art History at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY.


1. Hollis Robbins, “Fugitive Mail: The Deliverance of Henry ‘Box’ Brown and Antebellum Postal Politics,” American Studies 50, no. 1–2 (Spring/Summer 2009): 5–25.

2. Frederick Douglass, “Cheap Postage,” The North Star 1, no. 47 (November 17, 1848): 3; and Frederick Douglass, “Cheap Postage,” The North Star 3, no. 7 (February 8, 1850): 2.