Artpool40Active Archives and Art Networks

International Conference of the Artpool Art Research Center

February 20–21, 2020 Museum of Fine Arts, Schickedanz Hall, Budapest

Agustina Andreoletti | Zdenka Badovinac | David Crowley | Katalin Cseh-Varga | Mela Dávila Freire | Lina Džuverović | Meghan Forbes | Daniel Grúň | Sarah Haylett | John Held | Roddy HunterJudit Bodor | Jasna JakšićTihana Puc | Klara Kemp-Welch | Kaja Kraner | Emese Kürti | Karolina Majewska-Güde | Lívia Páldi | Henar Rivière | Sven Spieker | Kristine Stiles | Katalin Timár | Tomasz Załuski | Elisabeth Zimmermann

John Held, Jr. [Biography]
Harboring Hidden Histories: Mail Art’s Reception in United States Institutional Archives


“Archiving the past is the art (history) of today.”
– Vittore Baroni

The acceptance of Mail Art in United States museums, university libraries, and national archives has been long and arduous. It has been hindered by its private non-commercial nature, neglect by galleries, and the inability of museum curators to fully appreciate the impact of the field on contemporary art practice. Lacking the promotional resources normally serving as gateways to cultural preservation, Mail Artists have taken it upon themselves to conserve 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 reflects the particular vision and commitment of the artist/collector. The archive is shaped as much as an artwork is created; with unbridled passion crafted and nurtured over a sustained period of time.

Closely allied with Fluxus, Mail Art now experiences similar growing pains endured in finding a home for the materials generated and received by artists in the field. Examples are the sale of the Jean Brown Archive to the Getty Research Institute, and the formation of the archive (by Steven Leiber) placed with the Walker Art Center, which formed the basis of the first major Fluxus exhibition (In the Spirit of Fluxus), spawning a catalog and reviews in major art periodicals, making the movement more visible to the general art public.

Due to the aging of Mail Art participants, decisions are becoming necessary to retain these materials for future research, often in the face of institutional neglect. 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?

Recent exhibitions of Mail Art donated to the Archives of American Art at The National Portrait Gallery and a major photography exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, incorporating both historical and contemporary Mail Art, point the way to increased institutional attention in the United States. The assertion that Mail Art is a predecessor to the Internet in analog form is beginning to gain traction in wider cultural circles.

Previous to the Internet, Mail Art served as a major link between culturally diverse artists. In particular, East European and South American artists embraced the medium to circumvent the limitations placed upon them by authoritarian political regimes. Contemporary research reveals that Mail Art can be seen as a harbor for hidden histories of East European and South American visual poetry, artist’s books, multiples, assemblings, rubber and postage stamps, zines, exhibition catalogs, political dissent, performance, and other previously overlooked artistic creations.

In many ways, this follows a familiar history of institutional collections. Important personal contacts and cooperative projects, occurring away from mainstream glance, are now coming to light with the inclusion of these works in major cultural venues, finally available through sale or donation for exhibition and scholarly research. Museums rely on active participants to assemble formally low priority materials. Collectors sensitive to the artistic currents of the day, much like avant-garde artists, are able to anticipate future concerns, only later coming to the attention of previously inattentive institutions.