We’re all pretty familiar with the artwork associated with stamps: holiday designs, historical commemorations, nature, and so on. What we may be less familiar with, though, is the way an entire postal situation—stamp, envelope, and even the interior letter—can be a work of art either on its own or as part of a larger piece.
PNCA graduate Savanna Youngquist’s Being Half and Whole is one example of this trend. Youngquist’s installation begins with folded papers meant to look like envelopes. They encourage viewer participation by being addressed “The Visitor” and explaining that the ensuing experience was inspired by the artist’s relationships with her boyfriend and twin sister, respectively.
As for the larger idea of envelopes and other mail paraphernalia being considered art, there’s actually a long history of just that. Ed Plunkett, who coined the phrase “New York Correspondence School,” once said that postal art probably started when Cleopatra had herself wrapped in a blanket and delivered to Caesar.
In reality, the idea of embellishing and decorating correspondence really got started in the late 1800s to mid-1900s with artists like Egon Schiele and Vincent van Gogh, who included art with their letters and even decorated the envelopes themselves.
Postal art was also an important part of correspondence during World War I, when the Italian Futurists created their own stationery, letterheads, logos, postcards, and rubber stamps.
The love affair with postal art is far from over. Last year, London’s Whitechapel Gallery celebrated it with an exhibition called Imprint 93, which featured mail art from Jeremy Deller, Martin Creed, Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, and Fiona Banner. Also called correspondence art, the decoration of the post really hit its stride in the 1950s with these artists and more. According to the description of the exhibit, this art “diverged from the structures of the commercial art market and traditional venues and institutions such as galleries and museums” because it was meant to be accessible, without too many rules.
“Many of these artworks were often a result of a group project and were put in exhibitions without any kind of jury, censorship, or admission criteria,” notes the exhibit description. “The idea of founders and the members of mail art was to create a global community…putting an emphasis on the act of exchange and collaboration, free of barriers like language, ideology, and religion.”
While stamps alone can be works of art, creative sorts have been making art out of correspondence for years—whether it’s decorating envelopes, using letters as part of a larger installation, or something else innovative and thoughtful. Letters aren’t just about sharing information; they can also create an artistic experience for the viewer.