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Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Correspondence Art

Exploring the Collection

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Correspondence art—also known as mail or postal art—is a dialogue, a connection, a testament to the enduring power of creativity.

Anyone with access to a mailbox, paper, and some stamps can participate in correspondence art, and each artist is free to decide how and when to (or not) answer incoming mail. It is universal, accessible, and presented without traditional skill-based parameters. Mail artists deeply value the process of exchanging ideas and the sense of belonging to a community.

The term “mail art” was coined in the early 1960s by artist Edward Plunkett as a way to retroactively create a label for a movement already in motion. It began in the 1940s with American artist Ray Johnson (1927–95), widely considered the “grandfather” of mail art for his early experiments with correspondence.


Ray Johnson

Plunkett began referring to the growing movement as the “New York Correspondence School,” in reference to the budding Abstract Expressionist movement of the time. Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondence School (or “Correspondance School,” as Johnson sometimes liked to spell it) was composed of a vast network of artists, including, among hundreds of others, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenberg, Robert Indiana, May Wilson, and Ruth Asawa. Today, the Art Institute has some of the very first documents of the New York Correspondence School in our own William S. Wilson Collection of Ray Johnson, which was acquired in 2018 and displayed for the first time in the 2021–22 exhibition Ray Johnson ℅.

Here are some examples of mail art in our collection.

Lenore Tawney to Katherine Kuh

Lenore Tawney (1907–2007) was an American artist known for her work in assemblage and fiber art. Born in Lorain, Ohio, she attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and lived and worked in Chicago for 15 years before settling in New York City in the late 1950s, with the aim of forming a career in the epicenter of the modern art world.

Tawney began creating postcard collages in the ’60s while she was moving between studios and traveling internationally. Though she left Chicago, the artist maintained a longstanding friendship with Katherine Kuh, who was the first woman curator of European art and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago. The two exchanged mail art over the course of their long friendship.

Tawney’s postcards to Kuh are humorous, intimate, and delicately constructed, laden with meaning only understood between the two friends.

Gutai Art Association

The Gutai Art Association, founded in 1954 by Japanese artist Jirō Yoshihara, was an internationally revered avant-garde artist collective which combined painting with performance, theater, and interactive site-specific art.

The Gutai artists utilized nengajo (年賀状) or nenga-hagaki (年賀はがき), which translates to new year’s postcards, for their mail art. The Japanese custom of sending written new year’s greetings dates back to at least the Heian era (794–1185) when the nobility began writing to people who lived too far away for face-to-face greetings.

When Japan’s postal service introduced postcards in 1871, they were the perfect medium for these messages that required only the text “Happy New Year” alongside one’s name and address. The tradition has been preserved since then and has become one of the most common new year’s celebrations throughout the history of Japan.

The Art Institute’s mail art collection is extensive, and lives in several places, including the museum’s permanent collection, the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries’ special collections, and the Art Institute Archives. When it comes to collection and display, mail art is a complicated genre. It exists somewhere in between being an art object—think paintings, sculptures, prints, and so forth—and being an archival object—think exhibition catalogs, provenance records, or any materials that bring historical and researchable context to an artwork (like artist correspondence). The School of the Art Institute’s Flaxman library also has a robust collection of artist-designed postcards and stamps. Most of the Gutai-affiliated postcards are from the collection of Tsuruko Yamazaki, co-founder and the longest-standing female member of the Gutai Art Association. 

To make an appointment to view some of the mail art in the Ryerson and Burnham collection, contact us via our email, reference@artic.edu. Or take a spin through our digital collections.

Or even better—send us a postcard.

—Sofia Canale-Parola, Ray Johnson Project Cataloger, Art Institute of Chicago Archives

P. Jones / S. Canale-Parola
Communications
Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Ave
Chicago, IL 60603

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