No junk mail please: the man who popped YBA art in the postbox

Matthew Higgs’ visionary Imprint 93 was snail mail’s artistic swansong and helped to deliver a new generation of artists from Chris Ofili to Martin Creed

Martin Creed Work 88 is today considered a modern masterpiece. Collectors covet it and any museum would be proud to display it. However, when Creed posted it to Tate director Nicholas Serota and about 150 other art-world folk in 1995, this radical sculpture was not so reverently received. Work 88 is, after all, essentially (entirely) a piece of paper crumpled into a ball. Serota’s secretary, presumably thinking it was just a crazy piece of junk mail, carefully flattened it out and posted it back.

In one sense, Creed’s crumpled piece of paper really was junk mail – an unsolicited, slightly enigmatic object sent through the post. Artists have a long history of turning the postal service to their own ends. During the first world war, the dadaist George Grosz sent abusive “care” packages to German soldiers as an anti-war protest. He also worked as a postman and tipped his sacks of mail into a ditch. Much later, the subversive Ray Johnson, who worked on the fringes of the pop movement in 1950s Manhattan, invented “mail art”. In 1962, Johnson created The New York Correspondence School, an informal network of recipients for the idiosyncratic, unpredictable artworks he sent by mail.

In the digital age, this playful, delicate byway of the avant garde may seem archaic. Yet in the last days of pre-internet communication, a visionary English curator called Matthew Higgs brought together a generation of brilliant London artists in the great artistic swansong of snail mail. As well as Creed, those who sent their art through the post as part of Higgs’ venture included Peter Doig, Jeremy Deller, Fiona Banner and Chris Ofili.

Higgs called the project Imprint 93 – because he started it in 1993. An archive exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London is about to bring to light the little known yet hugely influential history of Imprint 93 and so reveal another side to British art in the 1990s. God, was it that long ago? Is 90s art the stuff of history now?

“Long time no speak,” says Higgs when I call him in New York. Yes, we agree, it must be 16 years since we last met. Higgs was a remarkable presence in the 90s London art scene, but as Tate Modern opened and the galleries got rich, he cleared out. Nowadays he runs the not-for-profit White Columns gallery in New York. Yet his legacy in 21st-century British art is huge: the artists whose early careers he promoted through the low-budget, lo-fi antics of Imprint 93 have become Turner winners, trendsetters and in some cases cultural heroes.

What they had in common was a maverick, self-pleasing, uncommercial (at least at that time) approach that set them apart from the largely Goldsmiths-educated, market-minded, sensationalist Young British Artist generation led by Damien Hirst. Even as the media embraced the high-impact art of the Saatchi-collected YBAs, their nemesis was gathering in the more alternative, underground aesthetic of Imprint 93, with its roots in youth culture.

“In 1993 it was that moment when the idea of the YBA was being publicised,” remembers Higgs. “It seemed to me there were a lot of other things happening that were interesting. They weren’t counter to the YBAs, but they went about things differently ... I just think that the 90s British art scene was much more complicated than the story allows.”

Jessica Voorsanger, whose celebrity-addicted pop art, very much in the Ray Johnson mould, made her an ideal Imprint 93 contributor, recalls the early days as a wild and hilarious time. Higgs himself admits that Imprint 93 was an attempt “to see what you can do without money”. Voorsanger says that he produced the early editions on a photocopier at the advertising company where he had a day job. They’d all get together at his kitchen table to put the editions together, then he’d post them at his own expense to his mailing list.

Voorsanger, who is married to Bob and Roberta Smith, another Imprint 93 artist, will never forget those times, not least because she named their daughter by mail art. When she was pregnant she sent out a mailing to numerous celebrities and art-world supremos asking if she could name her child after them. As a result their daughter Etta’s middle names include Ruby (as in Wax), Honor (as in Blackman), Twiggy, Joanna (Lumley) and Jethro (Tull).

It was the 90s. Those were different times. “We’d just gone through this economic dip, people weren’t selling, things were happening in warehouses,” Voorsanger says. Imprint 93 was not just a cheap means of showing art outside galleries – it was a movement, even a way of life. Voorsanger remembers the time Jeremy Deller and some of his friends organised a group outing to Clacton-on-Sea. They all got on a double-decker bus and had to answer a quiz whose answers divided them into mods and rockers: she was a rocker, Bob and Roberta Smith was a mod.

“We stopped in Constable country so they could set off fireworks by the river and run away.” It was an explosive moment in British art. Matthew Higgs was one of its most intelligent orchestrators and Imprint 93 a masterpiece of avant garde game playing. “I think he’s a genius,” says Voorsanger.

Imprint 93 is at Whitechapel Gallery, London, from 19 March to 25 September.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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