From 1943 to 1944 my great-grandmother wrote letters to her son, a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. She was desperate for news and wrote that “the mailman has become a very important part of our lives.” These delicate pieces of paper contain intimate details of ordinary yet extraordinary lives. Reading my great-grandmother’s letters is poignant, but feels voyeuristic and I imagine every viewer that walks into the Halsey will undergo a similar experience as they observe the vast selection of correspondence art or mail art — small works, like paintings on postcards, sent through the postal service — featuring the work of Ray Johnson, Richard C., and Bob Ray.
In the beginning, mail art was not typically exhibited in gallery or museum settings. In the ’50s and ’60s artists were questioning and redefining the traditional concept of art and mail art sprung from that movement.
“Book art, installations, collaborations, interventions, performances, readings, and technology were all elements that were swirled together in differing portions to create a new kind of art, a new way of apprehending the world,” says Halsey Director and Chief Curator Mark Sloan.
Sloan was introduced to the genre in 1976 at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. New exhibit Correspondence seeks to introduce Halsey patrons to the movement through three of its most prolific practitioners.
Ray Johnson — who Vanity Fair called “The greatest artist you never heard of” — was considered the father of the correspondence art form. In the 1940s he studied painting under Joseph Albers, and later became involved in the New York art scene as an artist and performer. His work with correspondence art inspired him to found the New York correspondence school (NYCS) made up of friends and colleagues, essentially a group of mail art pen pals. Johnson was known as a trickster who encouraged imaginative and often “un-mailable” responses from members of the NYCS. The collection of Johnson’s work on view at the Halsey is comprised of pieces he sent to Richard C. and include a mix of paper and fabric or sometimes pieces of trash.
Viewers will want to look closer to see all the tiny handwritten messages and to understand the layered imagery. On one piece, the text reads: If it were not for all the errors, disappointments, and bad luck, I wouldn’t know anything about living at all.” While another section of the same postcard reads: “Oh no, no!!! It’s not Alzheimer’s — it’s just the introductory stages of the end.” Johnson once said that he was initially drawn to this genre because it seemed so close to poetry, adding that there’s no ego or money in mail which makes it a purer art form.
But putting poetry on the wall of a gallery is no easy feat. When I visited the Halsey, the exhibition had not been hung, and there were boxes of mail art everywhere. Sloan gave me a tour and it quickly became obvious that this would be a challenging show to hang.
“A gallery setting is not the ideal way to view mail art or to read correspondence … after all, the postcard is meant to be held casually in the hand for intimate viewing,” says Richard C.
Each piece is a treasure and they come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Most of them include handwritten text, short poems, or provocative questions.
An example is a parcel sent to Sloan from Bob Ray. Written in cursive, nearly ever inch of the front of the postcard is filled except for the stamp from Ocracoke, N.C. The piece was part of a project Sloan gave Richard C. and Ray. He asked the artists to send mail art to the Halsey as a collaborative effort over the last 18 months. The pieces that emerged are engaging and witty. On a few, Richard C. fashioned postcards from cut cardboard boxes of Hostess Cupcakes stamped with images of Elvis, Wilt Chamberlain, and Batman, among others. On one envelope (with a Spam sticker on the back) Richard writes “Those bikers in Waco, Texas are ‘really good-guys-at-heart.’ The idea of strapping a bomb to their motorcycles never even occurred to them.”
That postcard is just another example that when it comes to mail art, the message may arrive on a small parcel, but the feeling it evokes can be just as poignant as any large scale work of art.