Jasper Johns, Flag Study, 1959, watercolor and graphite on found paper envelope, 4 1/8 × 9 1/2

IN LATE 1993, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, opened the one-person exhibition “To Disembark,” by Glenn Ligon. It included what would come to be a few of the artist’s most recognizable efforts, together with wall drawings that includes stenciled texts and a set of lithographs borrowing imagery from nineteenth-century fugitive-slave handbills. Alongside these two-dimensional items, Ligon activated the exhibition house with a grouping of wood kinds constructed to appear to be packing containers, every emitting a special snippet of recorded sound from inside. Though an observer educated to look primarily for art-historical references would possibly see in these objects an echo of such works as Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961, certainly one of Ligon’s main sources of inspiration was the story of Henry “Box” Brown, an enslaved man in Virginia who in 1849, with the assist of two associates, escaped to freedom in a wood crate mailed from Richmond to Philadelphia.

Brown’s story, which he would go on to publicize in an autobiography and through a lecture tour, would possibly appear to be a singular case. But, the truth is, past all of its different features as an engine of modernization, the postal system had a strong linkage to abolitionist efforts in the nineteenth century. (Brown’s crate, for the file, was shipped through a personal mail service.) Northern reformers in the 1830s undertook a marketing campaign to mail giant numbers of antislavery tracts to the South, whereas the creation of pay as you go weight-based postage elevated the privateness of the mail service, which was supplied largely with out a shade bar.1 That an accessible, cheap, and equitably functioning postal system was thought-about a vital device of emancipation is attested to by the incontrovertible fact that it was the focus of frequent gadgets in Frederick Douglass’s antislavery newspaper, the North Star. Douglass wrote on one event of the “immense moral bearing” of low cost and uniform postage, and on one other opined that “every improvement in the means of carrying and spreading intelligence is a step towards the destruction of slavery and other forms of injustice in our land.”2

Beyond all of its different features as an engine of modernization, the postal system had a strong linkage to abolitionist efforts in the nineteenth century.

One may definitely mount a response to the Trump administration’s assault on the US Postal Service by paying homage to the put up as an iconographic topic in art, from van Gogh’s a number of portraits of the postman Joseph Roulin to Eldzier Cortor’s intimate scenes constructed round the motif of the evening letter. Or we may contemplate the myriad examples of mailed correspondence changing into the machine that makes the art, equivalent to On Kawara’s time-stamped postcards or Ray Johnson’s complete corpus of epistolarrheic mail art (the latter’s distinctive strategy warranting, I might argue, its personal neologism). But following Douglass and different abolitionists of his period, we could be equally attuned to examples that don’t spotlight or rejoice the postal service a lot as counsel cases when it recedes into the background, taken as a given exactly as a result of it features as a comparatively nameless, cheap, and dispersed system. In different phrases, these instances when it’s doing the job for which it was supposed as a reliable and accessible public service—precisely what the present administration is attempting to undermine.

That’s the case with certainly one of my favourite objects in the assortment of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York: not a portray or a sculpture however an strange envelope that paperwork Jasper Johns’s working course of. Scrawled throughout it are notations seemingly referring to measurements and sizing, whereas its entrance contains a watercolor research of two American flags nestled beside one another. What is outstanding about this object is just not the presence of this iconic Johnsian imagery on its personal, however quite its interplay with numerous remainders of the envelope’s life as a chunk of mailed postage. These embrace the typed names and addresses of the letter’s sender and recipient, with the postmark fixing the correspondence to a date in early 1959. Johns’s offhand appropriation of an envelope despatched to Robert Rauschenberg bespeaks their closeness at the time, whereas the sender’s title underscores their connection to a different same-sex couple—Merce Cunningham and John Cage—revealing the exchanges inside a small circle of intimate partnerships that arguably modified the course of twentieth-century art. Adding an extra cost is the proliferation of symbols in the envelope’s higher proper, together with a stamped eagle and an embossed silhouette of George Washington, emblems of nationwide identification that resonate with Johns’s most well-known motif. Their presence on the envelope, alongside the names of sender and addressee, lends a singular pathos to Johns’s creative devotion to the US flag, given that in the period of the so-called Lavender Scare, hundreds of LGBTQ people had been hounded and purged from the federal authorities as perceived threats to nationwide safety and “American” values.

One factor that Johns and Ligon share is the assumption {that a} central perform of the artistic act (to echo Duchamp’s phrasing) is to not invent anew however quite to recirculate current data and imagery and widespread cultural motifs. This manifests in Ligon’s borrowing of texts by others, in Johns’s use of pregiven symbols, and in each artists’ adoption of readymade stenciling strategies. And that’s exactly what’s at stake, in one other register, in assaults on the put up workplace and different such public establishments, half and parcel of an intense and unrelenting effort—by the Trump administration and by the Republican get together usually—to dismantle the commons. As the web meme so succinctly places it, “We live in a society.” One that’s presently beneath assault from all sides.

Michael Lobel is a Professor of Art History at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY.


1. Hollis Robbins, “Fugitive Mail: The Deliverance of Henry ‘Box’ Brown and Antebellum Postal Politics,” American Studies 50, no. 1–2 (Spring/Summer 2009): 5–25.

2. Frederick Douglass, “Cheap Postage,” The North Star 1, no. 47 (November 17, 1848): 3; and Frederick Douglass, “Cheap Postage,” The North Star 3, no. 7 (February 8, 1850): 2.