by John JervisMay 11, 2020
The British Museum, earlier this year, opened the first survey of postcard art to be held in a major museum in the UK. The exhibition - The World Exists to Be Put On A Postcard: Artists’ postcards from 1960 to now - features over 300 postcard works of art from some of the most famous artists of the past five decades, including Gilbert & George, Susan Hiller, Guerrilla Girls, Tacita Dean, Yoko Ono, Bruce Nauman, Dieter Roth, Gavin Turk, and Rachel Whitehead. Many of these pieces are on display for the first time. The exhibition is on display till August 4, 2019.
The works in the exhibition are drawn from a major donation of over 1,000 artists’ postcards generously given to the British Museum last year. The postcards were collected together by the writer and curator Jeremy Cooper, specifically to be donated to the Museum so that the history and creativity of this overlooked medium is preserved for posterity. The collection – which took six years to assemble – now means that the British Museum has one of the world’s leading collections of this art form.
A vast number of artists have created postcard art since the 1960s, but it is a lesser known element of the history of contemporary art. This exhibition aims to raise awareness of this neglected and often subversive medium that was embraced by the artistic avant-garde. The pieces on display have all been selected for their originality of expression – they are all works of art in their own right, which were created with the intention of being sent in the post.
Highlights of the exhibition include a number of political postcards such as Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s War is Over! and Jasper John’s anti-Vietnam war work Art for the Moratorium. Other highlights include collaborations between Richard Hamilton and Dieter Roth; Ben Vautier’s The Postman’s Choice (a postcard differently addressed on either side); On Kawara’s I GOT UP (an early example of the Japanese artist sending to a friend in New York a rubber-stamp daily stating at precisely what time and where he got out of bed); Jill Posener’s early 1980s cards documenting caustic feminist graffiti sprayed on to billboard ads; and the 1993 portrait of Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas, Big Balls, holding watermelons under their arms.
One section of the exhibition looks at postcard invitations. These form some of the most striking postcards in the show and are exceedingly rare as they were often discarded once the exhibition or event had been announced. Examples include the original silver and black invitation from Andy Warhols’s 1966 show Holy Cow! Silver Clouds!! Holy Cow! at the Contemporary Art Centre, Cincinnati, and the original invitation card for the now legendary Freeze exhibition organised by Damien Hirst which introduced the world to the YBAs (Young British Artists).
The attraction of creating art using postcards is their cheapness and flexibility, as they can be produced in large numbers or be transformed into a single crafted work. By using the postal system they can easily be circulated, thereby evading traditional gallery and museum networks, which is why many postcard artworks are often politically subversive or carry a social message. The show is particularly timely as the once ubiquitous postcard is beginning to fade from memory as digital forms of communication take over, a transformation that will make the Jeremy Cooper collection as valuable insight into the last 50 years as other collections of now vanished printed ephemera in the British Museum’s collection: such as the visiting and trade cards from Georgian London.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated book by Jeremy Cooper, published by Thames & Hudson in collaboration with the British Museum.