"Against and Among Institutions: Mail Art as a Subversive Medium" by John Held, Jr.
I know it’s wrong…but I’ve been waiting for some major American art institution to come along and ask me to assist in the production of their major exhibition of Mail Art. It’s not happening. I know that things like this don’t happen without effort on one’s own part, but it’s long overdue…and I keep waiting. For how much longer, I don’t know.
Some would argue that an exhibition on Mail Art, especially a major retrospective of the field, shouldn’t happen in a museum, anyway. That it was a cultural phenomenon and occurred outside the realm of art institutions, and why should it look for support or validation within the confines of the art world?
Mail Art is an inside/outside thing. For this we only have to look at the example of Ray Johnson, who operated outside the art system in establishing an artistic network away from the mainstream. But Johnson was also an insider artist, who had a formal art education (under Joseph Albers at Black Mountain), numerous friends, among the brightest art stars of the day (Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Chuck Close, et al.). Johnson’s postal references are full of references to artists and art movements. He was astutely aware of art history, and no doubt, his place in it.
I came to Mail Art through my own investigation of contemporary art, and happened upon Mail Art and Fluxus in the mid-1970s. Fluxus had been around for over ten years by then. I couldn’t believe that mainstream art paid no attention to it…it seemed so relevant to me. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that Fluxus began to be shown in art institutions-some thirty years after it began. Now it’s seen as a major influence on contemporary art; blending high and low forms of artistic mediums into artworks that bridge the divide between art and life. And of course, it had the big names (Beuys, Ono, Paik, Vautier, et al).
But Mail Art? I don’t see much mainstream acceptance at the present time. Here and there, a crumb is tossed. There was substantial discussion of the field in a book published by MIT Press (one of the better art publishers in the US), “Art at a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet,” in 2005. The title highlights one of the reasons acceptance of Mail Art is so elusive. Is it art based, or socially oriented? My guess is both, but the open nature of the field, the many twists and turns it takes, makes it hard for academics to grasp it.
The first steps for this are being laid. Before academics examine the field, they need access to the materials. George Maciunas, the pivotal force in Fluxus, once remarked that it was museum art librarians, rather than the museum’s curatorial staff, who first requested Fluxus materials. I’ve found this to be the case with Mail Art as well. In 2001, I placed a collection of 1,700 Mail Art catalogs and posters to the Getty Research Center in Los Angeles, California. Two years later, a collection of 3,700 Mail Art magazines were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art Library in New York. I also helped place the Lon Spiegelman Collection at the Getty, who also hold Collections by Jean Brown and Bern Porter.
In Europe, the Neus Museum Weserburg, Bremen, Germany acquired the Small Press and Communication Collection of Belgian artist Guy Schraenen. Robin Crozier’s collection is at the Tate. The Staatsliches Museum Schwerin, Schwerin, Germany has a collection of Eastern European, primarily East German, Mail Art. It seems to me that European art professionals take more interest in Mail Art than their American counterparts. European Mail Art tends toward the conceptual; Ulises Cárrion, the late Mexican/Dutch artist, exemplifies this approach to the field. On the other hand, American Mail Art embraces the Dadaistic tendencies of the activity, and it is no accident that the last meaningful gathering of American Mail Artists (in July of 2006) was in New York to attend the Dada exhibition at MOMA.
The Dada orientation, the duality of social and cultural concerns, the lack of participation by well-known mainstream artists, and the non-commercial aspect of Mail Art, have slowed the incorporation of Mail Art into museum collections. To some, this is of no concern and regarded as proper. But I view Mail Art as a continuation of the 20th century avant-garde, which has advanced the conceptual base of contemporary art by the use of “marginal” art mediums (rubber stamps, photocopy, artist postage stamps, publications), establishing an open network among artists of diverse cultures, endeavoring to bridge the gap between art and life, emphasizing the use of art as a medium of aesthetic communication and empowering the artist to operate away from the mainstream, while retaining an alternative, or parallel, support structure.
Mail Art has always contained an element of subversion. Ruggero Maggi’s oft-repeated phrase that, “Mail Art uses institutions against institutions,” is appropriate in this context. Mail Art struggles to enter the museum not for validation, but to extend it’s audience in the hope that others will come to realize that art is not principally the production of products, but an alchemical process allowing the participant to enrich him or herself in pursuit of a path gaining a better knowledge of oneself, the broader world and one’s place in it.
San Francisco, February 2007
John Held, Jr.
PO Box 410837
San Francisco, CA 94141