Archiving the past is the art (history) of today.
The incorporation and preservation of the avant-garde by cultural institutions, initiated by participants, collectors, and archivists, is a form of cultural stewardship, shepherding the visionary artist to safe refuge for future examination. Appreciation and acceptance of challenging contemporary art is uncommon among the majority of museum professionals and academics, and yet, one finds that the most adventuresome of them are found among the United States most iconic cultural venues, such as the Getty, MoMA/NY and the Archives of American Art; a recognition on their part, perhaps, that their leadership depends on continued collection nourishment, often with materials that critique the institution itself.
The acceptance of Mail Art into United States museums, university libraries, and national archives has been long and arduous. It has been hindered by the medium’s private non-commercial nature, neglect by galleries, and current curatorial inattention failing to appreciate the impact of the field on contemporary art practice. Lacking the promotional resources normally serving as gateways to cultural preservation, Mail Artists place upon themselves the responsibility of personal maintenance of materials obtained through the post in cross-cultural collaborative exchange.
The collection of incoming correspondence and attendant materials (publications, catalogs, visual poetry, faux postage, etc.) is often an unintended result of active participation. Each archive is different from the next, its overall composition a reflection of the particular vision and commitment of the artist/collector. The archive is shaped much like an artwork, with unbridled passion crafted and nurtured over a sustained period of time.
Closely allied with Fluxus, Mail Art now experiences similar growing pains experienced by the previous art movement, which endured decades of neglect in acquiring an institutional home for artworks and ephemera generated by artists in the field. Examples of Fluxus’s incorporation into American institutions are the acquisition of the Jean Brown Archive by the Getty Research Institute, and a collection of Fluxus materials assembled by Steven Leiber, and placed with the Walker Art Center forming the basis of the first major Fluxus exhibition, In the Spirit of Fluxus, generating a catalog and reviews in major art periodicals, increasing the visibility of the movement with the general public. Works contemporaneously unacknowledged as artistic may later be validated solely by their new institutional settings.
I first read about my mentor, the late public librarian and art collector Jean Brown, whose archive presently resides at the Getty Research Institute, in a 1976 Saturday Review article, “The Preservation of the Avant-Garde.” The article reported that:
It is always the marginal she stresses—such manifestations as concrete poetry, rubber stamp art, the vagaries of video. She is after elusive connections, the small interstices that relate the recent past to less-publicized present-day directions [...]. Other borderline movements she considers extensions of Dada, and also perhaps Fluxus, are (Mail) Art and Lettrisme.
Jean was a financial and emotional supporter of Fluxus impresario George Maciunas, who moved from New York City in his later years to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to be near Jean. He undertook many projects on her behalf, including the installation of her archive on the second floor of her “seed house,” moved to her property from a Shaker community.
When the Getty Research Institute negotiated with Jean to acquire her collection, they were mainly concerned with her accumulation of Dada and Surrealism ephemera, which she and her husband Leonard focused on collecting in the 1950s. Jean began interacting with Fluxus artists after her husband died, and when the Getty acquisition was first raised, Fluxus still wasn’t acknowledged as art by cultural professionals. Jean fought to have it included in the transaction, and today, the Getty’s Fluxus collection is one of the crown jewels of the Institute.
Marcia Reed, who acquired the Jean Brown Archive for the Getty Research Institute in 1985, relates the drift from disregard to acceptance the collection provoked:
When I came to the Getty in 1983 and we began to build the collections—beginning with a small curatorial library and three rare books—even collecting early-twentieth-century rare books felt transgressive at first. Avant-garde editions with uneven lines of text (hard to imagine how they set the type) or held together with industrial quality bolts seemed really crazy. Not to mention the Russian books of Ferro-Concrete poetry, with wallpaper covers in loud colors and goofy designs, or the Italian Futurist books with metal covers. They had titles like Tango with Cows, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, and The Lyrical Watermelon. In 1985, with the acquisition of the Jean Brown Archive, we acquired even more—many more—of these revolutionary twentieth-century/Dada/Surrealist books that questioned, often not politely, and basically ignored the traditions of editorial authority and book design: Marcel Duchamp’s boxes, Max Ernst’s proto-graphic novels, Man Ray’s prescient photobooks, artists’ magazines such as 291 and 391. As we unpacked Jean Brown’s notable Fluxus collections, our director just happened to swing by. He took one look at the boxes, books, and objects, and said “What is this [#%]!” I had never heard an expletive from him, and we quickly closed up the shelves. Looking back, as I became familiar with Dieter Roth’s books, which reference substances best managed by toilets, he may have been right.
Fluxus’s inclusion in the Getty Research Institute collection stimulated interest with both academic and museum-related institutional libraries. However, it was a San Francisco art dealer who brought exhibit-worthy Fluxus objects to the attention of the museum world, placing them in the context of conceptual and performance art.
Steven Leiber was a fledgling art dealer when he acquired the collection of Jeff Berner, a West Coast associate of Maciunas, who had been given the West Coast “franchise” distributing fluxkits to Haight-Ashbury head shops. Leiber was able to bundle the Berner collection with further acquisitions, placing them with the Walker Art Center, which went on to stage the 1993 exhibition, In the Spirit of Fluxus. Widely reviewed and accompanied by an excellent catalog, the exhibition drew open the floodgates of interest and research into all things Fluxus.
Leiber relates that it was the acquisition of the Berner collection that set him on the path of collecting Fluxus and led him to ruminate upon the importance of artistic ephemera in general.
I bought a collection in the late '80s that came from an artist, Jeff Berner, who was associated with Fluxus. He had a Flux shop; I'm not sure how functional it was. What I mean is, I'm not sure it was a shop. It wasn’t clear to me that he sold very many editions. Granted, not that many Fluxus editions were sold between 1961 and 1978, so this guy had multiple copies of this or that edition. In addition, this collection also had a great deal of material concerning visual poetry, concrete poetry, and a certain amount of Beat and countercultural material from the '60s. In the process of making sense of what this collection was—I mean it’s a bit of an exaggeration to call it a collection. It was twenty-one boxes of material without an index in no order, just twenty-one boxes of crap. And I think I spent approximately a year with a colleague making sense of it. In the process, it became clear to me that what was most exciting was not the most obvious material, not the things that I actually went to buy, which was primarily the Fluxus material; it was the other things. For Fluxus events or festivals, there wasn’t necessarily a thing that would have come out of the exhibition. You didn’t buy a painting; you showed up, saw what went on, and in time, what becomes the collectable aspect of it is the flyer, the poster, the relic, the printed material that was generated from these events. So I guess my interest in artist ephemera specifically, and art ephemera in general, grows out of that inquiry.
Artistic ephemera are the breadcrumbs of the avant-garde. They are the scattered traces of a fragile existence, challenging us to navigate the gap between art and documentation. After years of hidden artistic activity, they are brought to light under the tutelage of art librarians and archivists at home with ephemeral items, prematurely deemed irrelevant by their curatorial counterparts.
Julia Feldman, the Processing Archivist for the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection at MoMA, New York, writes of the difficulty assimilating Fluxus materials into institutional context:
I attempt to wrestle the documentation of this varied, ephemeral, and frankly messy art historical phenomenon into a tractable and orderly research collection. When the Silverman collection, one of the world’s largest of artwork, documentation, and published materials related to Fluxus, arrived at The Museum of Modern Art in 2009, it was not divided neatly into “artwork” and “archives.” The categorical confusion derives not only from the nature of the Silvermans’ collecting, but also from Fluxus itself, a movement (or network, tendency, or attitude), which intentionally defied traditional categories of art and artmaking. For this reason, works of art and historical documentation are often housed together—and it is often unclear which is which.
Which is which? Moving past Fluxus to the next difficult art to surface, the question arises—is Mail Art a conceptual art, a network of international pen pals, or is it, as one widely circulated rubber stamp opined, “the newest, most fashionable and historically valid art”?
Mail Art arose from the artists' desire to escape the confines of the gallery and museum, which weeded out participants by juried competitions, entry fees, costly preparation of promotional materials, influential references, and padded resumes, all befitting a hierarchical prerogative. To the contrary, Mail Art is a democratic art movement, whose greatest accomplishment has been the construction of an open system in which creative people could partake without fear of rejection. Mail Art exhibitions welcome entries without fees, with all contributions displayed and all contributors receiving documentation of their participation.
Mail Art’s “open system” is a source of confusion to many in cultural academic communities because of the unevenness of the work produced. This misses the point. In Mail Art, the act of participation and collaboration are more important than the products produced from engagement with the medium.
An art medium of inclusion, avoiding judgments of quality, Mail Art has eluded widespread critical attention, marketability and institutional interest. In a 1984 review of the book, Correspondence Art: Source Book for the Network of International Postal Art Activity, by Mike Crane and Mary Stofflet (Contemporary Arts Press, 1984), cultural historian Greil Marcus commented that, “The history of contemporary mail art is the history of an immediately quaint form that excused itself from history.” Disdaining established art hierarchies and seeking alternative paths of cultural production and dissemination, Mail Artists found themselves adrift from conventional routes of mainstream acceptance.
The inability of traditional research institutions to acquire challenging materials at the time of their issue forces individuals associated with marginal cultures to nurture primary source materials prior to their mainstream acceptance, enabling future scholarly study. This "care and feeding" of cultural alternatives at the infancy of their acceptance is both a blessing and a curse, rife with discouragement and disappointment, ultimately satisfying through perseverance and strength of purpose.
There has yet to be a comprehensive exhibition of Mail Art in a major American museum, with only scattered interest in European venues, most often in national postal museums. Despite this, the medium continues to flourish, extending theoretical and geographical boundaries of art by sustained global engagement, generating a multitude of small edition publications, producing exhibition documentation and distributing small-scale artworks.
Maturing under the tutelage of Ray Johnson and the students of his New York Correspondance (sic) School in the 1950s that many associated with Fluxus, Mail Art has developed an enviable record of creative output and documentation yet to be sufficiently examined by scholars, who are central in promoting advances in art history.
One of the obstacles facing the acceptance of Mail Art is the lack of name recognition of the artists participating in its practice. Fluxus was a difficult art for the public to accept, but the participation of Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik, Ben Vautier, Robert Filliou, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono hastened the medium's recognition. Although earlier practitioners of Mail Art, including General Idea, Eleanor Antin, Gilbert and George, John Armleder, and Genesis P-Orridge, have gone on to gain mainstream recognition, they long ago distanced themselves from the medium.
Nevertheless, the sale of Mail Art created in the 1960s and 1970s has benefited from their involvement. Mail Art from this period is viewed as an offshoot of the artist's conceptual activities, with such postcard series as Eleanor Antin's "100 Boots" and On Kawara's "I Got Up" fetching high prices in the art market. Most contemporary Mail Artists do not have access to this material, having participated only since the late ‘70s or ‘80s, when Mail Art was first revealed to the general public through exhibitions and the printed word.
The march toward institutional incorporation often occurs by singling out an individual typifying the ideals of the area of interest under scrutiny, and this has begun to happen with Johnson. Mail Art has gained in stature with Johnson’s increased success by association.
Before academics examine the field, they need access to the materials. George Maciunas, the pivotal force in Fluxus, once remarked that it was art museum 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.
Surprisingly enough, the acceptance of Mail Art into American cultural institutions has occurred not from the bottom up, but from the top down. Three of the largest cultural institutions in the United States, the Archives of American Art, the Getty Research Institute, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, have incorporated Mail Art into their collections, thereby validating a field sorely neglected elsewhere.
The Archives of American Art is part of the Smithsonian Institution, commonly known as “America’s Attic” because of their wide-ranging collection of historical artifacts. The Archive describes itself as “the world’s preeminent and most widely used research center dedicated to collecting, preserving and providing access to primary sources that document the history of the visual arts in America.”
Collections incorporating Mail Art into the Archives include: the John Held Papers Relating to Mail Art, 1947-2013; Mail Art by John M. and Catherine Mehrl Bennett; Edward Plunkett Papers, 1960-1990; Ray Johnson Papers, 1970-1971; John Shown Papers, 1937-1984; John Evans Papers, 1972-2012; Ken Friedman Papers, 1969-1978; Museum of Temporary Art Records, 1974-1982; Wallace Berman papers, 1907-1979; an oral history interview with Ray Johnson, 1968.
In 2018, the Archives of American Art drew from the depository collections of the John Held, Jr. Papers, John Evans Papers, Wallace Berman Papers, and Lucy Lippard to mount the exhibition, Pushing the Envelope: Mail Art from the Archives of American Art, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. As a result of the exhibition, an article appeared in the September 2018 issue of Art & Antiques, a widely distributed and read periodical.
The author of the article noted that Mail Artists are not always pleased with their works ending up in cultural institutions, but, “By saving these works for posterity, the recipients of mail art and the Archives of American Art themselves may have been false to one aspect of the movement, but they are true to the desire of every artist to make something that lasts and can be seen again and again. Experiencing these pieces from the ‘50s through ‘90s today is like finally receiving a long-delayed letter mailed years ago.”
As noted previously, the Jean Brown collection entered the Getty Research Institute in 1985, and contained not only Dada and Surrealist ephemera collected by Jean and her husband Leonard, and Fluxus materials acquired after the death of Leonard, but a sizable collection of Mail Art. Since the acquisition, little has been done to display the collection, although aspects of it have been included in exhibitions of visual language and artist’s books, and an exhibition and catalog on the collection is scheduled for November 2020.
In support of the forthcoming exhibition, the Getty has announced an “active project,” Fluxus Means Change: An Avant Garde Archive, which examines “Fluxus and other alternative-genre materials: mail art, ephemeral art publications and artists’ books. [...] Through these materials [...] the project explores the relationships the Browns developed among their avant-garde and postwar collections.”
In addition to the Mail Art materials included in the Jean Brown collection, the Institute has also acquired the Bern Porter Mail Art Collection, the Lon Spiegelman Collection of Mail Art and Mail Art Documentation, the Ginny Lloyd Papers and Mail Art Collection, the John Held collection of Mail Art Documentation, and the Mail Art Network Notebook Collection of Robin Crozier (1972-1997), in addition to a number of Mail Art reference works listed on their website.
Another outstanding American cultural institution, the earliest and foremost proponent of Modern Art in the country, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, also has a strong collection of Mail Art, and has increasingly made it available through limited public display. The alternative arts have had strong advocacy because of the interests of its forward-looking librarians. In 1989, well before it caught the eye of curators, Head Librarian Clive Phillpot mounted a Fluxus exhibition in the Library, with materials obtained from the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Collection, which were acquired by MoMA some thirty years after the library exhibition.
The MoMA Library has been a surreptitious collector of Mail Art, having acquired the Franklin Furnace collection of artist’s books in 1993, containing the works of Mail Artists throughout the world. In 2002, I placed a collection of 3,711 Mail Art periodicals, consisting of 655 titles published in thirty-four countries, with MoMA.
Perhaps the most “surreptitious” strategy of any Mail Artist in situating his work with MoMA was Ray Johnson. When his friend, Chuck Close, wanted to include a portrait by Johnson in a special exhibition and found that the museum had no such work in its collection, Johnson countered by mailing several works to Phillpot, who assigned them to the artist’s file, making them available for display. The strategy only reaffirms the oft noted notion that museum libraries, rather than curatorial departments, are better suited to incorporate variant materials into their collection at a faster pace than the complicated intake of museum registration.
Johnson had been mailing to the MoMA Library since the 1950s. The MoMA Library has an exhibition space available to it at the Museum, and has used it to highlight their collection, and in 2014 they mounted the exhibition, Ray Johnson Designs, drawn from periodicals and books in their collection, as well as from Johnson’s artist file. That same year, the Library drew heavily from my deposited collection of Mail Art periodicals for the exhibition Analog Network: Mail Art, 1960-1999. Curated by Jennifer Tobias, she wrote that the exhibition “traces the growth of correspondence networks, shows politically oriented works, documents discourse about the practice, and concludes with mail artists’ adaption to the Internet.”
It should be noted that donations to the Archives of American Art are freely given without financial reward. On the other hand, acquisitions by major institutions like the Getty Research Institute and the Museum of Modern Art are for the most part purchased. There are other smaller cultural institutions whose interest in acquiring Mail Art is high, but financial restraints restrict their deposit. In such cases, Mail Artists, who are financially stable, may forego payment for the opportunity to place collections for posterity. Such is the case for the archival collections placed with the Poetry Collection at the University of Buffalo, New York, Oberlin College in Ohio, and the Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts collection at the University of Iowa.
The Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts archive at the University of Iowa “is composed of works and papers donated to the University of Iowa by contemporary artists and critics, institutes, and private collectors.” Some of the artists donating to the collection include Buster Cleveland, Bill Gaglione, Ken Friedman, Alice Hutchins, Albert Fine, and Chuck Welch. The archive was founded by Estera Milman in 1982 and administered by her until her departure in 2000. They issued an excellent exhibition catalog in 1999, Subjugated Knowledges and the Balance of Power, with contributions by Ken Friedman, Stephen Perkins, and Owen Smith. The catalog was introduced by Estera Milman, who wrote:
Until recently, the post-World War II ‘interarts’ have not fared well within an art historical literature that remains agenda-bound to the custodianship of high culture. That such should be the case is not surprising, in view of the fact that, from their inception, these forms of cultural production challenged lines of demarcation among media, the visual and performing arts and literature, as well as between art and life. Consequently, because these radical works and actions were deliberately positioned outside of how normative critics and historians are organizing our cultural canons and knowledges, they were, until recently, relegated to the margins of our disciplinary discourse…They are central to ongoing reinvestigations of our cultural assumptions about the nature of the art experience itself and our concurrent attempts to re-examine the viability and expand the scope of both the museum and the academy as cultural institutions.
The Poetry Collection at the University of Buffalo, New York, is primarily the depository library for the Mail Art collection of New York artist Joel Cohen, known affectionately as the Sticker Dude. Cohen is a printer in New York City who has produced work for many Mail Artists, including Guy Bleus of Belgium and Vittore Baroni of Italy, possessors of two of the largest privately owned Mail Art archives in Europe. Cohen writes that, “Mail Art is as much a cultural strategy for life and future society as the exchange of correspondence.”
The Oberlin College Clarence Ward Art Library has an outstanding collection of Mail Art, made possible by purchase from the late Mail Artist Harley Francis, and donation by Reid Wood, also known by his Mail Art tag, State of Being. Together, the collection totals over 25,000 works from the mid 1970s to the present from over 1,800 Mail Artists from 60 countries. In 2008, the Library mounted the exhibition, Envelope Art, Poster Stamps and Artistamps, 1890-1990, followed by a more general Mail Art show two years later.
The means by which these two collections entered the institution are instructional. Harley was a painter with no steady outside income, who struggled financially throughout his life. He offered his collection for sale to enable a move from Oberlin to Northern California. Shortly before his death in 2017, he was able to place more of his work with the Library to help with medical expenses. Harley’s Mail Art collection, with a special emphasis on artist postage stamps, which he collected over four decades, became one of his few financial reserves available to him in his waning years.
On the other hand, Reid Wood held a steady job working as an educator for many years. Upon his retirement, he received a pension, denied to Harley because of his untethered employment history. As a long-term resident of Oberlin, Wood donated his collection without financial reward. While his noble gesture enabled the Library to substantially grow their Mail Art collection, it lessened the probability of Oberlin College allotting future funding for additional acquisitions. The question of donation or sale is not unique to Mail Artists and their collections, but it does impact the shepherding of challenging collections to cultural institutions.
Due to the aging of Mail Art participants, decisions are becoming necessary to place these materials for future research. In 2016, Mail Artists convened A Year of Archives in Motion, to consider the following questions: How does challenging cultural material, considered marginal by establishment institutions, eventually move into the mainstream? What types of Mail Art materials do institutions favor? Where are the cultural institutions collecting Mail Art? Should Mail Art be sold or donated to cultural institutions? What has been done with prior placement of Mail Art in museums, libraries, and national archives? These considerations have led to the issue of institutional intake now under discussion.
In 2019, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art mounted the exhibition, snap+share: transmitting photographs from mail art to social networks, under the curatorship of Clément Chéroux, previously the curator of photography at the Pompidou Center in Paris (and recently named Chief Curator of Photography at MoMA/NY). This was the first time that the term “Mail Art” was used in the title of a major museum exhibition in the United States. Chéroux, who had been made aware of my collection, contacted me. After pulling 1,725 photographically related Mail Art works by 454 artists form thirty-eight countries from my collection, the photography curatorial staff selected eighty-eight items for inclusion in the exhibition.
The snap+share exhibition serves as a good example of how institutional interest in a marginal field can greatly expand public attention. To display the Mail Art, SFMOMA constructed a special “picture window,” which pressed the artworks between two panes of Plexiglas, enabling the works to be viewed front and back. This unusual display attracted great acclaim, including reproduction in the widely distributed Sunday Arts and Leisure Section of the New York Times. Reviews of the exhibition also appeared in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, and the periodicals Art in America and Juxtapoz, gaining widespread exposure for the field. A nicely produced catalog only added to increased exposure. This is somewhat comparable to the attention Fluxus received in the wake of the Walker Art Center’s pioneering exhibition, In the Spirit of Fluxus, showing once again that institutional attention, acquisition, exhibition, and preservation plays a significant role in acclimatizing acceptance of difficult art.
I’ve recently learned that the Mail Art works loaned to snap+share: transmitting photographs form mail art to social networks will be acquired by SFMOMA, with the stipulation that the works be retained in the Library, under the direction of David Senior, an expert in artistic ephemera. Housing these works in the Library, rather than the general collection, reminds us that while Mail Art is in the process of institutional embrace, it is libraries tending to its care, while museum curatorial staff still find it difficult to fully grasp “the newest, most fashionable and historically valid art.”
John Held, Jr. is a writer and visual artist living in San Francisco, California. He is the Director of Modern Realism Gallery and Archive producing, collecting, documenting, and institutionalizing relics and documents of the later 20th-century avant-garde. He has had over thirty solo exhibitions in twelve countries (Moscow, 2003; Paris, 2005; South Korea, 2006; Japan, 2015); authored Mail Art: An Annotated Bibliography (Scarecrow Press, 1991), Rubber Stamp Art (AAA Edizione, 1999) and Small Scale Subversion Mail Art and Artistamps (TAM Publications, 2014); lectured at the V&A Museum (London, 1991) and the Museum of Communications (Berlin, 2004); organized exhibitions at the National Palace of Fine Arts (Havana, 1995) and the Mayakovsky State Museum (Moscow, 2003); contributed to the Dictionary of Art (Grove, 2000), Conversing with Cage (Routledge, 2003) and At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet (MIT, 2005). Held has placed collections with the Getty Research Institute (Los Angeles), SFMOMA (San Francisco) and the Museum of Modern Art (New York). His personal papers are in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C).
 Marcia Reed, “The Never-Ending History of Artists and Books,” Iris Blog, Getty Research Institute, August 14, 2018, http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/the-never-ending-history-of-artists-and-books/.
 Bad at Sports, “Interview with Steven Leiber,” December 29, 2010, https://www.artpractical.com/column/interview_with_steven_leiber/.
 Julia Pelta Feldman, “Perpetual Fluxfest: Distinguishing Artists’ Records from Artworks in the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Archives,” (2011), accessed April 20; 2021, https://www.academia.edu/3350375/Perpetual_Fluxfest_Distinguishing_Artists_
 Archives of American Art website, https://www.aaa.si.edu/.
 See: http://www.getty.edu/research/library/using/.
 Analog Network: Mail Art 1960-1999 exhibition website, https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2014/analognetwork/.