Bálint Szombathy


Published in the 3 March edition of the periodical Híd [Bridge], Issue 3, Vol. XLV, 1981. pp. 378–386.

The traditional trends and methods of art analysis applicable to classic artworks are difficult or even impossible to apply in the case of mail art – also referred to internationally as correspondence art, postal art, art in the mail, arte postale etc. – since in regard to structure and form mail art cannot be identified with any of the artistic trends and isms that have their own aesthetic programme and linguistic construction and are built upon the rejection of art trends that went before them. It follows from this that the problems related to mail art, a phenomenon with artistic intent, primarily belongs to the sphere of communication and only after that can its artistic implications be discussed.

Before the content of this powerful artistic activity topical for close to two decades is explored, its historical dimensions should be looked at. Although the initiators of mail Art emerged, relatively simultaneously, in three main locations, recent studies show that its origin can be traced right back to the beginning of the century. This is referred to in the following fragment of Hans Richter’s letter to Duchamp in 1964: “Neo-dada, which is now called new realism, pop art, assemblage etc. is merely a comfortable excuse but actually lives off Dada’s achievements. I sought to clip the wings of aesthetics with my ready-mades. Yet, the neo-dadaists quote ready-mades as their inspiration while discovering aesthetic delight and joy in them. I threw a bottle opener and a toilet bowl in their faces to provoke them but now all of this provides them with a feeling of aesthetic delight.” The significance of this quote is that Duchamp was the first artist who consciously did postal art in the 1910s. It would seem to follow from the quote that in comparison with Duchamp’s original artistic gesture the mail art of today is overly aesthetic, ideologically obtuse, powerless and ineffective. This, however, is not entirely the case and can be proven by the fact that the art movement using postal exchanges of information is not a homogeneous artistic trend based on autonomous and solid strategic pillars but rather an often ephemeral melding of several viable genres and isms. Contrary to belief, mail art is primarily a sociological and only secondarily an aesthetic phenomenon.

Let us return to Duchamp. A ‘postal cause celebre’ is linked to a New York art collector, Walter C. Arensberg, who provided a meeting place in his apartment for Dadaist artists working on preparations for the Salon des Indépendants of 1916, among them Duchamp, Picabia and Man Ray. Duchamp posted four postcards, taped together, to the Arensbergs, who lived in the same building. He typed the date and place – again the same building – of their next meeting on one side, and some symbolic elements of script shaped in accordance with self-invented certain rules, which some art historians linked to the sketches (1915-1923) made for his La marié mise á nu par ses célibrataires, même, a work whose preparations alone required a significant amount of time (1915-1923). While the coded text of the four postcards – whose title Rendezvous of Sunday, February 6, 1916 (Rendez-vous du Dimanche 6 Février 1916) expresses their subject and function – drew on Duchamp’s global linguistic strategy and highlights the absurdity of the work’s coded message, these aspects do not detract from the importance of the idea of sending a message by post to friends living under the same roof. This seemingly nonsensical gesture has been ascribed its true significance now, when mail art is at its peak, but it undeniably already played an important denotative role at the time of its conception in the interpretation of the texts and sketches produced for the artist’s work Large Glass (Le Grand Verre)*. By posting a message that could have been communicated far more quickly and efficiently verbally, Duchamp was the first in art history to address the issue of the link between the aesthetic message and telecommunication and the first to attribute a supplementary function to the postal service.

* When Duchamp arrived in New York in 1915 he presented Walter Arensberg and his wife with a bottle filled with Parisian air. The problematics of the Large Glass and his entire glass series, can be traced back to here.

Duchamp turned to the channels of postal telecommunication again in 1921, when he informed Tzara, an anti-artist of Romanian origin, by mail about not wishing to take part in the Dada exhibition in Paris, which the latter organised. It is not so much the letter in question that is worthy of attention but rather the text of the attached telegram Duchamp addressed to his brother-in-law, reading “podebal duchamp”, which implies that a deeper aesthetic meaning should be ascribed to it than usual and that it should be understood as the manifestation of the dadaist rejection.

However, Duchamp was not the only one who used the postal services to communicate aesthetic information. In a broader sense, the montage-like reports from the war front that Helmut Herzfelde of Germany, known by his artist name John Heartfield, sent to his acquaintances on postcards can also be included here. “John Heartfield actually began his compilation of «montages» in 1914, i.e. when, circumventing censorship, he started sending home peculiar postcards with cuttings from publications and newspapers from the battlefield, on which he paired pictures that contradicted one another with the intention of polemic and demystification. These postcards mark the real beginning of Dadaist political photomontages,” writes De Micheli. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has thus far drawn attention to the parts of the quotation I underlined, and even De Micheli only touches upon its true dimensions by using the adjective peculiar. In Heartfield’s case the significance of his communication method, i.e. transmitting aesthetic messages, is somehow always dwarfed by the fact that he got to the vanguard of Dada primarily with his photomontages inspired by communist ideology. The other reason is that Heartfield only resorted to postal communication through the necessity of the situation he was in and that in his case the interaction between the aesthetic message and the method of communication was spontaneous rather than purposeful, in contrast to Duchamp, who deliberately based the interpretive system of his postcards upon the means of the communication used. Further broadening the scope, numerous pieces of correspondence and extensive postal exchanges between various thinkers and artists could be listed here; however, these can be of mere anecdotal value within the framework of this essay and according to the conceptual characteristics of mail art. It is also noteworthy that during the period in question Duchamp apparently foresaw the future, anticipating that sooner or later alternative art forms would emerge and bypass the bourgeois art salons and exhibition venues, which operated as exclusive business institutions. This is also reflected by his statement “The great artist of tomorrow will go underground” and addressed by his Boîte-en-Valise (1941): a box in a green suitcase with miniature reproductions of his works and writings, i.e. the prototype of a portable miniature gallery.

When discussing the alternative movements and the centres representing the direct initiators of mail art in the second half of the century, three should be noted: Fluxus, the New York Correspondence School and the French Nouveau Réalisme (new realism). They built their strategy on Dadaist traditions and re-confirmed Duchamp’s view about the neo-Dada, quoted at the beginning of this essay, while advocating a brand new concept saying that the ideal of art is not represented by the end product but by the process, by permanent motion; moreover, they rejected the supremacy and concept of the ‘eternal value’ of the great works of art. For example, the Fluxus movement, which enjoyed its heyday between 1959 and 1963, sought to exclude the planned aspect of the creative process. This international movement called for an open renewal of Dadaism through a fusion of music, dramatic and visual arts, and several of its novel aesthetic views had an effect on the theory and practise of mail art. Firstly, Fluxus started as an underground publication, to which everyone contributed a set number of printed works and when the material for each issue was compiled the participants received completed copies of it by post. The majority of Fluxus artists kept in direct contact with one another by post, and it is probable that thanks to the decision to communicate in this way the movement grew into an international one: by 1966 Fluxus centres had been established in Copenhagen, Nice, Prague and San Diego. Special merit can be ascribed to certain people in proliferating the ideal of mail art. First among these is Ken Friedmann, who – thanks to his catalysing role – published a mailing list in the early seventies containing some one thousand four hundred names, and personally added new materials – shoes, painted shirts, piles of paper, etc. – into the postal exchange. Also worthy of a mention is Ben Vautier, known for his mailed objects and text statements, along with the two pioneers of artist’s stamp publication and rubber stamp art, Bob Watts and Daniel Spoerri. Spoerri, Beuys, Vostell, Ben, Brecht and Friedmann had published significant stamp series already in the early 1960s. It seems that the boosting effect Fluxus exerted upon mail art manifested the most expressly in the liberation of associative processes, the introduction of aleatoric methods, experimentation, the personal and intimate nature of aesthetic messages as well as in the opportunity for self-discovery and in ascribing importance to small things, while also ‘naturalising’ the indispensable tools of mail art such as rubber stamps, artist’s postal stamps and postcards, the use of which soon began to expand.

The New York Correspondence School was founded in 1962 by Ray Johnson, who is regarded as the father of correspondence art in North America to this day. Correspondence is important to emphasise here as it refers to the textual nature of Johnson’s mail art. Johnson was both the director of the school and one of its teachers who gathered some two hundred correspondence students around him and inundated with his letters and artistic messages. Thomas Albright wrote about the school, “The trend has attracted several hundred people – artists, critics, movie actors –, who receive mail from Johnson and sent mail to him in turn. [The school] teaches us about the various elements of what draws interest as well as about instructions, discovery, absurdity and logic, and sometimes it simply provides information about its own existence and its founder. There are some two hundred permanent correspondents of the school, who form the ‘teaching faculty’ and the ‘student body’ at the same time.”

The French Nouveau Réalisme exerted a somewhat more covert influence upon mail art. Compared with Fluxus, its only novelty was introducing the artistic use of ordinary objects and waste to the tools of mail art. This marked the beginning of junk art, one of the branches of postal art. New Realism primarily brought about a turning point by seeking to provide an ‘elite’ context for postmarks typically used in mail art.

Besides the above three sources, a role of varying degrees was played in the development of mail art by artists active in pop art, conceptual art, minimal art, structural art, performance and concrete visual poetry, etc., i.e. artists who utilised the benefits of the international postal service as part of other art systems, often as a partial, supplementary solution or an auxiliary tool. Hence, they should be treated separately from artists who exclusively focussed their attention on mail art.

A work of art posted to a specific person cannot be compared to one that has been made for an exhibition and intended for a narrow audience, because while the former is more restricted, ‘personalised’ and more intimate, the latter has a more general scope and is manifest at a more average level. Although exhibitions and shows chiefly with didactic and popularising purposes have sometimes been organised from mail art works, the real power of postal activities lies not in these joint actions but rather in distributing unique or serial works addressed to concrete individuals. Jean Marc Poinsot contends that producing private mail art requires greater attention and devotion than that of many of the works produced for ‘serious’ exhibitions. What must be kept in mind is that mail art is the only artistic manifestation where the tasks of implementing and distributing artworks are, without exception, all placed on the shoulders of the author.

Numerous mail artists choose postal communication itself as a subject for their works and as their areas of research. They post mail to non-existent addresses and to the apartments of long-dead artists, and try to modify the post’s standard forms of forwarding messages. They use hand-made stamps and rubber stamps, both of which have become so widespread that they have separated and become independently known under the names Stamp Art and Rubberstamp Art. Others post collages, little, useless presents, pieces of clothing and unidentifiable objects, which bamboozle the postal authorities, customs authorities and postmen. Mail artists do not work for the future or to create something lasting since their art and ideas are transitory. They intensively take their share from the troubles of the world but they have no wish to erect statues to themselves; instead, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, they primarily seek a spiritual connection: they desire to be known and open up to others. Perhaps they are the first true citizens of McLuhan’s global village.

It would be difficult to take into account the various inspirations and influences pertaining to mail art one by one but it is a fact that mail art has made it possible for ever more important and not quite so important artists to be seen. Thanks to the ability of postal exchange to bridge countries’ borders, national boundaries, hemispheres and continents, a completely new generation of artists has been able to appear in the international arena, which got a great many initiatives and recommendations started. It is undeniable that sending aesthetic messages by post does not mean the same thing to every artist. One of the chief characteristics of mail art is that it is closely linked to the existential and ideological struggle of everyday life and to the forms taken by the existential practices of artists. Compared to other communication tools, this type of artistic communications is built upon direct contact, and only the addressee is able to decode and interpret the covert meaning of the messages.

In any case, these days mail art has grown into the most topical artistic phenomenon after the conceptual art forms, understood in a broader sense, were prematurely exhausted and dried up.