This foray into the vast and complex fields of both art and philately, the study of stamps, is meant to be a brief survey for the newcomer to one or both of these fields. The objective of this essay is to arrive at some kind of general description of the artistamp – that is, printed stamps about a range of artists –
Postage Stamp Artists
From its beginning, there has been a complex pattern of relationships between the postage stamp and art. In the 150+ years since its invention, the postage stamp and its uses has multiplied almost exponentially. From a miniature document used to indicate the payment of a tax, this simple innovation has had a varied and exciting history.
These small bits of paper reflect much of the drama and complexity that have characterized the history of the world in the last one and a half centuries. Not only politics, but the evolution of the sciences and the arts are vividly charted on these tiny pages of history.
Artists, designers and craftsmen have been involved in the creation of stamps since 1840. Sculpture, painting, drawing, architecture and photography have all played an influential role in forming the iconography of stamp design. In more recent times, the depiction of famous works of art on the postage stamp has become a popular theme if not an outright epidemic.
The postage stamp itself has also made appearances in various media. In the 19th century American “trompe l’oeil” school of painting, artists like Peto and Harnett faithfully reproduced current postage stamps and covers in their paintings. In the late 19th century and early decades of the 20th century, the poster stamp was a frequently used format. As an outgrowth of the flourishing poster art in Europe, these small, perforated and gummed labels became a favorite form of advertising for a wide variety of products and events. Along with commercial artists and designers several fine artists used this format in their work. Alphonse Mucha and Egon Schiele are two examples of artists who designed poster stamps.
Traditional and Contemporary Art and Design
This tradition has had other proponents continuing through to the contemporary period. The graphic artist Rockwell Kent designed a handsome stamp for an expedition to Greenland in the 1930’s. Today, the Austrian artist Frederick Hundertwasser has designed both his own private stamps as well as official government issues for Austria, the United Nations and other countries.
These types of stamps are different from stamps which depict works of art because they use the stamp as the format for an original work of art. However, the artists mentioned above turned only occasionally to the stamp format as a vehicle for their work and it played only a very minor part in their total output. Also it is pertinent to mention Kurt Schwitters who originated the method of collage early in this century and established it, along with artists associated with the Dada movement, as a major part of the vocabulary of 20th century art. Along with detritus of every sort, Schwitters frequently used the postage stamp in his collage works.
Thus, up to the 1960’s, fine artists made occasional use of the postage stamp as a format for original work just as the postage stamp made the occasional appearance in the context of the fine arts. The postage stamp, was primarily the property of official governments; politics dictated its form and content in much the same manner as with currency, stocks, bonds and other legal tender and security printed ephemera that kept the nations records and finances in order.
The 1960’s Artistic Movements
In the 1960’s however, there was a revolt of sorts in the artistic community and this “sanctum sanctorum” of government hegemony was invaded and usurped.
Many individuals and groups played a part in this usurpation and it would be impossible to examine every known contribution in a paper of this scope. So we will consider some of the more remarkable innovations that led to the appearance of Mail Art or Correspondence Art for it is within the context of Mail Art that many steps leading to the artistamp were taken.
There is one major exception to this observation: Donald Evans(1945-1977). Watercolour and rubber stamp, 1974. Copyright 1981, Estate of Donald Charles Evans. Evans spent his tragically short life working only with the stamp as a format for his very beautiful art. During his career he created some 4000 stamps and covers for over 50 imaginary countries.
These countries were fleshed out with histories, customs, products and the appurtenances of sovereign states. He painted his miniature watercolors as single stamps or sets of stamps on a particular theme; he also created envelopes with stamps attached and cancelled with devices he would carve from cork or have made of rubber.
There are very few instances where an artist has confined his work solely to the stamp format. Evans was also remarkable for his knowledge of philately, an interest he had pursued from his early childhood. Even though his work has been a considerable influence on several artists working with artistamps, Evans had no known connection with the establishment of Mail Art.
Mail Art is a movement of many overlapping networks of artists that have co-opted the international mail system for the purposes of artistic goals and expression.
Artistamps are an out-growth of this movement. Artistamps represent only one facet of this vast area of creative activity that encompasses every conceivable esthetic and style from the traditional to the most recent innovations.
Considering the thousands of artistamps extant at this point in time, it seems that most artists involved with Mail Art have done at least one or more stamps during their involvement with the movement. Exhibitions using the stamp format have provided the incentive to explore this format for artists who otherwise would not have been drawn to this type of work.
In contrast, there are a small number of artists who have made the stamp a major focus of their studio work. These artists have often created a country of origin for their stamps and have constructed a para-postal system complete with cancels, cachets and covers that reflect a knowledge of philately and its history. C. T. Chew, Dogfish (Robert Rudine), E.F. Higgins III, Harley, Cracker Jack Kid (Chuck Welch), Cavellini and Jean-Marc Rastorfer are prominent among contemporary artists who have made artistamps a pronounced part of their studio work.
The subject matter used by these artists runs the gamut from the purely esthetic to the overtly political. Some of these artists have become involved with non-artists from the philatelic world, individuals primarily interested in the field of local posts, and have formed the International Council of Independent States. This organization, headquartered in Norway, functions much as the Universal Postal Union does for the official stamp-issuing entities of the world.
The Fluxus group of artists founded in 1962 also played an important role in the evolution of the artistamp. This group of American and European artists under the leadership of George Maciunas encompassed individuals from diverse disciplines united by their iconoclastic behaviour and surrealistic allegiance. Members of this group issued Fluxus Post stamps and cancels. Ken Friedman, Daniel Spoerri, Ben Vautier, Bob Watts, Wolfgang Feelisch, Joseph Beuys, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik were instrumental in introducing the stamp as a new format for the artist to explore.
Other Important Artists
Many of these individuals also participated in forming some of the first manifestations of Mail Art. Mention should also be made of Ray Johnson who founded both the New York Correspondence School and the Avenue B School of Art as sources of endless stimulation to the Mail Art network.
There are other people who originate fantasy local posts for primarily political purposes who belong to organizations that include people producing artist stamps. Then, there are students of Cinderella philately that have become aware of artistamps and are taking steps to integrate this area of collecting into philately proper.
The current activity centering on the stamp represents a coming together of individuals from different and diverse paths and emphasizes how design and art used on stamps is many things to many people. What do you think?