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American Fears

What do you fear the most? Based on a yearly study of the University of Cambridge ... the postacarrd hasd been sent out ...

Art at a Distance

Alexandra Schoolman


In 1972, the Argentine artist Horacio Zabala declared, “Hoy el arte es una cárcel” (Today, art is a jail). In the midst of the political unrest during Argentina’s military dictatorships (1966-73 and 1976-83), Zabala’s words echoed the repression, censorship and isolation felt during that time, not just in Argentina, but throughout Latin America, including Uruguay, Brazil and Chile, where right-wing regimes were engaging in full-scale wars against ‘subversion’ and, even more fundamentally, against the freedoms of thought, expression and assembly. Against this backdrop, the simple act of communication became rife with the potential for rebellion. The introduction of Correspondence Art, or what became known in the region as Arte Correo/Arte Correio (Mail Art) or Arte Postal (Postal Art), gave artists an outlet and initiative to seek creative responses to the restrictions that surrounded them, to continue creating and sharing work directly with other artists and to participate in a global art movement, all from a distance. 


While the origins of Mail Art can be difficult to pinpoint, as the practice emerged independently in North America, Europe and Japan in the late 1950s, it was Ray Johnson, the New York-based artist and Fluxus member, and affiliates of the New York Correspondence School, which was founded by Johnson and included many other Fluxus artists, who were initially responsible for introducing the practice to Latin American artists. Liliana Porter, Luis Camnitzer and José Guillermo Castillo, who founded the New York Graphic Workshop (NYGW) in 1964, had already been working on expanding popular conceptions of the art print as a medium that could make art widely accessible through mass production and circulation, as well as something that could be easily shared and engaged with by the public. By demoting the value of the art object itself and promoting the creative innovation of printing techniques, the group aimed to create a total work of art, what they called a FANDSO (Free Assemblable Nonfunctional Disposable Serial Object), that, through mass production, lessened the distance between artists and consumers and created the opportunity where “artistic activity could become part of everyone’s everyday life.” Coincidentally, Porter and Camnitzer were, for a time, Ray Johnson’s neighbors and in 1967 the NYGW embarked on their first Mail Art campaigns. Of their three individual Mail Art exhibitions, one of which included Porter’s Mail Exhibition #3 – To Be Wrinkled and Thrown Away (1969), an envelope which contained the artist’s instructions and the screen-printed page with striations evocative of the wrinkles the recipient would make by crumpling up the paper, and, ostensibly, throwing it away. The inclusion of the NYGW’s First Class Mail Exhibition #14 (1970) in MoMA’s seminal 1970 exhibition, Information, was a testament to how quickly the practice was growing and garnering institutional attention.


However, it was exactly this kind of attention that artists working in Mail Art circuits were trying to avoid. The NYGW’s intentions to open up the world of art were in line with avant-garde movements of the time that worked to bridge the divide between art and life, while simultaneously striving to overcome the snares of the gallery system and the increasing commercialization of art. In this way, Mail Art took advantage of the most accessible and widely used communication system in place worldwide as it encouraged artist-to-artist correspondence and new ways of transmitting and expressing visual information and language. As Edgardo Antonio Vigo and Zabala, two leading protagonists of Mail Art in Argentina, wrote in their 1975-76 text “Mail Art: A New Form of Expression”, 

“People communicate by exchanging messages, employing a variety of signs with various meanings. […] Sending a letter by mail involves the transmission of a message and is an act of communication between two people. The use of the mail makes communication possible at a distance: it connects a sender and a recipient. [… In] the new artistic language analyzed here, the fact that the work must travel a set distance is part of its structure, is the work itself. The work has been created to be sent by post, and this factor conditions its creation”. 

As Vigo and Zabala explain, the act of communicating, and that of sharing and receiving this communication with the aid of the postal service, is what creates the work of Mail Art. So whereas Zabala had lamented the restrictive nature of art in “Hoy el arte es una cárcel”, in 1976 Paulo Bruscky, the major figure of mail and communication art in Brazil, offered the counter, “Hoje a arte é este comunicado” (Today art is this communiqué) and championed what he believed to be “the radically transformative potential” of Mail Art. 


The openness and inclusivity of Mail Art allowed and sustained its growth internationally, further challenging gallery hegemony and the idea of art ‘centers’ and ‘peripheries’. While some artists, like Luis Arias Vera and Sigfredo Chacón, featured and portrayed mail and written correspondence in their paintings and works on paper, Mail Art also served as a platform for experimentation and the hybridization of disparate art forms and newly available modes of mass production. Chilean artist Eugenio Dittborn, in his Air Mail Paintings, painted large-scale, unstretched canvases, which, once dry, were folded and shipped to their recipients in large, custom made envelopes. Multiple artists also featured in the exhibition, including Bruscky, Vigo, Eduardo Kac, Clemente Padín and Guillermo Deisler, were involved in Visual Poetry movements that examined the visual properties and aesthetics of written language and semiotics, exploiting them to create new meanings and associations as well as expanding the understanding of what constitutes a ‘poem’. These artists also took advantage of a variety of printing techniques, from woodblocks to offset printing to Xerox machines and even telegrams and fax machines, to disseminate their work beyond what they sent through the mail. Mirtha Dermisache further broke down the process and act of writing in her work, as seen in her untitled letter from 1975, presenting illegible, self-generated calligraphies, or graphisms, but in the traditional format of letters. Despite the familiar layout, the ‘reader’ of these works must mine the gestures of the pen for information about what the forms might be conveying. Other artists, such as Graciela Gutiérrez Marx, Carlos Zerpa, Dámaso Ogaz, Diego Barboza and Leandro Katz, were interested in the archival aspects of Mail Art, in the collecting and saving of received work and the marking of time and place. Gutiérrez Marx–on the occasion of her mother Blanca’s 75th birthday in 1980, referred to as Mamablanca–created an interactive project under the name Grupo de Familia: Reconstrucción del mito (Family Group: Assembling the Myth, 1980) that meditated on the “precarious place of individuals, families and community in the context of a patriarchal society in the grips of a dictatorship” and asked recipients to return their musings back to her. The responses to Gutiérrez Marx’s various projects on this theme were archived as the “Códices Marginales de Mamablanca” (Mamablanca’s Marginal Codices). Her use of the word ‘marginal’ reflects the wider use of the term among mail artists to refer to their embrace of outsider or ‘revolutionary’ status as well to the correspondents’ relative remoteness from recognized art hubs and the distances overcome through their work. Thus, in this new art form, the exploration, dissolution and transcendence of borders, be they cartographic, social, political, material or verbal, was expressed not only through the contents presented in the work of Mail Art, but also through the objects themselves in their journey from sender to addressee. 


While mail artists were experiencing this sense of creative liberation and responding to the unique challenges of what could be sent through the mail, they were also pushing against the limitations of the institution of the postal service specifically, and of the institution of government and its bureaucratic arms more generally. Under government-imposed censorship, where mail correspondence was increasingly scrutinized, many artists were personally affected, like Vigo, whose son was disappeared by the Argentinean Junta; tortured and/or imprisoned, including Paulo Bruscky and Clemente Padín; or forced into exile, like Horacio Zabala and Guillermo Deisler. During this time, both the experimentation with the boundaries of language and art, as well as the artists themselves who were collaborating and disseminating forward-thinking views, were considered dangerous, and therefore ‘seditious’. Anna Bella Geiger, deploring the lack of privacy and the worsening state of affairs under the Brazilian dictatorship (1964-1985), used the 1976 Chico Buarque song Meus Caros Amigos (My Dear Friends) as the soundtrack to her video work Mapas elementares No. 1 (Elementary Maps No. 1, 1976) in which the artist is seated at a desk, tracing a map of the world as the singer narrates a letter written to a friend. Buarque sings, “Here in our land, we are playing soccer/ there’s a lot of samba music, “choro” and rock n’ roll/ Some days it rains, others are very sunny/ But what I really want to tell you is that/ Things here are pretty nasty.” As Geiger fills in her atlas, she marks the borders of Brazil in dark black ink and proceeds to black out the entire country. Bruscky and Zabala also made explicit mention of censorship in their works Censurado, a questão é equilibrio (Censured, The Issue Is Balance, undated) and Censurar (Censor, 1974) respectively. Vigo and Graciela Sacco, among other artists, created unofficial stamps which pictured pressing issues affecting Argentina, including the military dictatorship, and later, after the transition to democracy, hunger and lingering inequality, as seen in Vigo’s international petition to draw awareness to the disappearance of his son Palomo in 1976, and in the open, gaping mouths of Sacco’s Bocanada (1993). Affixed to letters, these stamps served as silent protests that echoed the wheat-pasted mouths Sacco would affix to city walls across Argentina and the globe. In this way, stamps, seals and other official markings used by this government service, when co-opted by Mail Artists, took on a similar anti-establishment role to that of Cildo Meireles’ messages inscribed on Coca Cola bottles and fake banknotes in his 1970 Insertions into Ideological Circuits series. By using the postal service to share and communicate creative ideas and institutional critique, the Post Office is thus unwillingly and unknowingly implicated, in its role of connecting people across distances, in activating and completing the work of Mail Art.


Given the intensity of the proliferation of the Mail Art movement in Latin America in the 1970s and 80s and the fervor of its participants, as well as the volatile social and political context in which the work was created, the legacy of the work and historical period still resonate today as patterns of the past repeat themselves in present circumstances. While the commercialization of Mail Art was occurring in real time, the artists creating this work were ultimately successful in opening up the art market. By demonstrating that art can exist as a document, record or archive, that art can exist simultaneously as both object and action, these artists paved the way for the more conceptual and performance-based work seen today. Humberto Márquez, a fictional conceptual artist working in Mexico in the 1960s created by contemporary Mexican artists Plinio Ávila and Emilio Chapela, was inspired by the graphic design campaign used to promote the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. While the original campaign featured stamps with the now iconographic logotype and images of Mexico’s cultural and historical patrimony, Márquez’s stamps feature images of more infamous associations with Mexico in 1968, particularly the brutal police violence against student protestors and the demonstration of military force through guns, helicopters and tanks. Though communication is now essentially free and instantaneous with email and cellular messaging services, the right to privacy and the protection of personal information and content are still threatened and, at times, abused by governments, corporations and hackers, who reinforce the idea that individual ideas can still be perceived as hostile, especially when they stand in contrast to institutional interests and economic gain. Another response to the omnipresence of the digital, especially in communication, is the return to the analogue and the predilection towards the physical object and the strength of presence it generates. This is evidenced in Emilia Azcárate’s 2013 postcard series, in which postcards sent to Henrique Faria served as the visual output of her Buddhist meditation practice, and in Esvin Alarcón Lam’s Letter to the Editor (2019), in which the artist mailed a postcard to inform MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design of an erratum pertaining to Guatemala City’s National Theatre in the catalogue for their 2015 exhibition, Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980. These contemporary works illustrate that the balance of power between the private citizen and the governmental, corporate and art institutions that dictate daily life and economic markets can still be wildly unbalanced, and that the sharing, gathering, censoring and repressing of information are still valuable tools used to bring people together, to keep people apart and to create and exploit positions of power. 


As this exhibition demonstrates, people will use the means necessary and available to them in order to make their voices heard and circulate their messages. The use of Mail Art presented, and still encourages to this day, a unique solution to expressing resistance to, and ultimately overcoming, obstacles presented by physical distance and by political and economic machinations. The creation, expansion and maintenance of Mail Art’s alternative networks have allowed artists to defend civic freedoms and to sustain relationships internationally, all while promoting an art form that not only continues to challenge the status quo, but most importantly, is open and accessible to all.

1 Ken Friedman, “Mail Art History: The Fluxus Factor” in Flue. New York: Franklin Furnace. Vol. 4, Issues 3 and 4, 1984. Pg. 18. Accessed via May 9, 2019.

2 Zanna Gilbert, “Genealogical Diversions: Experimental Poetry Networks, Mail Art and Conceptualisms” in caiana. Revista de Historia del Arte y Cultura Visual del Centro Argentino de Investigadores de Arte (CAIA). No. 4, 2014. Pg. 1. Accessed via May 7, 2019.

3  Beverly Adams, “The School of the North: The New York Graphic Workshop in New York, 1964-1970” in The New York Graphic Workshop, 1964-1970. Eds. Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, Ursula Davila-Villa and Gina McDaniel Tarver. Austin: The Blanton Museum of Art, 2009. Pp. 21-23.


4 Liliana Porter in conversation with the author, April 2019.

5  Edgardo Antonio Vigo and Horacio Zabala, “Arte-Correo: Una nueva forma de expresión" in Buzón de arte/Arte de Buzón. Vol. 1, No. 1. Ed. Diego Barboza. January 1976. Accessed via April 18, 2019.

6  Vanessa Davidson, “‘Today, art is this communiqué’: Paulo Bruscky’s Communication Art” in Paulo Bruscky: Art Is Our Last Hope. New York/Phoenix: Bronx Museum/Phoenix Art Museum, 2015. Pg. 30.

7  For example, artists often included their return addresses with each work, as seen in Diego Barboza’s Mail Art “newsletter”, Buzón de arte/Arte de Buzón, so as to be included in future calls for submissions and integrated into existing circuits; also, as Bruscky noted in his 1976 essay, “Arte Correio e a grande rede: hoje a arte é este comunicado”, about the receptive nature of Mail Art, “there are neither judgments nor prizes for the works [in Mail Art exhibitions], as in the old salons and transitory biennials.” The Mail Art project, American Fears (2019), by Plinio Ávila, created specially for this exhibition, was made in homage to this aspect of the movement.

8  Dermisache and the famed French semiotician Roland Barthes corresponded via mail during their lifetimes.

9  Rodrigo Alonso, “In Praise of Indiscipline” in Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985. Los Angeles: The Hammer Museum, 2017. Pg. 225.

10  Edgardo Vigo, “Artecorreo: Una nueva etapa en el proceso revolucionario de la creación” in Buzón de arte/Arte de Buzón. Vol. 1, No. 2. Ed. Diego Barboza. March 1976. Accessed via May 8, 2019.

11  “Aqui na terra 'tão jogando futebol/ Tem muito samba, muito choro e rock'n'roll/ Uns dias chove, noutros dias bate sol/ Mas o que eu quero é lhe dizer que a coisa aqui tá preta.” Songwriters: Chico Buarque and Francis Hime. Translation from the original Portuguese made by Anna Bella Geiger.

12  In 1975, Zabala and Vigo organized The Last International Exhibition of Mail Art in the Galería Arte Nuevo in Buenos Aires. Even though it was technically also the first exhibition of Mail Art in the city, the artists named it as such with the understanding that the commercial element was already encroaching upon the movement’s anti-art market sentiments and that the political situation might make future exhibitions all but impossible to mount. Horacio Zabala, “Los últimos y los primeros” in El Arte Correo en Argentina. Vortice Argentina Ediciones, 2005. Pp. 55-65.

13  Beverly Adams, Op. cit. note 3.

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