Correspondence is, at its best, an intimate gesture.
It is a pure idea
often direct and unrefined
It may also become
(Excerpt from an unpublished statement, 1984. From Commentaries on the New Media Arts by Robert C. Morgan)
Open a box in the Don Milliken Collection of Correspondence Art and Related Materials and you will find zines, and postcards, and artists’ books, and newspapers, and stamp collections, and packets of stickers, photographs, letters, collages, and envelopes of all shapes from people all over the world. This is one of the great things about correspondence art: the sheer variety of materials and themes that compile this worldwide art movement, emphasizing the inclusive participation of artists and amateurs in a variety of media through the use of the postal system.
Correspondence art, also called mail art or postal art, began in the 1960s. While difficult to trace the origins of this movement, most sources agree that correspondence art began as a reaction to the commodification and commercialization of art. In the competitive world of exclusive art museums and juried exhibitions, artists and amateurs sought to re-emphasize the joy of creating and experiencing art, and to create new paradigms for the art world focused on sharing and exchange.
Drawing upon the influences of Dada, an art movement reacting to the atrocities of World War I, mail art questions the political and social order of the day through the creation of a de-centralized, egalitarian, non-hierarchical network of participating artists, amateurs, political activists, and writers.
Perhaps at the heart of this movement’s ethos is the desire to redefine and re-contextualize common everyday objects and functions. Correspondence art claims the impersonal, invisible, and inexpensive network of the postal system as its own transporter of creative, intimate, and artistic interactions. Postal stamps and rubber stamps are frequently incorporated into mail art, employing tools that often symbolize bureaucracy and formality. Finally, the content of much correspondence art is a re-purposing of images and text from mass media publications, such as mainstream newspapers or magazines.
Many mail artists use pseudonyms, sometimes several, and often publications are the combined efforts of numerous artists. Both of these practices blur the lines of Creator, instead emphasizing the content, the collaboration, interaction, and recycling of images, words, and ideas.
Mail art requires an actual physical interaction between the receiver/consumer and the artists’ work. In many cases, this interaction takes the form of opening an envelope, where both the envelope and the contents are the art, but so is the act of opening the envelope. In this way, the art transgresses from purely visual/physical art to performance/interactive art. The act of receiving art in the mail expels the distance between art and life, bringing the experience of art straight into the recipient’s home.
In my opinion, this collection’s real value is not in the work of any one artist or publication, but in the way the collection as a whole communicates the network and community of international artists that share a common desire to connect and relate through art. The numerous creators exhibited in this collection exemplify the shared spirit of the movement, the great sum of all the individual parts, while allowing us to witness the very collaborative, entwined, and inter-referential nature of so many of these works.
Don Milliken, former Amherst College Curator of Visual Resources, was active in the correspondence art movement from the 1970s to the late 1990s as a creator and receiver of mail art. He is internationally known for his publication OR and participated in numerous collaborative publications and exhibitions.
See these and more works from the Don Milliken Collection of Correspondence Art and Related Materials in the Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College.