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The Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, (the Archives) presents a new exhibition from its expansive collections documenting the international mail art movement. Opening August 10, 2018, Pushing the Envelope: Mail Art from the Archives of American Art features postcards, letters, and packages that tested the limits of what could be posted. Beginning in the 1960s, mail art (alternatively called “correspondence art” or “postal art”) emerged as a form of artistic practice in which an international network of participants used the mail to make art and share it with others. Mail artists circumvented traditional, elite modes of display and distribution—such as museums and commercial galleries—in favor of the more accessible space of the modern postal system.

The exhibition surveys the diversity and depth of mail art-making internationally—including postal art pioneers and lesser-known practitioners—and reveals the interconnected nature of the Archives’ holdings. Among the artists featured in the exhibition are Carl Andre, John Baldessari, Anna Banana, Jay DeFeo, John Held, Jr., General Idea, Ry Nikonova, Elizabeth Pearl, Ray Johnson, Carol Schneck, and Richard Tuttle.

“Together, these documents bring to light how artists from around the world looked to the postal system as an alternative means of producing, distributing, and receiving art,” said Kate Haw, Director of the Archives of American Art. “Each document tells a compelling, multi-layered story about this aspect of art history, artists’ lives, and pressing issues of their times.”

Utilizing the commonness and connectiveness of postal networks, practitioners of mail art questioned the inequities of the global art market and national regulations regarding culture and communications, creatively sidestepping the art market and, in many instances, eluding government censors. Examining how mail art has worked across divergent cultural circumstances—from McCarthy-era America, to Soviet Poland, to Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet—the exhibition invites viewers to consider issues regarding circulation, collaboration, and community among artists in and among specific national contexts.

Pushing the Envelope was guest curated by Miriam Kienle, an assistant professor of Contemporary Art History at the University of Kentucky, in conjunction with University of Kentucky students in her special topics seminar on the international mail art movement.

The exhibition is on view through January 4, 2019, in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery in the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture (8th and F Streets) in Washington, D.C.

Ryosuke Cohen mail art to John Evans, 2002 (ongoing project since 1985). John Evans papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.