Making a clear definition is not easy. The best, it seems to me is, "Art sent through the mail."
Using that definition, we will probably never know who the first practitioner was. Marcel Duchamp sent postcards to his next door neighbor in the 20's. Bern Porter says that he has been using postcards as art since at least the 20's or 30's. It can certainly be argued that Mail Art had its roots in the Dada Movement.
But it really came into its own as an artform conceived by Ray Johnson in the early 60's. He began by sending things to his friends and acquaintances as well as famous Celebrities. He would include instructions to "add to and pass on" to some specified person on "the list." Ray promoted this for many years until it finally achieved its own critical mass. He eventually named the list the New York Correspondence School.
Important elements of Mail art is that it is non competitive. There are no juries, no prizes. A mail art call is sent out by an individual. That invites whoever wants to send something to the show. Every piece that comes in is part of the show, there is no censorship (most of the time). There is usually some kind of documentation. It can be very elaborate and in color. Or it can be very limited, such as a list of the participants.
Today there are thousands of mail artists all over the world sending work back and forth to each other.
The forms associated with mail art include the following:
Some Fluxus artists also did mail art.
Artists associated with Mail art at one time or another:
You know I'm going to get in trouble for leaving anyone out...
Held, Jr., John, "MAIL ART: An Annotated Bibliography", The Scarecrow Press, London, 1991.
Welch, Chuck, "Eternal Network : A Mail Art Anthology", University of Calgary Press, Calgary, 1995
De Salvo, Donna and Gudis, Catherine (Editors), "Ray Johnson: Correspodences", Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, 1999.
Burch, Charlton (ed.): The Ray Johnson Issue, Lightworks, No. 22, 1995-2000
Last Updated 04.15.04