White postcard printed with black letters reading The World Exists To Be Put On A Postcard

The World Exists To Be Put On A Postcard

By Jennifer Ramkalawon, Curator of Western Modern and Contemporary Graphic Works

Publication date: 7 May 2019

The World Exists To Be Put on A Postcard: artists' postcards from 1960 to now highlights a selection of 300 works from more than 1,000 artists’ postcards recently gifted to the Museum by the novelist and former art dealer, Jeremy Cooper.

The World Exists To Be Put On A Postcard

Artists working with postcards from the 1960s onwards have largely been concealed and overlooked in the history of contemporary art. In this exhibition Cooper stresses that these cards are an artform in their own right, made by artists for a specific purpose and not the sort of postcards one would casually buy in a museum gift shop. Many artists were drawn to the humble postcard as a means of artistic expression. In some cases it was the only record of an artist’s performance or installation piece.

Artists connected with the Fluxus movement often used postcards or ‘mail art’ as part of their artistic practice. In the 1960s and 1970s, the postcard embodied the movement’s engagement with experimental art forms and expressed a disenchantment with the elitism of the art world. The experimental Fluxus artist Ben Vautier created what must be one of the most confusing postcards ever made. It reveals a space on both sides of the card for the address, enabling the writer to send the card to two people at once. When it arrives at the post office, the question is, 'who should it be posted to'? This dilemma is reflected in the title of the card, The Postman’s Choice.

White postcard with black letters reading THE POSTMAN'S CHOICE LE CHOIX DU FACTEUR
Ben Vautier, The Postman's Choice, 1965–1967.

Many women artists used mail art for their own experimental projects. The postcard was a way for these artists to bypass the traditional gallery system from which, as women artists, they felt excluded, and to disseminate their work to a wider audience. Between 1971–1973 Eleanor Antin sent 51 postcards of her 100 Boots project to 1,000 people in the art world. During a two-and-half year trip around California, she placed the Wellington boots in various incongruous settings, recording each one.

A dog on the beach. Behind the dog is a row of gumboots and the ocean. In front of the dog are tyre marks in the sand.
Eleanor Antin, Digression #1, 1971. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

The postcard was often the only record of a performance piece as seen in the work of Stelarc. Stelios Arcadiou was born in Cyprus and grew up in Melbourne, Australia, changing his name in 1972 to Stelarc. He specialised in self-inflicting performances in which his body was suspended from hooks. His preferred method of documenting and promoting his work was through postcards. This postcard documents a piece called Event for Lateral Suspension, recording the event on 12 March 1978 at the Tamura Gallery, Tokyo.

Stelarc, naked and suspended in the air by hooks in his skin connected to wires
Stelarc, Event for lateral suspension, 1978. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Some of the most innovative postcard work appears in graphic form from conceptual group Art & Language's remarkable composite 'jigsaw' piece 'postcard', to the bold letterpress cards of Simon Cutts, whose card The World Exists To Be Put On A Postcard the exhibition is named after.

Ten postcards which when arranged together form a picture of a fasces covered with quotations
Art & Language, 10 Postcards, 1977.

Small, produced in large numbers and able to be sent undetected though the post, the postcard form is subversive and can be very effective in spreading political messages. Postcards in the exhibition include comments on feminism, AIDs and aspects of war – most notably Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s anti-Vietnam war card of 1969–1970 War is Over!.

White postcard with black lettering reading WAR IS OVER! IF YOU WANT IT. Happy Christmas from John & Yoko
Yoko Ono and John Lennon, War is Over!, 1969–1970. © Yoko Ono and John Lennon 1969.

Many artists are fond of altering existing postcards. Some in the exhibition have been burnt, cut away, added to (by collage), erased or have had their original surface entirely obliterated. Here the sculptor Rachel Whiteread (herself an enthusiastic postcard collector) has punched holes into a mundane tourist postcard of an alpine scene, almost rendering it into a kind of 2D sculpture.

Postcard showing two cars on a road in the mountains. Holes have been punched into the postcard.
Rachel Whiteread, Untitled, 2005. © Rachel Whiteread. Courtesy of Rachel Whiteread.

In the age of the internet and social media, posting a card seems like an archaic activity, yet some contemporary artists have embraced the postcard and many feature in the exhibition, including this work by David Shrigley with his typically wry take on the art world. Here Shrigley references Damien Hirst’s work from the nineties, which often involved rotting carcasses in vitrines.

A father and son look at cube containing a head surround by flies. The son is confused, the father thinks it's brilliant.
David Shrigley, Brilliant!, 2007. Copyright David Shrigley.

Jeremy Cooper's gift offers a snapshot of life in the 20th and 21st century, much like the invitations and visiting cards of the 18th century from the Sarah Sophia Banks collection, also in the Museum’s collection. Such ephemeral material is often lost or thrown away, but here at the British Museum, their stories can now be told.

The World Exists To Be Put on A Postcard: artists’ postcards from 1960 to now was on display in Room 90 until 4 August 2019.

The exhibition catalogue is available from the British Museum Shop Online.