New York

“Mail Art Then and Now”

Franklin Furnace

In the primeval days of mail art, when, in about 1962, Ray Johnson was founding the New York Correspondence School and Ed Higgins was beginning the tradition that would lead, by about 1966, to the Fluxpost, mail art was conceived as having to do with Dada. It was the enemy of the gallery system; it decried all canons of taste and all attempts by would-be critics to establish themselves as arbiters of taste. Such independence was based on the unique stage on which mail art was seen as taking place: opening the mail was the exhibition, and the mail, of course, rejects nothing that is dropped in the mailbox. On the egalitarian metaphor of the postal system, the price of a stamp was the fee for exhibiting one’s work. The whole point was avoidance of selectively curated or juried exhibitions, and with them of taste, hierarchy, competition, fetishism, commodification, reification.

But the inevitable happened. By 1971 the work had begun to be drawn into museums and galleries, first in New York, by Marcia Tucker, at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1972 mail artist Ken Friedman invited people to correspond with him at the Oakland Museum as a one-person show there, and in 1973 the Joslyn Art Museum ran the famous “Omaha Flow Systems” show. “Omaha Flow Systems” attempted to sterilize the gallery situation for mail art by establishing ground rules for a new kind of gallery exhibition. The first principle was that no one would censor the mails. A number of mail artists would be invited to send work—limitations on the amount of work were OK—and whatever was sent would be the show. Curatorial selection would apply only to the question of which artists to invite, not of which works to exhibit.

This recent show, curated by Ronny Cohen, could be seen as a creative deviation from these norms, investigating a new type of mail art show, or as a comedy of errors in which the curator ran afoul of extremely sensitive issues. The exhibition was conceived in two parts, though they were not clearly distinguished from each other in the installation. First, a selection from various archives attempted to sketch a history of the early phases of the movement. Here curatorial selection came into play: judgments were made on the basis of art-historical criteria that were never enunciated yet seemed obvious enough. Controversy over this part of the show has centered on the idea that since making a history means imposing standards, picking and choosing, mail art, if it is to remain itself, must remain without a history. Yet such a prominent mail artist as Friedman has written historically about it, chronicling major events, as well as showing the work in a museum. A more fitting criticism would ask why the show included so few of the classic objects that could have put the roots of the movement before us. Where were the Futurist and Constructivist prototypes? Where was Yves Klein’s invitation to the Void, mailed in 1958 with a stamp of International Klein Blue? Yet one did get a feeling for early work by the New York Correspondence School; one did see rubber stamps used by Edward Plunkett in the early ’60s, and so on. And the mail art issue of this space’s Flue magazine, guest-edited by Cohen, is somewhat better on these matters; the beginnings of a coherent history can be found in it.

It was the other, far larger part of the show that generated really intense controversy. When the show opened, perhaps a third of the invited and submitted work was not in evidence, though the invitation to send work had clearly stated that everything sent would be exhibited. It seemed that the essential principle of the genre had been defied. There were days when the air in the gallery palpably fumed with the unspoken angry words of artists silently stalking the little aisles. A week or so into the show, much, perhaps all, of the remaining work was introduced into the exhibition space in a group of cardboard boxes on the floor beneath the vitrines; this did not assuage tempers. (In fact, these boxes held a lot of interesting work, and I for one went through them thoroughly. Ironically, my favorite piece was in a box on the floor.)

One account has it that Cohen attempted to select from the submitted work and backed down under pressure. Another has it that this venerable but quirky alternative space didn’t provide enough help in installation, resulting in a week’s delay before much of the work was installed. Yet another account holds that more work was received than expected (and that much of it was received after the deadline), and a decision was made to rotate it, the assigned space being inadequate. In any case, between the walls, the vitrines, and the boxes, works by all the big historical figures were there: Johnson, Higgins, the Europeans Ben Vautier and G.A. Cavellini, the Bay Area dadaists Bill Gaglione and others, the whole Anna Banana culture, Buster Cleveland, Carlo Pittore (whose angry letter against Cohen has already become a classic document of mail art), the Guerilla Art Action Group, and others who see themselves almost as a priestly lineage, the living repositories of Dada. Guy Bleus’ monumental World Art Atlas was there (in a box on the floor), as were early Gilbert and George works (in vitrines), and a cute postcard by Vautier which summed up the genre, saying, “Your thumb print now on this side of this card is the realization of my intention.”

This was the first major mail art show in New York City, and it is a pity that it was not given more space, more publicity, and a more prompt and complete installation. Still, that the show should have been seen with such conflicting emotions around it made it in a sense all the better, since not just the objects but the issues were on display in all possible clarity.

Thomas McEvilley