As a member of New York's abstract expressionist group from its beginnings in the 1940s, Motherwell advocated abstraction and automatism, and considered collage and painting as equally powerful methods of expression. He began working in collage in 1943, gradually developing it as a medium that not only complemented, but at times also directed and shaped his paintings. Motherwell frequently turned to collage when he needed to work through an issue or problem in paint. Through collage and its combination with the paint medium, Motherwell managed to create images that were ambiguous in their expression and hence open to varied interpretations. Motherwell began a work with no preconceived subject matter, arranging and combining colors, forms, and patterns until he arrived at a composition that evoked in him a distinct sensation—be it joy, terror, mystery, or nostalgia.
The medium of collage, in which readymade materials are taken out of context and placed in new, at times haphazard association with other fragments, is particularly well suited to Motherwell’s method of chance association. Because he used materials found in his immediate surroundings, such as letters and postage stamps as in Mail Figure, he considered his collages to be associated with his autobiography, but also saw them as timeless entities. In works such as this, simple relationships between form and color—yellow ochres, white and brown—are enriched by materials that have expressive energy and animate the picture plane. Motherwell carefully chose colors and forms that would most effectively evoke sensory response.
While Motherwell's collages of the mid to late 1950s demonstrate a profusion of detail suggesting the collages of Pablo Picasso and Kurt Schwitters, his works from around 1960, such as Mail Figure and other collages in The Phillips Collection, are simpler in treatment, usually a single, central collage motif on a painted surface. The title Mail Figure makes a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the whimsical, ponderous, two-legged white shape, which bears a postage stamp in its center like a nametag. Motherwell loosely affixed the white paper against a heavily painted brown ground and ripped its lower half into strips to form the figure's appendages. The collage was probably titled after its creation.
Duncan and Marjorie Phillips first showed their enthusiasm for Motherwell when they held a one-person exhibition of his collages in 1965. Mail Figure was included in this show and bought by Marjorie as her husband's Christmas present.