A Brief History of Mail Art, from Cleopatra to Miranda July

  • Jean-Leon-Gerome, Cleopatra and Caesar, 1866. Via Wikimedia Commons.  

  • Marcel Duchamp, Rendezvous of Sunday, February 6, 1916 (Rendez-vous du Dimanche 6 Février 1916), 1916. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Estate of Marcel Duchamp. The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950. Via, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In 48 BC, Cleopatra created what some have dubbed the first piece of mail art.

As part of a genius power-play aimed at aligning with Julius Caesar, the young queen smuggled herself into his quarters by wrapping her body in a carpet. Upon being unfurled, she emerged at the Roman ruler’s feet.

Cleopatra was thinking about politics, not art, when she devised the plan. But in the early 1960s, when a group of artists began using mail to disseminate their ideas, some of them adopted the wily Egyptian pharaoh as their movement’s unwitting progenitor. It was a fittingly dramatic origin story for the new “mail art” movement, with its irreverent energy, urge to forge connections, and love of surprise.

Mail has served as a both a vehicle and medium for artists throughout history. Van Gogh posted ideas for future paintings to his brother Theo in the form of long, expressive letters decorated with preparatory drawings. A few decades later, Dadaist George Grosz staged an anti-war protest by mailing satirical “care packages” to German soldiers during World War I; they contained wholly impractical objects, like crisply ironed white shirts. Concurrently, the game-changing absurdist Marcel Duchamp penned four nonsensical postcards to his neighbor in order to underscore the inefficacy of language itself (Rendezvous of Sunday, February 6, 1916, 1916).

It wasn’t until the early ’60s that a group of artists began to use correspondence as the crux of a cohesive movement. Radical Pop and conceptual artist Ray Johnson kicked things off. He began to ship packages via USPS from his home in New York: collages, drawings, annotated newspaper clippings, and found images and objects (from snakeskins to plastic forks). These were sent to art-world celebrities, friends, and strangers alike. Sometimes, he’d add interactive instructions to his work: “please add to and return...” Many heeded his call, and a creative network developed, whose members made and mailed art to each other across the world.  

According to Johnson’s estate, he was attracted to the democratic nature of mail art—he “privileged inclusivity, deeming anyone and everyone with whom he interacted suitable for creative exchange.” Both he and the artists who followed his lead liked the way these dispatches propelled art across space, connecting a far-flung constellation of peers.

Because the mailed collages and drawings were quick to craft and inexpensive to produce, it also alleviated creative pressure and allowed for spontaneity and humor to enter the works. In one 1984 note to the actor James Dean, Johnson wrote: “Dear James Dean, Please Send me your shirt. Sincerely yours, Ray Johnson.” Dean, unsurprisingly, did not reply.

It was Johnson’s friend and sometime collaborator, Ed Plunkett, who gave the growing group of mail art enthusiasts a name: The New York Correspondence School. (Plunkett is also the one who liked to call Cleopatra the first mail artist.) The name stuck, but sometimes Johnson cheekily misspelled the title’s fourth word as “Correspondance,” the word evoking the crew’s casual, quick-moving, tongue-in-cheek spirit.

The Correspondence School officially ceased operating in 1973, but Johnson continued to post his irreverent correspondence art until his death in 1995. Other artists have kept that legacy alive.

From 1993 to 1998, a young curator named Matthew Higgs (now the director of the progressive not-for-profit White Columns in New York), adopted and updated Johnson’s concept when he mailed the work of a then-unknown group of British artists to bigwigs at museums and galleries. As part of Imprint 93, as the project was called, Martin Creed crumpled a piece of paper (Work 88, 1995) which Higgs sent to then-Tate director Nicholas Serota. While this story has since made it into the conceptual art canon, the piece of mail art itself did not: Serota’s assistant uncrumpled the work and promptly sent it back.

Higgs’s approach, like Johnson’s, was simultaneously DIY and cheeky. It was also a reaction against the market-minded, shock-mongering YBA movement, led by Damien Hirst—and a means to connect a group of like-minded artists who didn’t share Hirst’s sensibilities, including Billy Childish, Jeremy Deller, Peter Doig, Ceal Floyer, Alan Kane, Elizabeth Peyton, and Chris Ofili.

In Portland, Oregon, circa 1995, Miranda July was also building on the mail art possibilities envisioned by Johnson. After dropping out of college, the young filmmaker and performance artist used an accessible networking platform—the postal service—to catalyze a feminist art community. She began to tack up pamphlets wherever she went that urged: “Lady, you send me your movie and I’ll send you the latest Big Miss Moviola Chainletter Tape.” Word about the project (later named Joanie 4 Jackie) spread, and clips and short films from young female artists and filmmakers around the country flooded July’s mailbox. July pieced the submissions together into small anthologies, making 19 chainletter videos that she mailed back to the group of strangers, in turn inspiring a far-flung community of likeminded women.

Artists have continued to keep pace with evolving communication technologies, even as snail mail has been replaced by swifter electronic messaging. Mail art these days tends to be a hybrid of the analog and the digital.

When Frank Warren launched PostSecret in 2005, it became an almost immediate sensation. Part crowd-sourcing phenomenon, part psychological experiment, the website encouraged visitors to write or illustrate their secrets on a postcard, then send them to a single address. Today, Warren publishes 10 anonymous secrets to the blog each week, still attracting confessions from every corner of the globe.

Similarly, art galleries and exhibition spaces have also used a blend of old-fashioned mail and social media to grow their networks and bring creatives together.

  • Photo by @postsecret, via Instagram.

  • Photo by @postsecret, via Instagram.

This month, the Brooklyn space Ground Floor Gallery is hosting its second “mail art” biennial. Its walls are covered in artworks small enough to palm—and to fit into the local P.O. box where submissions for the show were sent.

Krista Saunders Scenna, who runs the gallery with Jill Benson, publicized the exhibition’s open call through email and Facebook, and received mail art submissions from India, Cyprus, and Mexico—as well as from a mere few blocks away. “A big part of the excitement of this show was opening the postbox and being introduced to new artists, new work,” says Saunders Scenna, “and then making connections between them.”

The show, designed to be “accessible to both artists and collectors,” is overwhelmingly democratic. The first 250 submissions are included at the gallery, all bearing the same $100 price tag. In this way, Ground Floor Gallery is keeping alive the ethos of Johnson and the early mail art pioneers, celebrating inclusivity, community-building, playfulness, and a mischievous upending of what the art world considers valuable.


—Alexxa Gotthardt

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