3.17 / Review

On Mail Art: From Correspondence to Collective Collage

By John Held, Jr. June 14, 2012

In March 2012, Art Practical sent out the first edition of our Mail Art Subscription series, and each month since, subscribers have received artwork in the form of correspondence from artists who've mined our archive, prompting new reflection and inquiry into the ideas held therein. Our series was inspired by what we perceived as the overlapping objectives betwen online publishing and mail art: how the correspondence between individuals could also manifest as a network of communication, demonstrate a self-directed means of exchange, and utilize a democratic form of access.

As part of this project, we want to encourage you, our readers, to think about the value that exists in both the undifferentiated and ready access to information, ideas, and archives that online publishing grants and about the intimacy of a hand-addressed envelope intended for a single individual. To that end, we're honored to share "From Correspondence to Collective Collage," by John Held, Jr., one of the preeminent practitioners, collectors, and historians of mail art. This article appears in Where the Secret is Hidden: John Held, Jr, Collected Essays, 1979-2011, which is available for purchase online. We will also be featuring an interview with Held in the July 19 issue of Art Practical.


The beginning of Mail Art is most often cited as 1962. This is the year E. M. Plunkett gave the name New York Correspondence School (NYCS) to Ray Johnson’s postal activities. But Johnson had been responsible for mysterious mailings through domestic and international postal systems for almost two decades by then.

What does give the year some credibility as a birthing table for Mail Art is that William S. Wilson, Johnson’s most dedicated scholar, has pinpointed it as the pivotal moment when the artist began instructing his correspondents to “add and pass” the enclosed work to a known or unknown third party. In this way, correspondence was transformed from personal exchange toward the formation of a network.

Ray Johnson was certainly not the first artist to use the postal system in a creative fashion. This has been well documented in such books as More Than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (Princeton Architectural Press, 2005); The Englishman who Posted Himself (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010); Illustrated Letters: Artists and Writers Correspond (Abrams, 1999); The Illustrated Letter (Universe Books, 1987); and (Prestel, 1992), among scores of others.

What distinguished Johnson’s postal activities from other decorative and conceptual missives sent from one artistically inclined correspondent to another was Johnson’s communal underpinnings: either a conscious or unconscious search for community by means of introducing his various and far flung correspondents to one another and having them join in a cooperative undertaking.

Fresh out of high school, Johnson attended Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina. Thrown into a cauldron of some of the most sophisticated artists of the day, including his mentor, Josef Albers, who had just arrived from the Bauhaus in Germany, Johnson gained the artistic skills and a desire for community that would last him a lifetime. Black Mountain College was, as author Martin Duberman noted, an experiment in community, with students and teachers sharing chores, dining together, and learning together. Some of the boldest artistic statements of the era were made there, including the famous “first happening” performed by John Cage, Merce Cunningham, David Tudor, M. C. Richards, Charles Olson, and Robert Rauschenberg. 

Ryosuke Cohen. Brain Cell, Osaka, Japan, No. 697, November 30, 2007; print. Courtesy of John Held, Jr.
Ray Johnson. Invitation to Mick Boyle to New York Correspondence School meeting, 1977. Courtesy of Mick Boyle.
Set loose from Black Mountain, Johnson settled in New York City, in the same building as Cage and Cunningham. Like his friend Andy Warhol, he tried establishing a design company, using the postal system to distribute information on his services. In these mailings, he developed many of his better-known graphic insignias, including snakes, bricks, and knives. More importantly, Johnson set about establishing a community through the postal system, which included Black Mountain graduates and New York–based artists, as well as celebrities and those chosen at random. Into the mix they went, and in 1962 Ray began encouraging them to add to his mailings and pass them on to fellow correspondents, thus encouraging a network, which blossomed into Plunkett’s NYCS, and in 1968, Johnson’s ”First Meeting of the New York Correspondence School” at the Society of Friends Meeting House.

Johnson’s instructions to add and pass were a test. To many his mailings were precious, and they were forced into deciding whether to obey or disregard Johnson’s command. True believers heeded the master’s wishes and did as they were told, and in so doing reaped the reward of return in abundance.

Or not. The universe is not always fair. Johnson’s system reflected the universe, reflected the time, and reflected his search for intentional community, not only through the postal system, but through NYCS Meetings, a series of silhouette portraits he did, and the many lists he enumerated with bunny heads. His add and pass instructions weeded out those who were not strong enough to let go. Thus was utopia, and Mail Art, formed.

It seems that in recent years, the activity of add and pass has only increased. Some, like my collaborator Mike Dickau, have taken it to new technological levels, leaving behind the black-and-white photocopier Johnson often used to compose his works for sophisticated digital color printing. [Another method] is the camera passed around from correspondent to correspondent, each taking a photograph, until returned to the originator of the project for development and documentation. Ryosuke Cohen has been doing a modified version of add and pass since the mid-eighties. By gathering images from various correspondents onto one page, he transforms incoming correspondence into a collective collage. Adding a second page listing contributors and their addresses, Cohn extends the concept by enabling his various correspondents to contact each other directly without his intervention.

There are many variations of this in Mail Art, and many others have made the leap to the Internet. All have in common the desire to keep the flow of creativity in motion, challenging the standard conception of individual object-based creation.



 "From Correspondence to Collective Collages" first appeared in a 1996 Stamp Art Gallery exhibition catalog essay. Where the Secret is Hidden: John Held, Jr, Collected Essays, 1979-2011, is published by Bananafish Publications and is avaliable here.

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