Learning from Friedman
Ken Friedman’s Rubber Stamp Activity.
John Held, Jr.
Ken Friedman (American, 1949- ) was an important connection between Fluxus, Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondence School of Art, and the emerging amalgam of seventies networking artists gathered through the postal system and collaboratively exploring the aesthetics of communication on an international scale.
The importance of the rubber stamp to the alternative networks of the early seventies should not be underestimated. It was Duchamp earlier in the century that developed the concept of the readymade. German Dada artist Kurt Schwitters appropriated the common marking device and raised it to an artistic level when he began adding rubber stamp impressions to his collage and book works. We see a flurry of rubber stamp activity again in the middle of the century, when Neo-Dada was to gain a resurgence in such movements as Nouveau Realism, Fluxus, and the New York Correspondance School.
Friedman attributes his interest in rubber stamps to the mid-fifties when he began using stamps given to him by his father. He was first hand carving rubber erasers in 1964, and the following year he introduced visual images incorporated from commercially reproduced stamps in works produced during his stay at Shimer College in Mt. Carroll, Illinois.
But it was not until 1966 that his rubber stamp activities were incorporated into the Fluxus milieu. In this year, Friedman contributed a rubber stamp to the Flux Post Kit 7, the first time an actual rubber stamp was included in a multiple.
Rubber stamp usage was becoming standard iconography in the emerging alternative art networks of mail art, zinedom, and visual poetry. Friedman’s oft repeated emblem of Fluxus West illustrates the interesting effect of an image’s reverberation within these various networks in such countries as Belgium, Canada, England, the United States, and elsewhere, for over two decades.
The Fluxus/West rubber stamp was designed by German artist Wolfgang Feelisch in 1970 as a gift for Friedman. Along with Fluxus Zone West by Joseph Beuys and the Cavellini Communication Cow, it has become one on the most widely reproduced rubber stamps in international mail art networking. Like the other two, Fluxus/West has also been widely imitated, punned upon, and transformed by such artists as Don Boyd (Fluxus West/Dakotas), Tommy Mew (Fluxus West/Southeast), Al Souza (Fluxus/Northeast), and David Mayor (Fluxus West/England), in the best tradition of mail art collaborative interplay. After two decades, Fluxus/West
is still being altered by networking artists in Belgium (Luce Fierens) and Canada (Ed Varney). The original Fluxus/West stamp designed by Feelisch, using the X Friedman used to symbolize communication, became closely identified with Friedman himself as an artist.
It’s growth and diffusion as an image are closely linked with Friedman’s connection with Fluxus, his familiarity with Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondance School of Art, and the widespread emergence of mail art in the late sixties and early seventies.
Friedman played a major part in cross-pollinating this network of postal based artists with innovative address-lists, editorship of the New York Weekly Breeder, and organizing the Fluxshoe and Omaha Flow System exhibitions. These two exhibitions paved the way for a proliferation of mail art shows biding by many of the same guidelines adhered to today (all works shown, no returns, documentation to participants).
Not only was Friedman an active user of rubber stamps, he was one of the new art medium’s first historians. In 1973 he participated in the first critical media documentary on rubber stamp art over radio station KPFA in Berkeley, California. The program included poet Charles Amirkhanian, Bay Area printmaker Carol Law, and a tour of the San Francisco’s H. R. Ellis Stamp Company, one of the first businesses in the United States to manufacture visual rubber stamps.
Friedman had an essay included in the landmark 1974 book by Hervé Fischer, Art and Marginal Communication: Rubber Art-Stamp Activity, in which he mentions the work of the Fluxus group (Maciunas, Watts, Ben), the Nouveau Realists (Spoerri, Topor), associated figures (Beuys, Vostel and Rot), as well as a new generation of artists (Kocman and Ulrichs). In this essay, he not only details some of the ways in which rubber stamps are used by his contemporaries, but his own manner of stamping.
“Some artists take a very particular tack, with a completely personal style of image – as, for example, Joseph Beuys who uses his stamps like seals on his many works, or the use of stamps by Wolf Vostell where the stamps become essentially posters or announcements or supplement to other projects or happenings. Timm Ulrichs creates sloganeering stamps, while J. H. Kocman uses his stamps for personal poetic statements or philosophizing. In my own work, I am simply conducting experiments, as I do with most other projects.”
Friedman elaborated on his history and philosophy of the rubber stamp as an art medium in a 1976 Front magazine article co-authored with Georg M. Gugelberger, a Professor of Language and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Riverside. The magazine issue served as the catalog for the International Rubber Stamp Exhibition at La Mamelle Arts Center, San Francisco, which was one of the earliest and most important exhibitions of the rubber stamp art medium. The article, The Stamp and Stamp Art, was reprinted in the 1984 book, Correspondence Art, by Michael Crane and Mary Stofflet, which has insured a large readership.
Despite his protestation that he was simply “conducting experiments,” Friedman has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the rubber stamp medium. The noted Fluxus historian, Jon Hendricks, wrote in his 1995 essay, “Rubber Stamps as an Aspect of Fluxus,” for the Musée de la Post (Paris, France) catalog, L’Art du Tampon, that, “Ken Friedman was probably the Fluxus artist with the greatest sustained interest in rubber stamps from the mid 60’s onwards”.
Friedman claims to have founded the first Rubber Stamp Museum, which he began to lay the groundwork for in 1970-1971 with a collection of rubber stamps used at Fluxus West in San Diego. “Starting in a tool box with several dozen stamps, the museum grows by the writing of Hervé Fisher’s book to the largest collection of rubber stamps in the world. By the late 1970’s, the growth of other collections, most importantly Stempelplaats in Amsterdam, mean that it is no longer the only such museum in the world. It is believed to have been the first. In 1979, the museum holds over 1500 original stamps and impressions of thousands more in original or in reproduction.”
Albert Phillips notes in his 1979 essay, Ken Friedman’s Stamp Work, 1956-1979, written at the behest of Stempelplaats, that, “His largest stamp work – one which is actually a long series of similar projects beginning in 1966 – is his book of stamps which J. H. Kocman entitled the Stamp Monography. It consists, simply, of page after page of stamps, each bearing one image, the date Friedman created or acquired it, and his signature or initials. (Friedman refers to the book as The Rubber Stamp Archive because each edition is a complete archive of the stamp images in his collection, which Hervé Fischer has described as the largest collection of artists’ stamps in the world.)”
“In some of the more complex versions of the Monography, Friedman does include actual ‘works.’ These works are the experimental prints Friedman created over the years with the stamps. Because they are experimental, they derive from certain principles and formulas and can therefore be reproduced
simply by the application of the appropriate formula to the stamp images at hand.”
In Fischer’s book, Friedman notes some of these experiments. “One of the areas of rubber stamp art which many of us have explored to date includes the serial imagery possible through repetitions of a single image. I believe that I have gone a bit further than most artists in another area of rubber stamp printmaking, the use of multiple-image rubber stamp prints and drawing. My prints and drawing range in complexity from a few images to several hundred different images in a single print, printed in up to five colors.”
“In the last year, by variation and repetition, I have obtained prints and drawings in an almost limitless potential of forms, images and colors, on surfaces ranging from large pages to almost full-size wall pieces.”
“As well as these two areas of imagery, serial image (that is one single image repeated) and multiple image (that is many different images used in the same work), there are such areas of rubber stamp work as literary (poetic either in the traditional sense of works used for literary or verbal value), concrete (vebo-visual usages, like concrete poetry)…As well, there are conceptual projects which can be very well utilized in rubber stamp form.”
“Such conceptual projects include immediately self-referential work, as for example: PLEASE FORGET THIS MESSAGE. Or works with more complex history, such as my pieces concerning distance, including the work I made for the Biennial of Paris in 1971 for Jean-Marc Poinsot’s Postal Section: THE DISTANCE FROM THIS SENTENCE TO YOUR EYE IS MY SCULPTURE.”
When we look at the relatively brief history of artistic rubber stamp usage, Kenneth Friedman becomes a figure of our interest for the original manner in which he used the medium, for his writings on the subject, and for the materials he collected, at once initiating, spreading, and preserving the history of this newly developing genre.
Learning from Friedman:
A Bibliography of Books on Ken Friedman’s Rubber Stamp Activity.
Crane, Michael, and Stofflet, Mary. Correspondence Art: Source Book for the Network of International Postal Art Activity. Contemporary Art Press, San Francisco, California. 1984.
Fischer, Hervé. Art et Communication Marginale (Art and Marginal Communication). Balland, Paris, France. 1974.
Nagiscarde, Sophie, editor. L’Art du Tampon (Art of the Rubber Stamp). Musée de la Poste, Paris, France. 1995.
Phillips, Albert. Ken Friedman’s Stamp Work, 1956-1979. Stempelplaats, Amsterdam, Netherlands. 1979.