Géza Perneczky: ARTISTS’ STAMPS

the exhibition

There are so many “normal” stamps around nowadays that it would be impossible to list the immense scale of variations in form, technique and content. And twenty years after the birth of the first “private-stamps”, designed by artists for their own and each other’s use, it would be equally difficult to classify the results of this new genre of “Artists’ Stamps”.

The number of those people all around the world who produce their own stamps must amount to a couple of thousand, and because it goes without saying that the post does not acknowledge the issue of private stamps of this kind, they stick their own stamps next to the official ones on the envelope or postcard. Artists’ Stamps remind one of publicity-stamps, only without the commercial overtones. We might feel that they are self-centered, purposeless, and it is only the idea, the frappancy of graphic execution, humour, or even blasphemy that sustains them. And even if they do have some practical use, well, that’s no more at least at first glance than the promotion of the designing artist. Being as it is an old heraldic art-form, the stamp is ideally suited to serve the aim of self-advertisement for the artist in the shape of stamped signatures, “official” postage stamps, or even self-portraits imitating emperors and statesmen.

Considering how far international postage dates back to, it comes as a surprise that artists only began to produce their own stamps as late as the sixties. The reason for this was obviously not some kind of modesty. The explanation for the phenomenon is more easily found in the fact that it was in the sixties that the artistic mentality that revived the lost traditions of one-time dadaism, the fashion of frolicking, foolery and absurdly convention-mocking jokes and provocations, first turned into a major artistic current. The first artists’ stamps were designed by the neo-dadaist FLUXUS-artists. They too were the first to try to fool the post services with their stamps. Since then, the art-form has become slightly more subdued, but above all, it has swollen up into a far wider stream. Owing to the fact that the FLUXUS-artists have left the scene, today’s artists’ stamps are produced by the representatives of the so called Mail Art movement. Many members of this movement design stamps made and reproduced by various techniques; even larger is the number of those, who receive these stamps with other Mail Art-creations - tiny prints, collages, etc.- through the post, and sort them, classify them, put them into boxes, carefully file them, in other words - collect them. As we can see, the artists’ stamp is not identical with Mail Art as an art-form in general, as it is a more confined genre with origins that date back to a much earlier point in time. Nevertheless, it is a fact that today, artists’ stamps are produced and circulated almost exclusively in Mail Art-circles.

This circumstance had a significant effect on the one-time neo-dadaist beginnings. The ideology of present-day artists’ stamps - if I may use this expression at all - is vastly different from that encountered on the private-stamps of twenty years ago. Those were the invention of a relatively marginal group of artists, and were soon to become rarities among miniature prints. The stamps spreading in present-day Mail Art-circles on the other hand are immersed in a medium which is characterized by the international Mail Art field. All in all, the number of active artists in this field must count over a couple of thousand since the end of the sixties, - and the question of the reader is justified: are there so many notable artists in even the whole of the twentieth century? The answer is evasive. Namely, most of the cultivators of Mail Art do not want to be artists in the conventional sense of the word. This movement is first and foremost a social one. As such, it is closely related to many alternative currents and subcultural formations in the past two decades. Artistic activity had played a decisive role in these spheres, but only as an exercise in “creativity” as opposed to consumeristic behaviour or the vegetative lifestyle of the dumb petty bourgeois. Hence, it can be understood that a large proportion of stamps produced in Mail Art-circles do not strive after the same fragile, painstakingly elaborated graphic effects found on traditional stamps or even on the first artists’ stamps of the FLUXUS-period. What is true for Mail Art in general is equally true in the case of the stamps produced in the world of Mail Art, - these stamps carry within them a particular concept of democratism. “Everyone’s an artist” - said Joseph Beuys, the widely acknowledged prophet of alternative movements. Mail Art participates with a slightly cooler enthusiasm in adorations of this kind, but this Beuys citation could be placed as a motto above every single present-day artists’ stamp.

The other point of the programme - and there are many Mail Artists who would rank this one as the first: is communication. This too is a novelty if we draw a comparison with FLUXUS. Neo-dadaism was not nearly dada enough not to believe in the possibilities of communication, that is, to ridicule communication if the thought of communication cropped up at all. On FLUXUS-stamps for instance, we encounter blasé-faced average citizens lined up on the stamp-sheet so that their beards get longer and longer. And we don’t know of a single FLUXUS-stamp where the artist had depicted himself; the most that we can find are the symbols and signs of the movement which were themselves totally meaningless or provocative. The more recent Mail Art stamps on the other hand “struggle” and “portray”, with a naive belief or an ironic smile, but usually with the hope that the message will reach its destination, that communication will be successful because it is possible. Quite a number of stamp-producing artists simply play around, decorate and variate when designing stamps, but this too is an activity which is filled with a positive content. At a lower level this is akin to the home embroidery of the resting housewife, and from here on the level of standard rises evenly right up to the masterpieces of miniature graphics and artistic inventiveness. Since the crop is rather large, and in view of the fact that the more recent artists’ stamps do not have any value in the art trade sense, the meticulous care with which some Mail Artists sort out and file incoming artists’ stamps cannot even be considered as “stamp collecting”, as this collection can never be sold. The reason why artists’ stamps manage to avoid waste paper baskets lies more in the fact that they represent important messages, in that they symbolize relationships. It is for this reason that we not only find self portraits on them, but the portraits of friends and partners, or the material of complete Mail Art exhibitions reduced by xerox-technique to a stamp format and arranged on the stamp-sheet. As a matter of fact, this is how we can understand why the expression of “artists’”-stamps is often misleading. The aim is not an artistic one, not even the parody or the alternative-minded transformation of artistic forms, but simply the use of the stamp-form for a variety of practical - mostly communicative - purposes. Cheap, small, easily applicable, quickly dispatchable, and collectable.

As we can see, the art-form is yet in a slightly archaic state, - as theatre was for instance in Shakespeare’s time, or the fairy-tale and the short story in the time of popular dime-novels. Now that the artists’ stamp nevertheless finds its way into the museum - and into one, more-over, that stores the canvases of Rembrandt, Greco and the masters of Italian renaissance and French impressionism -, has the time now arrived to “discover” the artists’ stamp and proclaim it as a new, classic art-form, or is it now that we destroy it for ever?

I owe a confession to the honoured gallery visitor who is now attempting to find his way at this most unusual exhibition with the aid of this makeshift catalogue. I too am one of the many who are active in the international Mail Art-field and have myself manifactured privately-designed stamps in the past. Therefore, I have an apt capacity to project myself into the position of the artists who had designed the stamps displayed at this exhibition. The morale of the “Exhibiting artists” is rather ambivalent. On the one hand, the above described quasi-ideological background unanimously advises the Mail Artist to avoid official exhibitions, rich galleries and high-prestige museums, - in fear of his independence. On the other hand, every Mail Artist has experienced the humiliations with which the institutionalized artistic colony flatters all those who are excluded from its domain. Whether this exclusion was primarily the intention of the artist (or person who considers himself creative), does not in the least lessen the time-to-time abuses. The gratification is therefore very comforting: - the museum, lo and behold!, is “running” after the stamp-artists and is exhibiting them.

However, I must now reveal to both the members of the visiting public and the exhibiting artists that this show is one of the last in a series of exhibitions that has presented the graphic art of six centuries, consequently, it is an almost logical step that after the prints of the art nouveau period for instance (among which Ex Librises were also allowed to appear), presently the most living and precisely the most actual practical art-form, the stamp, should be presented. It is the art historians themselves who know the best how, at one time, Dürer’s wood-prints were sold at markets placed on the tables of the merchants just like any other vegetable or offered commodity.

An exhibition of this kind is similar to the theatrical production where the parts are not played by actors because we know that King Lear still lives today so it is perfectly sufficient to call him in from the street. This show is therefore more authentic than the exhibitions staged from so-called historic materials, but it goes without saying that it is also much more incidental, since the heroes are still here living around us, many questions of detail still rest open and some of the remaining chapters of the story may have unawaited surprises in store for us. Here at this exhibition we are exposed to the incidentalities of actuality. The material is based on the many year-old collection of György and Julia Galántai, a husband and wife team of two Mail Artists living in Budapest. The announcement of the exhibition led to an unexpected turn of events: on hearing about the oncoming show, several Mail Artists sent in their latest works, of which some were designed by them for this very occasion. This might simultaneously answer our questions concerning the final opinion of the artists about an exhibition in a museum.


For all those who are interested in artists’ stamps, the best Hungarian publication is the catalogue of the “Bélyegmunkák...” (“Stamp Works”) exhibition (Fészek Artists’ Club, Budapest, 1982), with an introduction by László Beke and a study by Peter Frank translated into Hungarian on the history of the artists’ stamp (Fészek-Gallery 1981-1982) 8th. exhibition, - published by the library of the Fészek Club). György and Júlia Galántai, who organized and lent the material for the exhibition, published an anthology in book format for this occasion entitled “World Art Post” with over 750 stamp-pictures and accompanying texts in English.

There is not much international literature on the subject as yet. The first summary was written by James Warren Felter for an Exhibition catalogue: Artists’ Stamps & Stamp Images, (Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B. C., Canada, 1974). This was followed by the above mentioned essay by Peter Frank: Postal Modernism... (Art Express (magazine), vol. 1, No 1, 1981). Both works can be found in “Correspondence Art. Source Book for the Network of International Postal Art Activity”, Michael Crane & Mary Stofflet Editors, (Contemporary Arts Press, San Francisco, 1984). There are other parts of this extensive anthology which deal with artists’ stamps and various currents in Mail Art. E. F. Higgins III’s study on artists’ stamps: Print Collector’s Newsletter, 1979/5. U. Carrión: Artists’ Stamps & Cancellation Stamps, (Other Books and So, Amsterdam, 1979), and Guy Schraenen’s catalogue for the artists’ stamp exhibition in the Brussels Post Museum: Mail (Art) Stamps & Treated Stamps, (Musée Postal Bruxelles & Small Press Communication Archive, G. Schraenen, P.O.Box 415, Antwerpen, 1982), Antwerpen, 1982), present the field from a European point of view.

Two parts of the Commonpress international Mail Art publication series, originally brought to life by Paweł Petasz, include relevant anthologies on artists’ stamps: “Artists’ Postage Stamps” by G. Schraenen, Antwerpen, 1979, (Commonpress No 16) and “Nudes on Stamps” by E. F. Higgins III USA, 1979, (Commonpress No 18). Beside these limited edition anthologies, further information can be gained from the anthology-like stamp-sheets mentioned in this study, or through personal contact with stamp producing artists and institutions that deal with the archivation of Mail Art material.

The addresses of a couple of such collections: in Europe: Artpool/Galántai, H-1277 Budapest 23, Box/PF. 52; Archive Dr. Klaus Groh, Al.Siedlung 45, D-2913 Augustfehn II; Staatsgaterie Stuttgart/Archive Sohm, Konrad Adenauerst. 32, D-7000 Stuttgart; Other Books and So/Ulises Carrión, Ten Katestr. 53, NL Amsterdam; The Archives/Peter van Beveren, P.O.Box 1577, NL-3000 CN Rotterdam; Administration/Guy Bleus, Kerkplein 7, B-3830 Wellen, Museum of Museums/Johan van Geluwe, Bouckaer-str. 8, B-8790 Waregem; Archive Günther Ruch 115 rue de Peney, CH-1242 Genève-Peney; ECART Gallery/John Armleder, 14 rue de Italie, CH-1211 Genève; Doc(k)s/Julien Blaine, Le Moulin de Ventabren, F-13 122 Ventabren; Exempla Archive, Via Marsala 4., I-50 137 Firenze; ZONA/M. Nannucci, Box 1486, I-Firenze; Metronom, Carrer de la Fussina 9, E-08 003 Barcelona.

In overseas countries: Art Institute of Chicago, School Library, Jackson and Columbus, Chicago, IL 60 603, USA; Jean Brown Archives, Shaker Seed House, Tyringham, MA 01 264, USA; Peter Frank, 712 Broadway, New York, NY 10 003, USA. Franklin Furnace Archive, 112 Franklin Street, New York NY 10 013; E. F. Higgins III., 153 Ludlow, New York, NY 10 000, USA; Judith A. Hoffberg, P.O.Box 40 100, Pasadena, CA 91 104, USA; J. P. Jacob, 43 W. 27th Street. 6.F. New York, NY 10 001; Lightworks/Charlton Burch, P.O.Box 1202, Birmingham, MICH 48 012, USA; Modern Realism/John Held Jr., 1903 McMillan Ave. Dallas, TEX 75 206, USA; Museum of Contemporary Art, Artists’ Books Collection, 237 E. Ontario, Chicago, IL 60 611, USA; Ruth & Marvin Sackner Collection, 300 W.Rivo Alto Drive, Miami Beach, FL 33 139, USA; Artistamp, P.O.Box 3, Station B, London, Canada N6A 4V3; Anna Banana, 287 E. 26th Ave. Vancouver, B.C. Canada V5V 2H2; The Canadian Correspondance Art Gallery (CCAG), Third Floor, 118, 8th Ave. S.E. Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2G OK6; Artists’ Union/Shozo Shimamoto, 1-1-10 Koshieguchi Nishihomiya Hyogo-ken, Japan.

The background aspects of artists’ stamps can be understood the best through the various Mail Art-publications. The Mail Art coloumn of Umbrella magazine, which appeared from 1978 onwards for a couple of years, can be of some help (Glendale, Ca. USA, see also: Judith Hoffberg, collections). Ever since this periodical has been appearing in only rarer intervals, one of the former coworkers of the magazine irregularly publishes an information bulletin under the title of Spiegelman’s Mailart Rag (Los Angeles, Ca, USA, 1984-85). The periodical of the New York-based Frankling Furnace, Flue, carried a number of important articles concerning the “Mail-Art Then and Now” exhibition in its 1984/3-4 issue. J. P. Jacob treats the subject of the history and problems of Mail Art in his comprehensive anthology entitled International Mail Art, a Partial Anatomy, which he published as an individual number of his own “Posthype” periodical in 1984 in New York. Another work of similar character is Günther Ruch’s (CH 1241 Genève-Peney, 115 r. de Peney) periodical CLINCH (No 5., 1984), entitled “Mail Art History”. The study of Guy Bleus outranks all other publications with its theoretical weight and conciseness. The essay was published by the Het Toreke Museum in Tienen, Belgium, in the catalogue of the Aerogramme Mail Art Project, - this book is in addition the 56th Commonpress publication (Stedelijk Museum het Toreke, Grote Markt, Tienen. 1984). The latest theoretical work is probably Chuck Welch’s book: Networking Currents, Contemporary Mail Art, Subject and Issues, Sandbar Willow Press (Box 883, Brookline, MA 02 146), Boston, 1986. This far-reaching work will also serve with a list of further references.

Megjelent a “Bélyegképek” kiállítási katalógusban, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, 1987

English translation by András Szántó