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click to enlarge Anna Banana, aka Anna Lee Long “Banana Cards” to Lucy Lippard, ca. 1970s. Lucy R. Lippard papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Lucy R. Lippard papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Anna Banana, aka Anna Lee Long “Banana Cards” to Lucy Lippard, ca. 1970s. Lucy R. Lippard papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Mail art may be the perfect pandemic art form 

Learn more about the history of the movement in a retrospective at Winter Park's CFAM

One of several excellent exhibitions currently on display at Rollins College's Cornell Museum, Pushing the Envelope: Mail Art from the Archives of American Art looks at the secret history of mail art, an anti-fine art movement in which artists, art enthusiasts and conceptual pranksters around the world used the postal service to collaborate and disseminate works far beyond the reach of the gallery or the academy.

Pushing the Envelope is curated by Miriam Kienle, an assistant professor of art history at the University of Kentucky, with the help of some of her intrepid students, with materials sourced from the Smithsonian's extensive holdings. The exhibition has been displayed at the Smithsonian Institute of American Art and other museums, and arrives at Rollins College at an oddly appropriate time.

Elizabeth Pearl Nasaw, aka Lyx Ish, aka Elizabeth Was, mail art to John Held Jr., 1987. John Held papers relating to Mail Art, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. - JOHN HELD PAPERS RELATING TO MAIL ART, ARCHIVES OF AMERICAN ART, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION.
  • John Held papers relating to Mail Art, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  • Elizabeth Pearl Nasaw, aka Lyx Ish, aka Elizabeth Was, mail art to John Held Jr., 1987. John Held papers relating to Mail Art, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The New Yorker recently opined that "mail art, which requires neither exhibition space nor Zoom conferencing, is poised for a comeback" — and we agree. During a time when social interactions for most of us are fewer and farther between, taking a peep at the ol' mailbox or getting a package on the doorstep is often the day's highlight. The exhibition's exploration of mail artists' unique ways of creation, collaboration and connection are energizing and inspiring in the present now.

Pushing the Envelope is a historical survey of the diverse, international mail art movement, starting with 1960s works from early movers like Ray Johnson and Wallace Berman going through the decades to more recent practitioners. The sense of play and discovery is apparent, with all sorts of materials being fair game on these postage-stamped canvases, but the depth and adventurous technique present in the featured work goes far beyond mere art pranks. Even the simple, democratizing act of using the postal system to bypass traditional means of distributing and producing art becomes a bold statement in itself.

It's enough to make you want to buy some extra stamps ... just in case the urge hits you. It certainly looks like the artists featured herein were having a ball. Case in point: Fletcher Copp and Ken Friedman's "Sock of the Month" club, in which they'd send painted socks out to colleagues and critics alike.

Kienle took the time to answer some questions Orlando Weekly posed to her about her personal experiences with mail art, taking a close look at a couple of pieces in the exhibition and if the mail art comeback is really happening.

Ry Nikonova, mail art to John Held Jr., 1988. John Held papers relating to Mail Art, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. - JOHN HELD PAPERS RELATING TO MAIL ART, ARCHIVES OF AMERICAN ART, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION.
  • John Held papers relating to Mail Art, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  • Ry Nikonova, mail art to John Held Jr., 1988. John Held papers relating to Mail Art, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

How did you and the Cornell partner up for this exhibition?

Gisela Carbonell — curator at the Cornell — and I have known each other for years, since our days in the Art History graduate program at the University of Illinois. She and I were talking about the exhibition and she thought that it sounded like a great fit for the museum. She felt that the content of the show and the way it was curated would be inspiring for the local community and the students and faculty at Rollins.

What was the first piece of mail art that really struck a chord with you personally?

I think it was a letterbox full of mail art that Ray Johnson had sent to the critic David Bourdon. I first saw it when I was working at Ubu Gallery in New York years ago. (This archive is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in D.C.) The humor, generosity and puckish unruliness of this work really struck me, as did the codes and elisions that spoke to the artist and critics' shared queerness in the years before Stonewall and the gay liberation [movement]. The work was brave and engaging and that really inspired me. Since that time, I have not only gotten to know Johnson's work better, but also the people he corresponded with. Robert Warner and I have grown particularly close through our now decade-long correspondence, and I would say now that Bob's correspondence art is the work that means the most to me on a personal level. Getting his periodic mailings in my letterbox has gotten me through many difficult moments.

Do you think mail art still has a place in our digitized, social media society?

Yes, absolutely! In some respects, mail art networks anticipated the global connectivity of our digitized/social media society, but they also act counter to it by stressing how communication (postal and digital) is constructed and mediated, not seamless and immediate. Also, at the moment, everyone is so desperate for communication that is not mediated by screens that mail art acts like a breath of fresh air.

Anecdotally, do you currently see any uptick in mail art? Off the top of my head, when I think about mail art "practitioners" in Florida, I think about experimental musicians and artists Dylan Houser and Hal McGee.

I personally have been making/receiving a lot more mail art, but I have also observed an explosion of exhibitions and articles on mail art since the pandemic began. Several critics have described it as a veritable "Mail Art Renaissance."

Miguel Cubiles mail art to Ramon Carulla, 1996. Ramon Carulla papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. - RAMON CARULLA PAPERS, ARCHIVES OF AMERICAN ART, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION.
  • Ramon Carulla papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  • Miguel Cubiles mail art to Ramon Carulla, 1996. Ramon Carulla papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Would you give us a little bit of background on the mail art that Miguel Cubiles sent to Ramon Carulla from 1996?

Miguel Cubiles and Ramon Carulla immigrated to the US from Cuba during the 1960s and were part of the Miami art scene until Cubiles moved to Mexico City in 1980. With mail art, artists living in exile could still participate in a shared Cuban culture and create a local scene, despite being apart. For example, in the collaged mailing that Cubiles sent to Carulla, which we featured in the show, the artist references "la salsa cubana" and "la macarena," while also aligning himself with the mail art movement through his artistamp self-portrait inscribed with the words "arte correo."

And how about the 2002 Ryosuke Cohen mail art to John Evans? This has been an ongoing back-and-forth between the two since 1985?

Ryosuke Cohen and John Evans met through the mail art network and shared a similarly colorful and collaborative collage aesthetic. Evans' collages were comprised of materials that he received in the mail and found on the streets of New York; and Cohen's works accumulated the artistamps, stickers, rubber stamps and drawings of thousands of mail artists from around the world. Through their collaborative works, I think that they both visualized the dynamism of the collective consciousness of the mail art multitude.

Pushing the Envelope: Mail Art from the Archives of American Art, through March 28 at Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park, rollins.edu/cfam

Ryosuke Cohen mail art to John Evans, 2002 (ongoing project since 1985). John Evans papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. - JOHN EVANS PAPERS, ARCHIVES OF AMERICAN ART, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION.
  • John Evans papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  • Ryosuke Cohen mail art to John Evans, 2002 (ongoing project since 1985). John Evans papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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