Notes Toward a History of Artistamps

Notes Toward a History of Artistamps

John Held, Jr.

The first exhibition of artist postage stamps occurred in 1974, when James Warren Felter first identified the field in an exhibition at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. The exhibition subsequently traveled to additional sites in Geneva, Switzerland, and around the United States and Canada, announcing a new field of artistic creativity.

Works included in the exhibition dated from 1963-1973; a decade of activity associated with the Neo-Dada avant-garde and the emerging community of international Mail Artists, drawing inspiration from the conceptualism of Fluxus, and the community building postal activities of the New York Correspondance (sic) School of Art inspired by Ray Johnson, a graduate of Black Mountain College.

In the early eighties, another Canadian, the late Michael Bidner, coined the word artistamps, supplementing the term “artists’ stamps” to represent the works being produced in the field.

There have been several attempts to define artistamps. Some say that artistamps must be perforated, be of a certain size, produced in multiples (as opposed to original works), or be gummed. But these definitions only tend to limit the field, in which the history of this new medium is being re-written on an almost daily basis.

During the mid-nineties at the Stamp Art Gallery in San Francisco, Picasso Gaglione and I curated artistamps shows on Yves Klein, Robert Watts, Donald Evans, Harley, E. F. Higgins III, Patricia Tavenner, Carl Chew, May Wilson, Bugpost, Dogfish and others who had made significant contributions. Work on these shows, and additional research has produced a wealth of new information on earlier artistamp activity.

The book, New York Dada,1915-1923, by Frances M. Naumann, relates an anecdote concerning a suitor of Duchamp, the Baroness Elsa van Freytag-Loringhoven, who has been described as “the first American dada…she is the only one living anywhere who dresses dada, loves dada, lives dada.”

She roamed the streets of Greenwich Village from 1918-1923 attired in what she called, “fanciful artistic clothes.” She adorned herself with black lipstick, a bird cage with a live canary around her neck, and was occasionally seen with her shaved head painted purple (to combat ringworm).

The Baroness had one other eccentricity that earns her a place in artistamp history: affixing postage stamps on her cheeks in lieu of blush, initiating the first artist postage stamp performance.

Some sixty years later artists E. F. Higgins and Buster Cleveland would stand on nearby Soho streets covered in artistamps by the Italian Mail Artist, G. A. Cavellini, further extending the pioneering footsteps of the Baroness Elsa van Freytag-Loringhoven.

While researching a catalog essay on Yves Klein and the Blue Stamp he affixed to a postcard announcing the 1957 exhibition of his monochrome blue paintings, Yves Klein: Propositions Monochromes, at the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris, I interviewed Pierre Restany, the theoretician of the Nouveux Realiste group, and Sidrah Stich, curator of a recent European travel exhibition on Klein. But it was not until a meeting with Klein’s childhood friend Arman, that I was able to dispel a veil of speculation that surrounds this famed stamp of blue.

When asked if he knew how the stamps were perforated, Arman answered that he was there at the conception at the idea, and that dealer Iris Clert, well connected in political circles, arranged for the stamps to printed and perforated at the official French postage stamp printing office. When the invitations were printed and the stamp affixed, Klein and Clert paid a postal clerk the going price for stamps and a tip for his efforts.

Arman also told me that he had himself created a sheet of stamps around 1961. This is the same year Fluxus artist Robert Watts created his first stamp sheet; the earliest one I have seen to date. Although Klein’s stamps were produced in sheets, their importance lay on being affixed to his invitations, a perfect compliment to the paintings, but for him, none the less in importance. I have never seen a full sheet in any of the numerous books on the artist.

Watts was both a member of Fluxus and a Pop Artist, shown at that bastion of Pop, the Leo Castelli Gallery, in 1964. He was a professor for many years at Rutgers University, teaching alongside Alan Kaprow, and Roy Lichtenstein. He created money, and tablecloths, transforming commonplace consumer items into artworks, forging a closer blend of art and life like many of the downtown artists of the time.

In four years Watts created four stamp sheets, culminating in his 1964 Fluxpost 17/17, which was used for many years in the Fluxkits produced by George Maciunas. This stamp sheet combined all the production skills Watts had mastered in his previous efforts. It remains an oft-cited totem of the Fluxus movement.

Later in the decade May Wilson, John Evans, and Patricia Tavenner found a source to have photostamps made from their photographs or collages. May Wilson had a particularly inventive approach to the medium. She made photobooth self-portraits of herself with grimacing, deliberately compromising, facial contortions. Once translated into photostamps, they were affixed to index-card postcards, spray painted with a geometric stencil design.

Any discussion of artistamp in the sixties is incomplete without mentioning the work of the late American artist Donald Evans, who died tragically in an Amsterdam house fire at the age of thirty-one in 1977. He was the ultimate creator of imaginary worlds, focusing his energy on the production of postage stamps for lands awash with fruits and flowers, bird eggs, and farm animals. His watercolor execution of these commemorative stamps was exquisite.

The variety of mediums employed in the production of artistamps is limited only by the availability of materials and the inspiration of the creator. Evans was joined by San Francisco psychedelic poster artist Robert Fried, in the creating works in watercolor. Artistamp production in the sixties was primarily offset printing. In the seventies, with the explosion on photocopier technology, artistamp activity became widespread with the rise of both black and white and color commercial reproduction. Artistamps were first created using computers in the mid-eighties, with color printers revolutionizing the field in the mid-nineties. But artistamps are still drawn, painted, collaged and engraved, a welcome contrast to mass-produced works.

Literature in the field is impressive. An excellent book appeared on Donald Evans in 1980. Books have since been published on the artistamp activity of H. R. Fricker (Switzerland), Jo Klaffki (Germany) Michael Hernandez de Luna and Michael Thompson (USA). In 2000, Vittore Baroni and Piermario Ciani published James Warren Felter’s, “Artistamps: Francobolli D’Artista,” in Italy.

Catalogs have been produced documenting the artistamp activity since Felter’s exhibition in 1974. There have been well over one-hundred catalogs published. Most notable has been “Timbres d’Artistes,” published by the Musée de la Poste, Paris, France, in 1994, which devoted a full color page to each of the fifty plus artists contributing work.

In addition to printed catalogs, an increasing number of artistamp CD-ROMs have been issued. In 1999, Rosemary Gahlinger-Beaune released, “The World of Artistamps,” completing the lifework of the late Mike Bidner. The disc held the work of 200 artists from 27 countries.

The accumulation of significant collections of artistamps is a natural consequence of continued activity in Mail Art. Guy Bleus of Wellen, Belgium, has been a dedicated collector of the medium, issuing a CD-ROM of his own collection in 1996, which contained the works of 400 artists. Other major archives are located at Artpool in Budapest, the Anna Banana Archives in Sechelt, Canada, Chuck Welch’s “International Register of Artistamps,” and my own Modern Realism Archives, which contains over 4,500 stamp sheets by 450 artists.

Perhaps the largest public collection is at Oberlin College in Ohio, which obtained the artistamp archive of Harley. Almost every artistamp producer maintains his own collection, and there are impressive holdings in many areas of the world.

Magazines devoted to artistamps used to be a stable of an expanding community hungry for information about new developments in the field. The Internet has replaced many of these former artistamp magazines. The longest lasting were “Smile,” and “The Artistamp News.” The untimely death of Joki Mail Art (aka Jo Klaffki) of Minden, Germany, in 1997 at the age of 54, ended the publication of “Smile,” a stylish individual effort attempting to encompass the field. “The Artistamp News,” edited first by Anna Banana, and subsequently passed along to fellow Canadian artistamper Ed Varney, collapsed under the weight of community expectations for a central clearinghouse on the field.

Mail Artist Clemente Padin, an active visual poet for three decades from Montevideo, Uruguay, began “Southern Post,” in 2000, an assembling magazine, which asked contributors to send in 100 individual artistamps. Each issue was published when 20 contributions were received. The following year, Picasso Gaglione published “Artistampzine,” a thematic assembling of international artistamp producers, based on his previous publication, “Stampzine,” which gathered rubber stamp art in limited editions.

Reference guides have been published by James Warren Felter, “International Directory of Artistamp Creators,” and Bugpost, “The Standard Artist Stamp Catalouge,” reproducing individual artistamp issues and cataloging each. These works parallel the painstaking listing and cataloging conducted in philately.

The philatelic world has paid increasing attention to the field of artistamps. Lewis Tauber has written two articles for “The American Philatelist,” the official publication of the American Philatelic Society, and organized the creation of an artistamp sheet in a fund-raising effort for the building of the Society’s new library. “Linn’s Stamp News,” has also followed the ongoing trials and tribulations of Michael Thompson and Michael Hernandez de Luna’s battles with the United Postal Service over the passing of faux postal issues. More importantly, in 2003 the Belgian Postal Service issued an official postage stamp commemorating Mail Art, further validating the field in the philatelic world.

James Felter and Chuck Welch lead the way in creating artistamp sites on the Internet in the late nineties. As the millennium turned, sites devoted to artistamps were numerous, gaining adherents having no previous knowledge of Mail Art, or the history of the still young medium. In many ways, artistamps have followed the way of rubber stamps in reaching a broad based audience, divorced from direct contact with the small community that had harbored the medium during the seventies and eighties.

As in the broader field of Mail Art, knowledge of artistamps is often limited to active participants, and most of the writing about them has been done by producers of the works. Until discovery by a larger audience, it remained the artists duty to maintain a record of their activity.

Mail Art since the death of Ray Johnson in 1995, has attracted increased attention. Books, articles and exhibitions have exposed the field to a larger audience. Artistamps have ridden these coattails. As one of the more visual aspects of Mail Art, artistamps have come to represent the graphic possibilities of the field to the public. Many new practitioners first gained exposure to the genre by the “Griffin and Sabine,” series of books by Canadian author Nick Bantock, who recreated the Mail Art experience draped in the mystery of romantic correspondence.

Serious, as well as popular interest, is also being paid to the field. Fluxus scholar Simon Anderson, wrote a text for “The Stamp Art and Postal History of Michael Thompson and Michael Hernandez de Luna,” placing Mail Art in the context of the Twentieth Century avant-garde. The Museum of Contemporary Art opened the exhibition, “Stamp!,” guest curated by Michael Hernandez de Luna in the Summer of 2003, with a full color display for the show in “Artforum” magazine. The publication of articles on artistamps in philatelic literature, and the issuing of an official Mail Art postage stamp by the Belgian government validates the acceptance of the field in a broader context than ever before.

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