The invention of postage stamps as prepayment for postage in 1840 was the first utilization, on a truly mass scale, of printed artworks. These artworks acted as visual signifiers pertaining to country of origin, leaders, lands, ideas, ideals, and religions, summarizing, in short, the spirit of a people. Such stamps, while serving the purpose of moving communiques from one place to another, were communiques themselves.
Traditionally, artworks have served as a continuum, carrying sensual stimuli from one period to another. Whether flint-chipped arrowheads or self-destructive sculpture, artworks have run the gamut of religions, politics, and ideology, all "ideas" filtered through an artist. Many contemporary artists are now passing these ideas on in the form of stamps. Why?
I believe artists are most concerned with what they convey and communicate. Their style, manner, or method of representation is incidental. Raphael's palette was what he had to work with at the time; I can choose to do a nude on a colon xerox machine. Each artist works within a certain reality of possibilities. Ultimately, communication is the art.
Today, much of the art we see or experience is not in its original form. Slides are projected on a screen, reduced images grace the art magazines - to a certain extent, documentation of the art has replaced the experience of art itself. This is not particularly strange. Every society ritualizes what appears no longer necessary to do. But artists have always wanted more than ritual. Artists want direct experience - and control of their work. Something created with the way it will be communicated in mind Works best. Warhol looks better on the page of a magazine than a work by Hieronymus Bosch, who was only thinking of painting at the time he painted. Most stamps are made with reproduction and communication in mind.
And given the chunk of history in which we now live, artists can communicate with one another as never before possible. Dürer's prints took time to get passed around; even to Marcantonio. Without television, jet travel, color xerox, "instant printing", and the other realities now available, artists at the turn of the century, had to group in Paris to disseminate information immediately. But it is no longer necessary for artists to bunch together in one place to experience one another. Nor is it necessary, for anyone to wait 20 years till an artist is dead to see his work in a big show or filtered down to you or me through some art magazine - reduced and altered through another's sensibility.
The New York Correspondence School, fathered by Ray Johnson in the early 1960s, set out to communicate between artists "mano a mano"; the concern was correspondence with artists, not huge artworks to enter into the stocks and bonds market of the art business. At the same time, in America as well as in Europe, the Fluxus group participated in mail-art activities. Stamps were just naturally a part of mail art.
To date, the most comprehensive published work dealing with artists' stamps is J. W. Felter's 1963-1975 Artists' Stamps and Stamp Images catalogue. This is from a show organized by Felter at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. The catalogue was printed in stamp-album format, with more than 350 stamp images selected from the approximately 3,000 stamps in the show by 35 artists and seven artists' groups. This exhibition has circulated in Europe and North America since 1974.
There have been several other shows of artists' stamps. Al Sousa organized one at Smith College that traveled to several university and college galleries in the Northeast. In this show, artists mailed in black and white images, which were then reduced and printed as stamps on a large sheet containing 64 images. These sheets of stamps were sent to all the participants. Ed Varney and Rick Simon of Canada have both published several artists' stamp sheets. My Doo Da Postage Works, in 1977, sponsored the "1st New York Stamp Invite". I invited artists who sent in color works of a specific size that were then assembled, printed in color xerox on gum paper, perforated, and sent to the artists. Thirty-two participated.
In August 1979 I guest edited Common Press #18. One hundred seventeen artists sent in artworks on the theme of artists on stamps. These were printed with color xerox in a ten-page book, each page perforated, and mailed to all the participants. This part summer Ulises Carrión of Other Books and So Archive organized a large show, Artists' Postage Stamps and Cancellation Stamps, in Amsterdam. His essay in Rubber explains an artists' stamps project this way: "A Mail-Art project is an artist's attempt to organize in a coherent way, a chaotic range of ideas, feelings, experiences, objects, but also machines, distances, postal regulations, time uncertainties, and, most strikingly, Mail-Art pieces from other artists. By incorporating these pieces as one element of his work, he's depriving them of their original identity. He's giving them instead a role to play among other equally important elements of his own personal world."
These artists' stamps, while sharing a certain similarity of form, vary greatly in production media and processes. Some are one of a kind: watercolors, paintings, etc., done with the intention of remaining a "unique" piece. Examples of these would be stamps by Don Evans and Joel Smith. However, I have made several hundred 16 x 18-in. paintings for the sole purpose of making slides and reproducing them in reduced form as stamp art. Far more common are artists' stamps printed in multiples. While some artists have used traditional printing methods (e. g., lithography, silkscreen, and etching), many artists have used black and white copy machines, colon xerox, commercial offset, and rubber stamps, because all of these facilitate the use of gum paper. A 40-lb dry gum paper (not a shiny gum surface like U.S. postage) will work well without curling or gumping up either the black and white copy machine or the color xerox. Stamp images, either hand-carved from erasers or commercially produced into rubber stamps from line drawings, allow printing on surfaces such as wood, metal, cloth, etc., that would not fit in the printing machine. These rubber-stamped "stamp images" can also be printed with multiple colors and overlays in much the same manner as lithography or silkscreening. Many of these artists use rubber cancellation stamps of their design in conjunction with their postal stamps.
Color offset with four-colon separation, while expensive, gives a fine image reproduction from the original, with richer tones than color xerox. Color xerox, on the other hand, offers many advantages: accessibility, low expense for small editions, rapid radical colon changes at the twist of a dial, and, after a short time working with the machine, an understanding of its capabilities, allowing types of work unavailable through other printing methods. The Xerox 6500 Color Copier uses acrylic dust fused to the paper to make the print. It should last as long as an acrylic painting.
The master sheet from which the prints are made can be derived or created by a multiplicity of methods. The sheet of stamps is pasted up, collaged, drawn, colored; any lettering is added, leaving room for perforations; and it is ready to proof. After proofing, the sheets of stamps are ready to print. Once printed, the stamps are often used on envelopes or postcards along with valid postage from the country of origin, and are sent to other stamp artists, mail artists, or mail-art shows. Sometimes, the sheets of stamps are printed as signed, numbered editions. And - sometimes - sheets are sold to interested collectors. Several galleries now handle stamp art or ask artists if they want to sell their work from stamp-art shows. Buster Cleveland finds the corner of West Broadway and Spring Street in SoHo a good place to sell artists' stamps.
It is probably more important to stamp artists to communicate with each other than with the general public. It is to me. But I like to see my work in shows and have people know more about the work of all stamp artists. Some people think it ironic artists' stamps can't always get work through the mail. But that's not their point. Again, the point is art, the communication of ideas.
*E. F. Higgins III is stamp artist working in New York. This is an abridged
version of his article on artists´ stamps from the Print Collectors