Robert Watts: The Complete Postage Stamp Sheets, 1961-1986
by John Held, Jr.
There can be considerable argument on who created the first artist postage stamp. The Dada artist Raoul Hausmann, associated with the Berlin Dada group, affixed a self-portrait postage stamp to a postcard in 1919. Yves Klein, the French Nouveaux Réaliste painter and conceptualist, negotiated a payment with a Parisian postal clerk in 1957, enabling him to mail an exhibition invitation with a special stamp of blue. Jas. Felter, the Canadian curator, who organized the first artist postage stamp exhibition in the mid-seventies, has proposed that German artist Karl Schwesig, a prisoner in Gurs internment camp in unoccupied Vichy, France, who drew in colored ink on the blank perforated margins of an actual postage stamp sheet in 1941, be considered the originator of the form.
Whatever the final determination on this matter, if indeed there can be one, there is no denying the fact that in 1961 Robert Watts designed a perforated block of fifteen stamps combining popular and erotic imagery. In so doing, he became the first artist to create a sheet of postage stamps within a fine arts context.
While Hausman, Klein, and Schwag, shared fleeting and isolated moments within the grasp of this newly emerging genre, it was Robert Watts, a member of the Fluxus group, who maintained a sustained productivity with both the creation of artist postage stamps and various other postal items throughout his career.1
Although several of Watts’ postal creations pre-date his participation in Fluxus, much of his work in this area was created while an active contributor to Fluxus events and publications. The impact of Fluxus on contemporary Mail Art has been profound, manifesting itself in a variety of ways.
Michael Crane, the author of Correspondence Art: Source Book for the Network Of International Postal Art Activity, writes in an essay, Fluxpostings: Fluxus and the Mail Art Phenomenon, that, “The impact of Fluxus on Mail Art was not entirely coincidental. Fluxus members were spread around the earth. The mails became an important means to meet organizational needs. Most of the Fluxus artists initiated or carried on an activity paralleling Mail Art among themselves, friends and collaborators. The mails allowed these artists to exchange scores, notes, instructions, as well as graphic works and ‘unobjects’ for exhibitions, reproductions (e.g. multiples) or publications.”
After detailing the postal activities of Ken Friedman, Dick Higgins, Ben Vautier, and Robert Filliou, Crane mentions that, “Daniel Spoerri, the late Robert Watts, Nam June Paik, and Mieko Shiomi are other major forces of Fluxus, who used the mails extensively. Their publications, rubber stamps, individual mailings, postage-like stamps, and more, are now treasured.”
“To art in general, Fluxus played a transformative role. For Mail Art in particular, Fluxus provided the most significant and lasting influence from the recent past. Not only did the Fluxus artists participate directly, they created models that became evolutionary processes and systems that formed the field as we know it.”2
One of these models was the new artistic format of postage stamp sheets. Watts’ first issue was the Safe Post/K.U.K.Feldpost/Jock Post stamp sheet of 1961. This was followed in speedy procession by Safe Post/K.U.K. Feldpost/Jockpost (1962), Yamflug/5 Post 5 and Blink in 1963, followed by Fluxpost 17/17 in 1964.
Other Fluxus figures following Watts’ lead on the creation of artist postage stamp sheets include George Maciunas and Ken Friedman. Flux maestro Maciunas created two sheets later in his life; Fluxpost (Aging Men) in 1975, and Fluxpost (Smiles) in 1978.
Ken Friedman, a fellow Fluxus collaborator, published a sheet for the Jas. Felter curated exhibition, Artists’ Stamps and Stamp Images, which opened at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, in 1974, and traveled internationally. Watts participated in this exhibition along with 35 artists and 7 artists’ groups from 9 countries. Shortly after this the field exploded, especially within the international Mail Art community, where artists postage stamps joined rubber stamp art, postcards, publications, and photocopy art, as important genres within the field.
Watts’ postal activities were not limited to the production of postage stamp sheets. His initial use of postal imagery pre-dated his involvement in Fluxus. His first works with postage stamps harken back to his youth. He was born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1923. By ten years of age, he was maintaining a postal album. Sara Seagull, a later production assistant, asserts that, “His stamp album…well worn and well filled, concentrated heavily on American stamps. (It yields the ghost of a stamp hinge on the page from Austria where the K.U.K. Feldpost was selected for its border design.)”3
As an adult, Watts attended the University of Louisville, where he received a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1944. After his graduation in 1946, he served as an engineering officer aboard aircraft carriers in the United States Navy. Switching fields, he moved to New York City, first attending the Art Students League in 1948, and later Columbia University, where he received a degree in Art History in 1951. His major fields of study were Precolumbian and Non-Western art. After a brief teaching stint at the Institute of Applied Arts and Sciences in Brooklyn, New York, Watts secured a position as Professor of Art at Douglass College, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. He held this position for thirty-one years.
During the fifties at Rutgers University, Watts was a colleague of Roy Lichtenstein and Allan Kaprow. Although not directly influenced by the pair, nevertheless, Watt’s artistic career shared many similar concerns.
Lichtenstein went on to become one of the premier Pop artists of the era. Watts also worked in this area. Indeed, he even went so far as attempt to copyright the words Pop Art, “thereby taking the term off the market and preventing its use, perhaps in anticipation of its extensive use as a marketing label on a variety of products.”4 He was unsuccessful in this since the term had already attained the status of generic usage.
He participated in Pop Art shows such as the Martha Jackson Gallery’s New Forms, New Media exhibition in 1960; the Popular Image exhibition at the Washington Gallery of Art in 1963; and the 1964 American Supermarket exhibition at New York’s Bianchini Gallery, which also featured Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Tom Wesselman.
In 1964, he exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery, home of many leading figures in Pop Art, in the show, Introducing: Richard Artschwager, Christo, Alex Hay and Robert Watts. Years later, on the occasion of a posthumous retrospective at the same gallery in 1990, Castelli reminisced that, “Their work obviously related to that of the Pop artists that I had discovered a few years before…Watts’ chromed objects closely related to Johns’ cast beer cans and flashlights, for instance. The 1964 exhibition also included Watts’ sculpture of plaster cast loaves of bread on shelves. That work, in particular, I think of as one of his most important inventions. I’m also particularly fond of the chrome eggs and egg carton in my own collection which will appear in this show. The public will be surprised that an artist -so promising at such an early date- did not receive through the years the appreciation he deserved.”5
In addition to the works cited by Castelli, as an artist dealing with the artifacts of his age, Watts was equally praised for his works in neon and altered readymades. The fact that he did not receive the worldly acclaim bestowed on his fellow Pop contemporaries, has as much say about his own take on the situation as the temperament of the public.
Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, writes in the 1990 Castelli exhibition catalog that, “First of all it seems necessary to understand that Robert Watts’ relative isolation was voluntary: rather than following the published advice of his friend Allan Kaprow who advocated an affirmative art when suggesting that from the early 1960’s onwards the artist would have to become a ‘man of the world’ Robert Watts seems to have followed Duchamp’s prognosis that the artist of the future ‘…would have to work underground.'”
“To become a ‘man of the world’ (the ‘artworld’ that is) in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, would increasingly require adjustments within the definition of the artist’s role, social function and in the production and distribution of artistic goods and it seems that Robert Watts and many of his friends (like George Brecht and peers like Al Hansen and Ray Johnson) were unwilling or unable to comply with these internal structural alterations of the identity of the avantgarde artist.”6
Watts found his niche in the security of a teaching position, which allowed him to pursue his own priorities without the pressure of producing for the artmarket. It should not be construed, however, that Watts hid himself away from the artworld, rather he was an exemplarily educator, as well known in the field of art education as he was in avant-garde circles, in which in was also an active participant.
Larry Miller, a student of Watts in the sixties, and currently an administrator of Watts’ Studio Archive, writes that, “Watt’s role as a teacher was of considerable importance and influence. He was an activist who was responsible for successfully founding the ‘Experimental Workshop,’ which sought to break down the standard barriers between media and associated concepts. The period between 1957 and 1970 at Rutgers was especially fertile with a number of Rutgers students and associates who were notable figures (Samaras, Segal, Whitman, Sonnier, etc.). Watts brought in many artists from new York as visitors to the program, including people associated with Fluxus and kindred forms (Maciunas, Paik, Charlotte Moorman)…”
“Like other artists who were also influential teachers on particular generations, (Kaprow and Baldesarri, for example), Watt’s energies spent as an educator can be considered as an outgrowth of his expanded philosophy of the wholistic purposes of art as a communicative process.”6a
Watts also found support from his friendships in Fluxus, a loosely knit art movement formed around George Maciunas, which gathered many of the important vanguard artists of the time, and whose attempts at alternative distribution of advanced art has had a profound effect on the whole of contemporary art.
Fluxus also organized festivals incorporating new music, performances, and installation, which resembled the “happenings” popularized by Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, and others. Watts was often a participant in these Fluxfests.
Henry Flynt writes that, “In 1962, while employed by the US Army in Wiesbaden, Germany, Maciunas elaborated his project of becoming the impresario of post-Cage and neo-Dada art. He began mailing proposals for post-Cage concerts and for the publication of annual anthologies and various artists’ complete works.”
“At the same time that Maciunas was circulating these proposals, Wolf Vostell began décollage; and the mail art ‘Yam Festival’ took place in the New York area…Beginning in May 1963, Brecht and Watts put on the public ‘Yam Festival’ a festival of post-Cage work in New York…In mid-1963, Maciunas wrote to Watts from Europe, begging Watts not to continue ‘Yam’ separately from Fluxus. Maciunas was desperate to unite the whole post-Cage movement under his command.”7
Whether the Yam Festival can be considered part of Fluxus is a matter of interpretation, but it is undisputed that this was an action of Watts and his friend George Brecht conceived in the manner of a postal “happening.” In The Times Literary Supplement, Thursday, August 6, 1964, Watts writes about the circumstances leading to the Yam Festival.
“I consider Yam Lecture a chain of events arranged in such a way that the sequence is quite random, no performance exactly like any other, with changing performers, costumers, actions, sounds, words, images, and so on. The ‘structure’ is such that it is very flexible (nearly non-existent) and permits inclusion of anything one wished to do and any possible future changes. It is a loose and open thing. The audience puts it together the way it wishes or not at all.”
“Similar ideas were at work in Yam Festival which George Brecht and I carried out last year. In effect this was a mailing to an audience, sometimes randomly chosen, of an assortment of things. Some were event cards similar to the above; others were objects, food, pencils, soap, photos, actions, words, facts, statements, declarations, puzzles, etc. Certain ones were by subscription. One might say this way of working is a way or manner of calling attention to what one wishes to talk about; or it is a way of talking about it. Or it is a way to hold up for scrutiny a range of material that ordinarily is not so directly useful for art or has not yet been so considered.”
“Some might say it is possible in this way to suggest the relationships among many things, or the nonrelatedness of all things, or some other formalistic thinking or theory. Others may feel this is a formal means to cope with or deal with many diverse thoughts, feelings, attitudes and subjects. For me, I am pleased that I can as easily say something about trees as about autos, about birds as about persons. The whole universe of observable phenomena (or even more?) can be considered as useful, helpful, worthy, or at least there.”
“There is not the problem as there is in painting or other conventional forms, say, where one feels he must make rational formal decisions about what to include or exclude, how this goes with that, what space or color should this and that have, etc. One might argue, however, that these problems are and always have been the proper concern of art and artists. Traditionally this is true, is accepted a priori, and indicates the limiting bonds of tradition, defines what art has been.”
“In recent times some artists, and not only visual artists but dancers, film makers, and others, have been testing out their thoughts and ideas in their own domain as seen against out recent experience with events, environments, and happenings. It will probably be possible for painters to change the nature of painting if they so wish. I presume it is being done this very minute. It is also possible to invent new forms, new methods, to deal with new ideas. I presume this also is occurring.”8
In an interview conducted with fellow Fluxus collaborator Robin Page, George Brecht elaborates on the Yam Festival. Brecht’s reminiscences provide an excellent insight into the collaboration that went on among the New York metropolitan area cultural community of the time.
George Brecht: …The Yam Festival was an on-going series of objects and performances Bob Watts and I put together. We used to have lunch together. He was teaching at Douglass College at the time, and I was working at Personal Products, the other side of New Brunswick. We got along very well together…
Robin Page: Was he a scientist too?
George Brecht: He was a former engineer turned artist and teaching art. He came out of engineering and I came out of chemistry. When I saw his work once at Douglass College I thought Wow Yeah! So I kinda sought him out. I had a show on of some of my things then in New Brunswick, so I wanted to make a special effort, first, to meet him, second to see more of his work, and third to egotistically invite him to see my marvellous work. (Laughter).
We met each other, became good friends and arranged to meet once a week for lunch at a Howard Johnson’s which was at the corner of the road that leads to Douglass College and the road that leads to the Personal Products Corporation research laboratory. It was during one of these lunch discussions that we cooked up the Yam Festival. Bob Whitman had been invited somehow to get some people together to do something in Princeton, and in turn had invited us. The thing never came off, but we wanted a title…and somehow came up with Yam Festival. Anyway, we made all kinds of objects; Bob made some yam pencils, I remember, I made a map of Si-yam…We gave or sent or sold these objects to different people. The Yam Festival lasted, oh, maybe a couple of years…
Robin Page: The Yam Festival lasted two years?
George Brecht: Did it?
Robin Page: That’s what you said.
George Brecht: Oh, yes, well it was a continuing thing. It all started with this performance we were supposed to do and we tried to find…a title for it. Anyway, after doing these objects and events for a while we realized May was coming up and that May was ‘yam’ spelled backwards. We decided to do a program of events to cover the whole month. We invited everybody to take part. There were street, subway, all kinds of events. The Kornblee and Smolin Galleries lent space too and got the programs printed that Bob and I had flung together, and we were off. During the month there was a Kaprow happening at George Segal’s farm…then there was YAMDAY. The idea was to make a very long performance, to keep things going. Everybody who wanted to could contribute…9
I dwell on the Yam Festival in order to show that Watts, while isolated by his teaching duties in New Brunswick, was fully capable of an extended collaboration with his artistic colleagues in New York, which prepared him perfectly for his future adventures in Fluxus. In this mix of collaboration, Watts continued to participate in a number of postal activities. Most of these were brought under the rubric of Fluxus, as Maciunas was not only anxious for these contemporary activities to bear the Fluxus imprint but willing to actively assist artists with the production of their publications and objects. Again, George Brecht’s remarks on Maciunas’ resourcefulness substantially echo Watts’ attitude.
“So this guy turned up, and if you had things to be printed he could get them printed. It’s pretty hard in East Brunswick to get good offset printing. It’s not impossible, but it’s not so easy, and since I’m very lazy, it was a relief to find somebody who could take the burden off my hands. So there was this guy Maciunas, a Lithuanian or Bulgarian, or somehow a refugee or whatever -beautifully dressed- ‘astonishing-looking’ would be a better adjective. He was able somehow to carry the whole thing on, without my having to go 57 miles to find a printer.”10
Over the years Maciunas produced a number of postal items designed by Watts, including event cards, stamp sheets, fluxkits, a photo-laminated desk blotter, envelopes, stationary, and postcards. Although the two collaborators seemed to possess different temperaments, they sustained a friendship and productive working relationship until Maciunas’ passing in 1978.
Ken Freidman writes well of this dichotomy in the personalities of Watts and Maciunas. “What made Fluxus interesting was the way in which the many and several artists were each able to establish an individual tone while creating a spirit of collegial experiment. Watts’ humor was dry and subtle, typical of the New Yorker cartoons he loved so well. Even so, he became one of the closest colleagues of George Maciunas, whose tastes ran to Spike Jones, vaudeville blackout and a raunchy bathroom humor poised halfway between the farting contests of the Zen monasteries and the toilet humor of British television comedy. In temper, Watts was reticent, and a bit aloof, much like Alison Knowles, yet in his work, he created astonishing objects that are now seen to be important stepping stones to much of the ‘new irony’ characteristic of the young New York art scene today, an art as relentlessly social in its tone as Watts was personally distant from the art world.”11
Larry Miller, takes a different approach in assessing Watts’ character. “Watts has been variously described as being ‘distant,’ ‘aloof,’ and ‘enigmatic.’ While these terms may be applicable, it should not be taken to imply a philosophical position of apathy, indifference or insensitivity. his background as a mechanical engineer lends some understanding of his disposition to careful analysis of form and process, while his scholarly interests in primitive art and culture is informative as regards his keen powers of observation on matters of modern culture and the natural environment – often subjects in his work. Watt’s style as a teacher and as a conversationalist may have tended toward the minimal, but his remarks were usually of great probative value and near to the essence of the matter.” 11a
The relationship between the two men was cemented when Maciunas was confined to a New York hospital bed in March of 1963, and Watts began an extended correspondence with him. To cheer his ailing friend, Watts sent a series of event cards intending to raise Maciunas’ spirits. After his recovery, Maciunas included some of these event cards in the multiple Fluxus 1.
Perhaps the most tangible evidence of the ongoing relationship between the two occurred when Watts and Maciunas teamed up with a third partner, the businessman Herman Fine, to found Implosions Inc., a company intended to become a financially self-sustaining, and cash generating, arm of Fluxus. In fact, Implosions was envisioned as becoming a “cash cow” for Fluxus, which was to become a division, or subsidiary of the financially solvent parent company. Reasonably priced items that could be inexpensively mass produced and distributed outside of art channels were planned for, with several actually realized. One such item was the stick-on temporary tattoo, a hot consumer good thirty years ahead of its time, but unsuccessful in its own era (much like Fluxus itself). Another Implosions, Inc. product, packaged in plastic and bearing a lapel reading AFFIXIATIONS, was a sheet ofFluxpost/17-17.
Robert Watts’ first postage stamp sheet was the Safe Post/K.U.K. Feldpost/Jock Post issue of 1961. In the following year, he created a stamp sheet using similar borders with different interior imagery (for our purposes, we can title this Safe Post/K.U.K. Feldpost/Jockpost ) Following this, he created Yamflug/5 Post 5 (1963), Blink (1963) and Fluxpost 17/17 (1964). After a twenty-year lapse in issuing a new stamp sheet, he began production again with Airmail Luna (1984), and Commemorative FBI Most Wanted (1986). Re-strikes of Blink and Safepost were also issued in the eighties.
Drawing on his early interests in philately, Watts designed his first postage stamp sheet in 1961. Safe Post/K.U.K. Feldpost/Jockpost is composed of thirty individual stamps, printed red on white gummed paper. They are not pinhole perforated (round) like the post office, rather they are rouletted, slashed or scored as if by a sewing wheel. The sheet is composed of three rows across, each 26.8 cm long. The vertical height of the sheet in 9.8 cm.
The top row is made up of ten stamps all of the same design. These depict the actor W. C. Fields in top hat peering down at a hand of cards he is holding. The top of the stamp reads, Safe Post. The initials U and S are located in the bottom corners, and the number one is spelled out between them in the bottom center.
The second and third rows of the stamp sheet are each composed of two different stamps, K.U.K. Feldpost and Jockpost. The border of K.U.K Feldpost is based on an Austrian stamp design. The center of the stamp features the torso of a woman from just below the neck to her upper thighs. The border contains the numeral 4 in the bottom corners. Jockpost features a pair of breasts and two bottle tops. The numeral 3 is in each of the two bottom corners. The stamps are printed positive and some reversed, or negative. There are two K.U.K. Feldpost (negative) on the second row. On the third row we find two Jockpost (negative).
The second and third rows, like the first, contain ten stamps. The second row from the left is composed of: K.U.K Feldpost(negative), Jockpost (negative), K.U.K. Feldpost (positive), Jockpost (positive), K.U.K. Feldpost (positive), K.U.K. Feldpost(negative), Jockpost (positive), K.U.K. Feldpost (positive), Jockpost (positive), K.U.K. Feldpost (positive).
The third row is composed of: Jockpost (positive), Jockpost (negative), K.U.K. Feldpost (positive), Jockpost (positive), Jockpost(positive), Jockpost (positive), Jockpost (negative), K.U.K. Feldpost (positive), Jockpost (positive), and Jockpost (positive).
In Fluxus etc./Addenda 1, we can find some clues to the production of the stamp sheet. One is “an image of W. C. Fields cut from a newspaper and mounted on matboard. The artist made a drawing from this pose which is used in (Safepost/K.U.K Feldpost/Jockpost).”12 We know then the source of at least one of the images, and that it was an artist rendering from a source originating from the popular culture of the time.
Fluxus etc./Addenda 1, which is essentially a checklist of the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Collection of Fluxus works, also pictures four antiquarian postage stamps used as elements in the work of Watts. One of them bears the K.U.K. Feldpost insignia and the same left and right border art as the stamp used in Safepost/K.U.K Feldpost/Jockpost stamp sheet. Watts, then, was drawing from his knowledge of philately in the creation of his early postage stamp sheets.13
Second, we are privy to the method of production, as Watt left behind a photostatic positive for the postage stamp sheet, composed of 15 individual photostatic positives and negatives mounted on wood and framed…” On the back in signed “Watts 61/Stamps/1st Ed.”14
This photostatic positive of 15 stamps, was repeated again to make the full sheet. We can see in the final product, that while the top row remains the same, the second and third rows repeat themselves after the first five stamps across. Therefore, each of the two sections of the second row begin with a K.U.K Feldpost (negative). Likewise, the third row contains two Jockpost (negative), each occurring in the second stamp of the five stamp set.
In Watts’ second postage stamp sheet created the following year, Safe Post/K.U.K. Feldpost/Jockpost (1962), he uses the same borders as the previous sheet, but inserts different graphics. In fact, the sheet was probably created from the same model as the sheet from the previous year, but in this issue only half of the sheet is used: there are now 15 stamps instead of the original 30. There are still three rows down, but in this new issue there are now 5 stamps across instead of the 10 the year before. The top row is composed of 5 Safepost stamps; the second row contains the K.U.K. Feldpost (negative), Jockpost (positive), K.U.K. Feldpost(positive), Jockpost (positive), and K.U.K. Feldpost (positive); and the third row contains Jockpost (positive), Jockpost (negative),K.U.K. Feldpost (positive), Jockpost (positive), and K.U.K. Feldpost (positive). These are the same configurations as the stamp sheet of the previous year.
In Safepost, the image of W. C. Fields is discarded. Instead, Watts has collaged erotic imagery with items of popular culture. These items include a pair of pliers, swim fins, and what appears to be an ice cream scoop. Different numerals are inserted into the bottom corners of the Jockpost stamp. In the issue of the year before there had been a 3 in the two bottom corners. In the new issue, one of the 3’s remained, joined by 5, 7, 10, and one stamp reading 9 in the left bottom corner, and 8 on the right side.
Again, as in the previous year’s issue, several of the stamps were printed in reverse (K.U.K Feldpost one time in the second row, and Jockpost once in the third row). The sheet, measuring 11.6 x 14.1 cm, was printed in black, on glossy white gummed and rouletted. There are several variants. Other editions are printed green on white and blue on white.
In 1963 Watts published his Yamflug/5 Post 5 postage stamp sheet to coincide with the Yam Festival activities he was coordinating with George Brecht. They were subsequently used in stamp dispenser machines and packaged for Implosions, his joint business venture with Maciunas.
The sheet is composed of 100 stamps with ten across and ten down. The word Yamflug runs across the top of the individual stamps. The bottom of the stamp has the numeral 5 in the left and right corners, and between them is the word Post. Yamflug is left white with parallel lines running between the letters. Post is printed black behind a graph-like pattern. The bottom right hand margin bears the plate number 25W070630. Although originally printed green on white gummed paper, there are also variants of dark red on white, pink on white, and dark blue on white.
Fluxus Addenda 1 includes a reproduction of the original collage and drawing for the border of Yamflug/5 Post 5, which measures 21.2 x 18.1 cm.15 In its original form, the left and right borders can be clearly made out. This is not true when the stamp has been reduced to fit in the format of the postage stamp sheet. But in the original, one can clearly make out female portraits that Watts clipped from a magazine of women advertising for dates with men.
Watts then prepared two collages of fifty stamps each, which were then fit together to form the original artwork for the entire sheet. The first collage consisted of 50 photostatic borders, with the central images collaged and drawn. The second collage consisted of 25 photostatic borders with original handwork for the central images, and an additional 25 stamps that were previously photostated.
The central images for Yamflug/5 Post 5 are portraits of both men and women. Some are taken from photographs, others from engravings and drawings. Some are collaged, and in one instance (ninth row, eight across) a woman is wearing a saucepan for a hat. Although there are occasional uses of nudity (first row, eight across; and tenth row, ten across), there is little of the pornographic content found in the stamp sheets of the two previous years. As noted previously, the left and right border of the stamps, composed of women seeking dates, are indistinguishable in this reduction from the original size.
The manner of stamp separation for Yamflug/5 Post 5 differ from the two previous sheets as well. In this issue, the sheet is perforated (in the manner of regular United States postage stamps) rather then rouletted as Safe Post/K.U.K. Feldpost/Jockpostand Safe Post/K.U.K. Feldpost/Jockpost (1962).
The top and side borders of the sheet are not perforated, although the bottom is between the last row of stamps and the plate block. Therefore, the entire first row, and the first and last stamps in rows 2-10 are only perforated on three sides.
In 1964, Watts published his fourth postage stamp sheet in four years. His former experience with the medium culminated in producing one of the masterpieces of his career: Fluxpost/17-17. He had sharpened his production techniques since his first encounter with the postage stamp format.
Previous to Fluxpost/17-17, his borders were blurred or lost in the reductive process between original composition and final completion. In Yamflug/5 Post 5, the borders bear no resemblance to what was initially intended. The borders of Fluxpost/17-17, on the other hand, are sharp and more closely follow Watts’ original conception.
The central images of the 100 different stamps on the sheet are also more visually intelligible. The almost childlike compulsion to shock his audience with crude erotic imagery, so dominant in the first two works, and carried forth in Yamflug/5 Post 5, is muted inFluxpost/17-17.15a There is a pleasing mix of the abstract and figurative from sources as diverse as photography, drawing, and engraving. The ground of Fluxpost/17-17 is better conceived then Yamflug/ 5 Post 5, muddied by the reprographic halftone dots lingering in the background. Fluxpost/17-17, on the other hand, seems to leap out at the viewer, be it in it’s black and white, or blue and white printing.
The original paste-up for Fluxpost/ 17-17 is in the Darlene Domel Collection, San Francisco, California. Upon close examination it yields the following information. Many of the images that contain faces have been photostated. They are of a similar color, come from half-tone reproduction, and most telling, have a glossy sheen to them.
The photostatic images that I can identify include: Row one (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8). Row two (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10). Row three (1, 2, 16 , 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). Row four (1, 2, , 4, 5, 7, 8, 10). Row five (1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, ). Row six (2, 3, 4, 5, , 7, ). Row seven (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, , ). Row eight 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). Row nine (1, 2, 3, 5, 7, , ). Row ten (1, 2, 3, 5, 7, , .
Engraved images from their original source are found in the following positions: Row 1 (7, 9, 10). Row two (6, 9). Row Three (10). Row four (6, 10). Row five (5, 9). Row six (). Row nine (8, 10). Row ten (6).
Row six (9) is left blank. But there is a residue of glue indicating the possibility of there having been an image there at one time. The fact that 13 images are currently missing from the original collage shows that Watt’s adhering technique was not entirely successful, perhaps not even from the beginning. The blank stamp may not just have been a whim on Watts’ part, but a necessity from unsuccessful mounting, whose unexpected effect he decided to incorporate into the final product. If so, it is entirely within keeping of a Post-Cage Flux aesthetic.
It is obvious that Yamflug/5 Post 5 prefigured Fluxpost/17-17. There is a singular border design common to the 100 postage stamps, all with different center designs, arranged in a sheet of ten rows containing ten stamps each. Fluxpost 17/17, likeYamflug/5 Post 5, has a plate number in the lower right hand corner. And like all masterpieces, which tend to have a somehow presage the future, the plate block number reads DIY12W70640, portending the DIY, or Do-It-Yourself generation of the late eighties and nineties.
Fluxpost/17-17 is perforated more symmetrically then the previous years issue. Whereas Yamflug/5 Post 5 lacked a top line of perforation, Fluxpost/17-17 is better situated on the page allowing for a balanced look. Watts had secured a successful method of production and the integrated look he has sought for his work in the genre. And then for some inexplicable reason, he discontinued his production of postage stamps for the next twenty years.
His foray back into the field was an especially impressive one. Airmail Luna, published in 1984, is one of the finest looking artist postage stamp sheets ever produced. The 10 7/8 x 8 1/4 inch composition is laid out in ten rows consisting of five stamps apiece. Each stamp bears the inscription Airmail Luna 1984 in black lettering on the bottom portion of the stamp.
The first and last rows of the sheet are entirely blue, except for the black lettering previously described. The deep blue pigment is not unlike the I.K.B (International Klein Blue) used by Yves Klein in the creation of his Blue Stamp in 1957. The other stamps on rows two through nine bear at least some part of the lunar design that spreads from the middle of the sheet toward, but not to, the edges.
The moon is silver and white with craters and other apparent lunar features. Like Yamflug/5 Post 5 and Fluxpost/17-17 issues,Airmail Luna bears a plate number (19WO40840). Unlike the previously cited issues, it is signed in the plate (R. Watts ’84), a practice Watts would henceforth repeat.
The most unusual feature about Airmail Luna is its “allover” feature. This is the only postage stamp sheet Watts would produce that departed from the standard postage stamp sheet format of identical, or nearly identical stamps, gathered in a grid format.
Watts’ next stamp sheet was Blink produced in 1986. This is an 8 1/2 x 11 inch sheet of stamps with 63 individual stamps, all bearing the same image. It is printed brown on tan paper, and is rouletted in the same style as Watt’s earlier Safe Post/KU.K. Feldpost/Jockpost stamp sheets. The work is also signed in the plate and bears the margin number Ow19631/12/86, referring one assumes to the fact that the image was first produced in 1963 and subsequently modified in 1986.
The image was produced anonymously with Alison Knowles and George Brecht for a 1963 exhibition at Rolf Nelson Gallery in Los Angeles. Forty-one of the images were silk-screened by Knowles and presented along with a model, Lette Eisenhauer, who modeled the image on clothing.
In a phone conversation I had with Alison Knowles on January 11, 1996, she explained that the three-tiered work was a collective undertaking, with each artist responsible for a certain section. The top section was done by Watts and represents a Balinese wedding. George Brecht contributed the word BLINK, that breaks up the field. The three scissors, their blades opened, closed, and fully extended, were created by Alison Knowles.
Blink was first issued in 1963 by Watts as an imperforate sheet of stamps. That is, there are no perforations of any kind between the images. Sara Seagull in a phone conversation with me in January 1996 stated that these were often cut up and used as stamps. But with no perforations, and no philatelic traces, such as distinguishing denomination or issuing agency, placing this earlier issue of Blink into Watts’ postage stamp oeuvre is contentious.
Watts created another stamp sheet in 1986, Commemorative FBI Most Wanted. It consists of fifty stamps in five rows of ten stamps across. It is printed black ink on gummed goldenrod (or yellow) paper. The photographic images are taken from FBI Most Wanted posters, commonly found in United States Post Office buildings. Each stamp depicts a different fugitive with a pair of fingerprints to the left of the portrait. To the top and bottom of the stamp, one finds a hand-drawn gun. To the right of each portrait FBI Most Wanted is written vertically. The 100 guns on the sheet are all from a common source, perhaps drawn by Watts himself. The sheet titled, Commemorative FBI most wanted, is given the plate number O2w10a86tO, and is signed Robert Watts 86.
Although Commemorative FBI most wanted appears nothing like his earlier Yamflug/5 Post 5 and Fluxpost/17-17 issues, the newer work is related in that it is composed of found images from sources in popular culture. Watts, therefore, continued his interest in Pop, late into his career, just two years before his death in 1988.
During the eighties, Watts, in the manner of the Blink stamp, continued to issue additional stamp sheets based on his previous designs. Sara Seagull states that, “He issued restrikes and compilations during the 1980s. This was in part to satisfy the demand from patrons and collectors,and partly to satisfy his curiosity about using different ink colors.”17
Three sheets were produced based on his Safepost/K.U.K. Feldpost/Jockpost issues of 1961 and 1962. One such sheet is composed of 40 images of W.C. Fields in four rows of 10 stamps each, all in magenta. It is the same image as used in the 1961 issue, but has become muddied. The Safe Post logo, which graced the top of the image, has been obliterated in a wash of magenta. The U and S found in the bottom left and right corners are also less distinct then the original. The perforations are like those of the original, scored rather then the more conventional pin-hole perforations. To the left of the horizontal sheet, is Watts’ signature in the plate, and the number 0W9-1961n12-8-86. As in the Blink stamp, this appears to signify that the work was originally created in 1961, and re-struck December 8, 1986.
Another sheet of similar appearance is also constructed from the Safepost/K.U.K. Feldpost/Jockpost issue of 1961. In this re-strike, the image of W.C. Fields (Safepost), is joined by the same K.U.K. Feldpost and Jockpost images of the original sheet. There are six horizontal rows of ten stamps each.
The first row is composed entirely of Safepost stamps depicting W. C. Fields.
The second and third rows contain K.U.K Feldpost and Jockpost issues in unique configurations.
The fourth row again is composed of the Safepost stamps.
The fifth and sixth rows again contain K.U.K Feldpost and Jockpost stamps in unique configurations with no apparent internal order. They possess, as do the second and third rows, both negative and positive images of the stamps. This repeats the same technique Watts used in the original issue of 1961.
Watts’ final restrike from the sixties produced in the eighties, is a composite sheet using elements from Safepost, K.U.K Feldpost, Jockpost (1962). The quality of the sheet is, again, a degradation of the original, more indistinguishable and muddied. While the original 1962 stamp sheet contained 15 stamps and measured 5 1/2 x 4 1/2 inches, the re-strike from the eighties is composed of 60 stamps and measures 10 7/8 x 7 7/8 inches.
In essence, the re-strike is doubled from the original. Instead of a single row of 5 unique Safepost images, there are now two rows of 10 stamps across, 1-5 remain in the same order as the original, and then are repeated in positions 6-10.
The next four rows are composed of K.U.K. Feldpost and Jockpost stamps in exactly the same configuration as the original 1962 sheet, but doubled as in the previous two rows. The sheet, like the other restrikes, are offset printed. This particular sheet is printed in turquoise. A plate number appears in the margins to the left of the sheet bearing the inscription, 04 w 019062, cluing us to the original issue date. Watts’ signature is signed in the plate without a date accompanying it.
Over the years, Watts’ postage stamp sheets have been shown in exhibitions of Pop Art, Fluxus, Minimal Art, Serial Art, Mail Art, and Artist Postage Stamps. They are a perfect expression of various art tendencies central to the era in which they were created.
Watt’s postage stamp sheets have had a continuing life since his death in 1988. In 1993, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, organized the exhibition, In the Spirit of Fluxus, which subsequently traveled both nationally (The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts, Columbus, Ohio; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and internationally (Fundació Antoni Tápies, Barcelona, Spain). A popular feature of the exhibition was the dispensing of Watts’ postage stamps from a modified U. S. government postage stamp machine. In addition the Walker Art Center produced a sheet of stamps compiled from Safepost/K.U.K Feldpost/Jockpost (1961 and 1962), Yamflug/5 Post 5, Fluxpost/17-17, and Commemorative FBI Most Wanted. The sheet was sold throughout the duration of the touring exhibition.
The stamp sheet is copyrighted 1993 by the Robert Watts Studio Archive. Sara Seagull and Larry Miller, who were both students of Watts in the sixties, have done much to perpetuate Watts’ memory and work.
The ever increasing popularity of the postage stamp format can be linked in part to the unending information the format is capable of conveying. It is both a conceptual and visual art medium. The fact that it parodies official postal authority has great significance to the many mail artists that create within the format. Indeed, there have been many instances, where artists, including Watts, have tested the postal system in an attempt to have their works “authenticated” by the government.
Within the mail art genre, where works are often of a conceptual nature and not primarily constructed for the sake of appearance, the artist postage stamp sheet is often a much sought after item, because it is one of the few products within the network composed with design qualities in mind. This is one reason why there are so many shows featuring artist postage stamps. Whenever an established museum decides to exhibit Mail Art, they often turn to the genre of artist postage stamps, because they convey the social, political, and personal concerns of the artists, as well as their artistic merits. Exhibitions at the Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts, and the National Postal Museums of France and Switzerland, have featured artist postage stamp sheets to great effect.
Central to any exhibition, and to any history of the medium of artist postage stamp sheets, is the inclusion of Robert Watts’ philatelic oeuvre. He is the pioneer of the field. Watts’ stamp sheets are an integral part of Mail Art’s lore and a cornerstone of it’s evolving history.