Lomholt Mail Art Archive

FOCUS IV | To Fresh to be Clear:

Archiving Challenging Contemporary Art

By John Held, Jr.

The Archives of American Art Journal (Vol. 40, Nos. 3 & 4, 2001) published my article, “A Living Thing in Flight: Contributions and Liabilities of Collecting and Preparing Contemporary Avant-Garde Materials for a National Archive,” to compliment a donation of personal letters from 276 correspondents, mostly Mail Artists, but also critics (Clement Greenberg, Pierre Restany) and collectors (Jean Brown, Marvin Sackner). Since then, I have placed 1,600 items of Mail Art exhibition documentation (catalogs, posters, postcards) at the Getty Research Library and some 3,600 Mail Art periodicals at MoMA, New York, as well as donating additional works to the Archives of American Art, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution.

The thrust of the article was that donating challenging contemporary works of art to a national archive could elicit hostility, as well as scholarly research. Hostility arising from artists, who saw the inclusion of such material as having a negative impact on a still vibrant art movement, was an issue confronted and countered by concluding that more positives than negatives were likely to occur from such a donation.
More than a decade later, in 2012, I came across an entry on the Archives of American Art blog from an intern that had been interested in artist’s books, but developed a growing interest in Mail Art, and upon researching the field within the Archive, came upon my donation. Her reaction to the discovery more than made up for any past misgivings I may have harbored.

“I pored over the papers and found that John Held, Jr. is not only a mail artist and a librarian, but he has documented an art form that is culturally significant around the world in a way that nobody else has. What I found was that he captured examples, ideas, and opinions of this democratic medium from the “father” of mail art, Ray Johnson, to hundreds of lesser–known mail art participants across the globe by corresponding with them over the course of several decades.
As a recent Library School graduate, this experience impacted the way I view the documentation of art history in libraries and archives. It seems that it is no longer enough to be the “keeper of the books”; to be a truly effective librarian one must become immersed in the culturally significant activities as they are happening, as John Held, Jr. did. Through unifying art, librarianship, and life, the history of art becomes a rich well of information and inspiration accessible to anyone.”1

I had often written about the fusion of art and life, but had never inserted the librarianship quotient into the equation. This essay updates my thoughts on the subject of archiving challenging post-mid-twentieth century contemporary art, especially as it relates to Mail Art and associated persons and fields including Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Mail Art, Fluxus, Ray Johnson, Gutai, artist’s books, rubber stamps, artist postage stamps, postcards, visual poetry and other movements, mediums and persons currently considered marginal.

I define challenging art, alternative art, and the avant-garde as that which wasn’t created for and wasn’t acquired through commercial gallery acquisition. Nor are the artists involved in these activities defined by the quality of their work, more so by their level of activity and influence in an international network. The wider the net cast by arduous collectors, the broader the availability of information interpreted by future researchers.

Because challenging art occurs away from the mainstream, and the artists under scrutiny have no commercial gallery representation and limited mainstream press attention, it is necessary that collections be acquired by active participation in areas of interest the artists inhabit. I recently interviewed Ryosuke Cohen, the most active Japanese Mail Artist for the past twenty-five years, on his collection.

Held. When you receive the work from Mail Artists, what do you do with the correspondence you receive?
Cohen. I rent space to store the works.
Held. How big is the collection?
Cohen. Many paper boxes. One year maybe three or four paper boxes, so after thirty years…about ninety or hundred.
Held. What do people send you? Just images for Brain Cell, or magazines, catalogs, the things most Mail Artists receive?
Cohen. Yes.
Held. It’s a big collection. What to you plan to do with it?
Cohen. If possible, I’d like to place them in a library.2

Cohen was probably being conservative in estimating the size of his collection. Aside from the boxes he mentions, I’m sure that he has bookshelves containing books, periodicals, significant exhibition catalogs, artist’s books and other printed forms containing both primary and secondary source materials. I introduced him to the Curator of the National Art Center in Tokyo in the hope that a museum official would become interested in Ryosuke’s collection, but there is little academic, museum, or commercial awareness of the field, in Japan or the United States…as of yet.

My inclusion in the Archives of American Art was a fluke. I have an excellent collection of Mail Art, as do others, but I was fortunate in meeting Dr. Paul Karlstrom, West Coast Director of the Archives, since retired. After years of friendship, I invited him to see my collection of Mail Art. Having expressed interest in acquiring a representational sampling of the collection, I prepared a, “Key to the Collection: Correspondence, 1976-1995.”

Upon receipt of the collection, Dr. Karlstrom wrote,

“Working with you on this project has been among the more rewarding experiences I have had in terms of collaboration with an informed and dedicated donor.”

“It should go without saying that the Archives in proud to be your chosen repository for this unique research collection dealing with mail and stamp art. You have assembled a documentary resource that will greatly enrich the national collections. And the intelligent way you have arranged and described the collection is, in my experience, all but unprecedented. One might even say that that your efforts on behalf of the collection, the Archives, and the researchers who will benefit from the availability of this information (concerning 276 artists from 46 countries sent to you between 1976 and 1995) at the Smithsonian is formidable.”3

Marian Kovinick, Archivist at the West Coast Regional Center of the Archives of American Art, wrote,

“I have just gone through the recent shipment of boxes that were transferred from Paul’s [Karlstrom] residence to the West Coast Regional Center. The arrangement and order of the collection is remarkable. We have never received a collection that was so well organized.”4

A sample entry from the, “Key to the Collection,” follows.


Shozo Shimamoto (Nishinomiya)

One of the great figures of the Japanese post-war avant-garde, Shimamoto studied with artist Jiro Yoshihara in 1947 and became a part of Gutai in 1954. Gutai was a precursor of “happenings,” and viewed art as process. Shimamoto formed the AU (Art Unitentified) (Artists Union) art group in 1975, becoming an active figure in the organization. In 1982, Shimamoto became aware of Mail Art through Byron Black (see file Indonesia), an expatriate then living in Osaka. Since then, Shimamoto has been an active participant in Mail Art, organizing exhibitions throughout Japan, hosting visits of international Mail Artist (including my own visits in 1988 and 1993), and traveling the world to meet other Mail Artists. His work has been increasingly recognized by major museum exhibitions, including, “Scream Against the Sky: Japanese Art After 1945,” shown at the Guggenheim Museum (1994-1995) and elsewhere. His progression from Gutai to Mail Art, stressing collaborative art and art as process, is a cornerstone of Mail Art’s claim to a rightful place in the twentieth century avant-garde.

23 letters
2 postcards

Selecting primary Mail Art materials intended for inclusion in the John Held, Jr. Papers, Archives of American Art, I knew that despite the benefits of the donation, the very act would engender controversy. A reviewer of the 1970 Mail Art exhibition, The New York Correspondence School, at The Whitney Museum of American Art, curated by Ray Johnson and Marcia Tucker, thought it, "a shame to catch a living thing in flight, to pin it down and make a museum display of it."6 In the minds of many practitioners, archiving Mail Art is as shameful as it’s exhibition and sale, encouraging the establishment of hierarchies and histories favoring one artist over another, discrediting the simple enjoyment of collaborative creativity.

Can historification and increased public awareness destroy the object of the archivist’s affection? Or can archiving be an art in itself, illuminating those artists treading unknown and unappreciated terrain, following Duchamps' dictum that, "the great artist of tomorrow will go underground."7

The only way to rout around in the underground is to get your hands dirty. My collection was built not by purchase, but by sustained active participation for some thirty- five years (1976-2012) in international cultural networking circles. Like Ryosuke Cohen, the collection has been built drip-by-drip, each year more than several boxes added to the pile. Some genres of interest are separated from the onset. Postcards, artist postage stamps, exhibition catalogs and artist periodicals are set to one side as received. The exhibition catalogs and periodicals are especially useful as reference materials. I have a personal interest in the artist postage stamp (artistamp) medium, often calling upon them for exhibition purposes. I am currently building a collection of artist postcards, which now number some 12,000.

Remaining are boxes of correspondence with various enclosures including artist trading cards, add and pass sheets, rubber stamp works, buttons, pins, stickers, artist banknotes, posters, project documentation, exhibition invitations, gallery announcements, photocopied and digitally printed artists’ books…etc. Despite substantial donations and sales of material, an accumulation of some 200 standard size storage boxes remains.

Mail Art arose from the artists' desire to escape the confines of the gallery and museum bind, which weeded out participants by juried competitions, entry fees, resumes, and authoritative perspective. Mail Art is a democratic art movement, whose greatest accomplishment has been the construction of an open system that creative people could partake in without fear of rejection. Mail Art exhibitions welcome entries without fees, with all contributions displayed.

Selectivity extends to a mistrust of archiving. In preparation of the John Held, Jr. Papers, I strove to give these concerns expression. A number of correspondents included in the Papers, address the issue directly. A letter from the late J. C. Palmer (AKA Rudi Rubberoid), states,

"The goal of a True Mail Art networker would be to keep nothing, pass on everything wouldn't it?...Since when does the artist become also a collector and a private museum...Will the mail artists working today have to rent separate houses to hold their archives twenty years from now? I think of a snail, packing around a bigger and bigger shell..."

"I think it is quite possible that archiving and mail art/networking don't necessarily go together. Even, possibly, there is just a little too much archiving going on? That one of the nice things about the mail art concept is its very transitory nature...Burn this..."8

Other Mail Artists acknowledge the relevance of archives, but fear the construction of definitive histories. Carol Stetser writes,

"When every person has a file and all works are included in a file, then the founding principles of mail art have been upheld. I don't think anyone will quibble about such an accumulation of material. Problems arise when histories are compiled and some artists and some material are singled out for mention as more important then others."

"I think this discussion is important because I don't want any of us to blindly kill what we love. I think we should stop taking ourselves so seriously and remember the playfulness that drew us to mail art in the first place....You seem very worried about being ignored by the establishment and desirous of mail art assuming its rightful place in art history. But beware - such acknowledgment is often a death knoll for freedom. The establishment tends to co-opt what it accepts."9

Pondering the propriety of constructing a history of the medium, the late Los Angeles Mail Artist Lon Spiegelman asked,

"How does one formalize a book on the subject, which by its very nature is informal and anti-classification in its philosophy. It's a real enigma-a subject which has to be handled very carefully, if not to destroy its own subject matter in the process. (It) takes a special kind of person and approach to handle a job such as this. Not just documenting what has gone on in the past, but someone who has the contacts, deep into the bowels of the beast in order to make future contacts and extract information to fill in the gaps, from people who really don't want the gaps filled in. It's no easy job, and one, which I still to this day have not decided whether or not is proper to do."

"Any attempt at formalizing mail art will kill it. On the other hand, I feel that mailart should be written about and somehow documented. It's a very nebulous ambivalent feeling which I have, and one which a lot of other mailartists have which we are all finding very difficult to deal with. There isn't any easy answer to this conundrum."10

After his death in 2002, I was contacted by a Spiegelman family member, who desired something be done with Lon’s collection of Mail Art. They could have just as likely discarded it, as so many other frustrated family members have done, lacking storage or a destination for their loved one’s materials. Fortunately, I was able to interest the Getty Research Library in the Spiegelman collection, notable for its Mail Art exhibition documentation, and it being formed by a Los Angeles artist.

Did I do the right thing by Spiegelman? Did I “formalize” Mail Art by contributing to its inclusion in a major archive? No. I let Lon do what Lon did best, the very thing he described, go “deep into the bowels of the beast in order to make future contacts and extract information to fill in the gaps, from people who really don’t want the gaps filled in.” He did this from compulsion, as much as anything else- a natural desire to reach out and both touch and feel the world. Pondering the reasons why he did so is secondary to the fact that he did it al all, and in so doing, compiled a significant record of international artistic creativity. It was left to me to complete the process of placing his collection in the Getty for the benefit of future generations of researchers.

The “father” of Mail Art, Ray Johnson, formerly the “most famous unknown artist,” but since his death in 1995 widely documented and celebrated, weighed in on the matter of constructing histories in his interview with Henry Martin.

“I'd like to do my own history as to what I think happened. Every time I get any publicity or press, everybody has a different version as to when anything happened or as to what anything was, and I myself don't even know when anything happened, or what happened, or I don't even know what year I did anything in except that I now keep insisting that 1943 was very important because I found a document in my mother's scrap book from 1943 and decided that the things I'd been doing then ought to be cataloged."

"I'm just saying that history is a very loose subject in which anybody can declare that anything happened at any time at all; and maybe that will be accurate information and maybe it won't be, and maybe that won't make a difference. I'm saying that history can be written in a very slanted fashion and that one can emphasize anything one wants to in history..."11

Despite the current acclaim lavished on Ray Johnson, Mail Art eludes recognition, mirroring the disregard that Fluxus languished in before theoretical recognition. Even Greil Marcus, normally sympathetic to twentieth-century avant-gardes,12 found fault with the medium, in reviewing the Mike Crane and Mary Stofflet book, Correspondence Art: A Source Book for the Network of Postal Activity.

"The history of contemporary mail art is the history of an immediately quaint form that excused itself from history. Dada opposed history-not just as facts but also as theory. There's a difference. Anyway, as Man Ray put it in 1958, just about the time mail art was getting off the ground, 'Now we are trying to revive Dada. Why? Who cares? Who does not care? Dada is dead. Or is Dada still alive? We cannot revive something that is alive just as we cannot revive anything that is dead.'"13

Fluxus, arising toward the same period Marcus cites, was also difficult to posit in a traditional art historical context. In her introduction to the 1993 In the Spirit of Fluxus exhibition catalog, Elizabeth Armstrong, Curator at the Walker Art Center and co-organizer of the exhibit, writes that, "The terminology needed to describe...much of the work created by Fluxus artists-has yet to be found or agreed upon, and it is one of the reasons that Fluxus has been notoriously difficult to discuss, collect, and display."14

Difficulty in collecting and classifying, led to marginalization. Andreas Huyssen, a contributor to In the Spirit of Fluxus, traces the movement's rise from obscurity.

"Somehow it failed, but its very failure now turns out to have been a success of almost mythic proportions. For if the worst that can happen to an avant-garde is to be co-opted, collected, 'musealized.' then Fluxus, until recently, was a resounding success-precisely because, unlike Pop Art, it failed to be successful. Apart from a small coterie of aficionados, it even managed to be-almost-forgotten, a fact that somehow has guaranteed its long afterlife in artistic practices and that provides excitement for its current rediscovery."

"...Fluxus has come back from oblivion, even though its new life is now in the museum, the archive, the academy. But, then, the museum today is no longer a bastion of high culture only, but, at its best, a space for the kind of cultural encounter that might actually not betray the spirit of Fluxus while representing it."15

The shame of catching, "a living thing in flight, to pin it down and make a museum display of it," admonishes us to appreciate the transient nature of a pure, historically valid, fragile art. Catching sight of it is a blessing. Our inclination to "pin it down," predisposes it to defend itself by fluttering away from investigation.

Simon Anderson, who has written eloquently of Fluxus, turned his attention to Mail Art, while acknowledging the difficulty of doing so.

"Correspondence art is still too fresh to be clear, still barely open to traditional historical analysis; it remains sufficient only to include rather than exclude. Theories of communication merely skim across the surface of this densely woven phenomenon; the light of history penetrates only so far."16

Man Rays' observation about the life, death and revivification of Dada guide our thoughts to the fluttering "thing in flight" of Mail Art and other marginal contemporary artforms. Mail Art is still very much alive, both in the mailbox and over the Internet, despite its increased availability to scholars through major museum collections and archives. Increased popular and scholarly attention has not “pinned” Mail Art, it has been invigorated by it, perpetuating the century long challenge of the avant-garde to turn everything art and everyone an artist.

Links to other institutional and personal collections of Mail Art alongside institutional collections of Mail Art formed from the archives of John Held, Jr., and additional writings on the subject by Held, can be found in the links below the notes.


1. “You’ve Got Mail Art,” accessed January 22, 2013, http://blog.aaa.si.edu/2012/10/youve-got-mail-art-discovering-john-held-jrs-role-as-librarian-and-mail-artist.html
2. “Interview with Ryosuke Cohen,” accessed January 22, 2013, http://www.sfaqonline.com/2012/10/interview-with-ryosuke-cohen-from-the-national-art-center-in-tokyo-japan/
3. Paul J. Karlstrom (Huntington Beach, California) to John Held, Jr. (San Francisco, California), Undated (2000).
4. Marian Kovinick (Huntington Beach, California) to John Held, Jr. (San Francisco, California), April 26, 2000.
5. John Held, Jr., Key to the Collection, (San Francisco, California: Self Published, 2000).
6. Linfield, Kasha, “New York: Ray Johnson, Whitney Museum.” Artforum, November 1970: 86.
7. Calvin Tompkins, Marcel Duchamp: A Biography, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 416.
8. J. C. Palmer to John Held, Jr. (Dallas, Texas) 25 April 1902 (sic) [1990]. John Held, Jr. Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
9. Carol Stetser (Oatman, Arizona) to John Held, Jr. (Dallas, Texas). 17 April 1991. John Held, Jr. Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
10. Lon Spiegelman (Los Angeles) to John Held, Jr. (Dallas, Texas). 3 March 1985.
11. Henry Martin, “Should an Eyelash Last Forever: An Interview with Ray Johnson,” Lotta Poetica, February 1984: 3-24.
12. Greil Marcus. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).
13. Greil Marcus, “Correspondence Art: Source Book for the Network of International Postal Art Activity,” Artforum, Volume 23, Number 9, May 1985: 5.
14. Elizabeth Armstrong and Joan Rothfuss, In the Spirit of Fluxus, (Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, 1993), 14.
15. Ibid. p. 150.
16. Simon Anderson, “Pushing the Envelope: Mail Art and the Two Michaels,” in, The Stamp Art and Postal History of Michael Thompson and Michael Herdandez de Luna, Michael Thompson and Michael Herdandez de Luna, eds. (Chicago, Illinois: Badpress Books, 2000), 21.

John Held, Jr. - Additional Essays on Mail Art Archives

John Held, Jr. – Archive Links

Institutional Collections of Mail Art

Links to Archives on the Internet