Kata Bodor
"No tradition of art denies the validity of other traditions: each implies its own consistent language." [1]

Dick Higgins

The genre of the artistamp has fresh traditions yet in the past forty years it has developed its own “unified and consistent” language system thanks to those artists who – exploring the opportunities and accepting the limitations of this medium – not only created a new fine arts genre but strove to formulate an artistic attitude and then tried to popularise it and make it as widely accepted as possible. This attitude did not emerge exclusively out of artistamps and will not come to an end when the genre disappears, however, if it were not for these tiny works, which are delightful in an aesthetic sense, it would be much harder to understand the existence of this attitude, its underlying principles and its significance in the art of our age. At the same time, when examining artistamps, it is not only individual small graphics that need to be considered but also the communication activity that provides these works with a function and keeps them alive – a network which has been proliferating across the globe for decades, almost invisibly to outsiders.

It follows from this complexity that approaching the artistamp merely from the point of traditional philately is the wrong approach, although it might have some kind of benefit. In other words, it would be a mistake to look for the content and function of postal stamps or commemorative stamps, the latter not being in postal circulation but rather issued by postal organisations on special occasions, when trying to understand the artistamp. Examining the particular formal attributes of the previously mentioned two kinds of stamps or the values they wish to symbolise, and looking for their similarities with the artistamp is the right approach.

A stamp is used in postal circulation if a state postal organisation issues it after producing it with its own reproduction technique. In addition, a stamp must have denomination, an adhesive side, perforation, and it must bear the name of the issuing country, except in the British Commonwealth, where the country’s name is substituted with the portrait of its incumbent sovereign. Although postal stamps are mostly designed by artists and therefore some pieces can be regarded as being representative of applied art or applied graphics, they are not works of art since they do not serve as a vehicle of individual expression. It is a rare exception when an acclaimed artist is commissioned to design a stamp in his own style, which is then assigned a particular postal use. It can also happen that a creative graphic artist manages to gain acceptance for an artistic solution that is meaningful for the expert eye. However, from a formal perspective, the main attribute of stamps is that they visually represent the values that a country or a nation wishes to communicate. Since their issue is authorised by a person or body in a position of power, stamps may become means of mediating the currently prevailing political ideology to a smaller or greater degree, depending on the moderation of the given authority. This medium reaches various parts of the world and fulfils a role similar to that of medieval emissaries: it has a practical and symbolic function in representing the country that it represents. Representation [the Hungarian word for which literally means image-bearing – transl.] is realised literally since the image that the stamp bears is meant to symbolise a nation’s self-image and way of thinking.

Only some attributes of postal stamps can be applied to artistamps. The presence of one attribute of the former, as opposed to the sum of all the attributes, is enough to regard a depiction as an artistamp. If a picture of any size has not got an adhesive side, is larger than an envelope, has no nominal value or does not bear the name of the issuing country but it is perforated, it can be called an artistamp and the same is true for any other variation. The true nature of an artistamp cannot be explained by a merely formal description, since such a definition might suggest that anything can be turned into an artistamp by for example making its back adhesive. However, it will only work if there is an intention to use a depiction as an artistamp, i.e. it is reproduced, placed in an envelope or next to the postage and launched into the network in the nodes of which are artists who can see this action for what it is: a signal that someone wants to take part in the communication flow generated by his artistamps. By and/or with the participation of the artistamp a dialogue between artists can be realised. This small-size graphic product is the vehicle of the worldview and identity represented by its “issuer” just as in the case of a postal stamp.

In the early days of post there were no stamps and another simple form of postage was used. Similarly, stamps were not used at the beginning of art correspondence, although for obviously different reasons. Although postal services have existed for centuries and postal organisations in a modern sense can look back on hundreds of years, it was Marcel Duchamp who first used this service as part of one of his works. In 1916 he sent postcards to four of his acquaintances who lived in the same building that he did, to invite them for a meeting. He could have delivered his invitation, with the exact time of the meeting and a sketch of one of his works, in person, yet, for some reason he attributed significance to the fact that when they look at his work the addressees should hold a work that has travelled a certain route. His gesture is all the more noteworthy since at the time others also started to use the post or one of its accessory elements as a means of fine arts but in Duchamp’s case no rational reasons serve a good enough explanation for why he chose to use the post. He does not allow his method to be explained by any practical reason as can be done in the case of artists sending postcards from the front during World War I. Previously, in most of the cases there was a practical consideration beyond the use of new means and techniques in art. Artists who were conscripted, among them László Moholy-Nagy in 1914, chose to send postcards depicting life in the camps instead of long worded accounts that would have been time- and space-consuming. John Heartfield prepared Dadaist photomontages on the postcards he sent from the camp to give a sign of life, with the help of which he also managed to bypass military censorship. In practical terms Duchamp would have been better off if he had not sent his letter to his friends but personally put them in their letterboxes; however, by doing so he would have omitted something – not from the history of the work but from the work itself. This something is the foreign element outside the artist’s scope of influence: the post exists independent of art; it is there to be used, it is ready made. Duchamp invented the genre of ready made, i.e. the use of ready-made industrial products as works of art. He was the first to come up with the idea of placing the wheels of a bicycle on a chair and calling it a work (Bicycle Wheel, 1913). Up to this day various opinions are held as to the impact of ready made-s and the real reason behind their creation. Some believe that ready made-s exerted a decisive influence on 20th-century art, while according to others it is the numerous interpretations by posterity that had a fundamental impact. What is indisputable is that Duchamp regarded them as important and repeatedly displayed them: at times in a pure form (The Source, 1917 – actually a pissoir), at times combined with other elements (Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy?, 1921 – a birdcage, a candy, a piece of sepia and a thermometer assembled together). Without its postal “journey” the postcard Duchamp sent to his neighbours would signify little: perhaps as the draft for a later work, background information for a grand work, a manuscripts for collectors. However, the act of involving the post calls attention to the fact that it is the form of delivery and not the card that is of interest. The post was turned into a ready-made – the process itself and the service were the ready-made element. Duchamp attracted attention to the possible expansion of means, which can be any everyday object or process that according to the intention of the artist is placed in the service of art.

The post has entered the realm of art. Dadaists loved “playing around” with invented postal stamps and postcards they sent to each other. It was at the time of the new dada that this opportunity was exploited more significantly, especially prompted by the emergence of Fluxus. Artistamps had been made sporadically before Fluxus came on the scene but only in isolation. The first artistamp series was created by Karl Schwesig, who in 1941, as a prisoner in a Nazi lager, drew pictures of the concentration camp he was in on perforated slips with colour ink. He found the minimum form of self-expression – something an artist is unable to suppress – for the minimum of existence. Schwesig even invented an issuing country, GURS, for his twenty-seven stamps of a mostly mocking tone and assigned them a nominal value. This clearly proved that human dignity can be preserved even within the confines of a death camp. The artist “ordained” the lager into a country. Such a country can be built around an artist’s worldview and this is exactly what happened in the case of Yves Klein, who made monochrome paintings and patented one particular hue of ultramarine blue under the name Klein Blue, and having coupled this colour with various uses, he issued a sheet of “blue stamps” in 1959. Interestingly, by mistake this blue stamp was treated by the post as a genuine postal stamp and the letters were regularly delivered. Then a scandal broke out over this issue because the artist was suspected of consciously trying to mislead the post. In fact, Klein would not have been the first to experiment with such an idea: there have always been (and are) stamp images in postal circulation which are part of a scam and are not even remotely artistic. The first precedence that has survived is linked to a postmaster called Brunswick, who placed his mark on postal history by printing his own portrait in place of the sovereign’s on an English postal stamp in 1861 and circulated it as New Brunswick Postage. The royal authorities initially sentenced him to years of imprisonment for his prank; Klein however, got away without being punished and most probably this scandal was a good advertisement for the artistamp since many, who supposed that Klein had set out to mislead the post with his stamp saw his act as the revival of Dadaist impudence towards social norm and as a testing of the limits.

By the end of the 1950s, attempts at using the post for artistic purposes, which previously occurred only sporadically, began to appear in an increasingly organised way thanks to some artists of great initiative. The largest-scale use of postal services at the time was initiated by Ray Johnson in 1962 with his New York Correspondence School. In its heyday the first network of correspondence artists counted about 200 members in its ranks, who were constantly sending one another letters and objects of the most varied shape and content. As far as the subject of the sent items is concerned, these artists were influenced by new realism, which began in France. Artists of new realism, among them the previously mentioned Yves Klein, used the ready made objects of everyday life or their manipulated counterparts to create their works, often including postal elements (rubber- and postal stamps) in a reinvented form (Arman, Daniel Spoerri). The items circulating in Ray Johnson’s network came from a wide range of objects, from simple printed or hand-written letters to textiles and even small pieces of furniture, testing the capacity of the postal network in a big way. In his network Ray Johnson not only encouraged two-party question-and-answer type correspondence but also multi-party group dialogue represented by a chain in which the participants modified each others letters before sending them on. Soon many followers joined the network initiated by Johnson in many parts of the world and numerous sub- and side-networks formed over the following ten years, independently of Johnson. This activity, known as Mail Art, attracted and has been attracting many adherents, since due to the nature of the internet network the number of correspondents is not limited by the lack of financial resources – as it was in the case of traditional correspondence – but by personal factors such as people’s time and tolerance.

George Maciunas must also be mentioned alongside Ray Johnson as a significant contributor to the history of the artistamp. He was the founder of the Fluxus movement and its most active member until his death. The true nature of this strange phenomenon can be best understood from the following quotation by Ken Friedman: “Fluxus has always been a rather unlikely movement: sprightly, hard to pin down, a bit Zen-like in its reluctance to be described, it is hardly a movement at all. One may rather call it a rubric, a forum, an elusive philosophy made real by the fact that real artists engaged one another and the world in real acts under the name Fluxus.”[2] In addition to the irregular joint actions carried out by the ad hoc “cast” of this group, joint works and publications were also made, with Maciunas in charge of their compilation and delivery to the members. In order to realise his ambition Maciunas needed to build a network similar to that of Ray Johnson’s. He was successful in his undertaking and he surprised the members of his network with publications of highly varied content. Since Marcel Duchamp was regarded the most important precursor of Fluxus, following Duchamp’s model of miniature oeuvres, the publications were often made in the shape of boxes containing works by various artists composed around one theme. The boxes had the photo of a letterbox on them and sheets of stamps mostly by Robert Watts. The Fluxus Postal Kit created in 1966-67, which also contained a sheet of stamps, a rubber-stamp and envelopes, was one of these. One of the earliest Fluxus sheets of stamps was made in 1963 by Watts too. It was linked to a year-long series of events named Yamflug, organised by the members (the name refers to the series which lasted from May to May; the sheet of stamps was called yam – the reversed form of the English word for May). Subsequently, in 1964, the publication entitled Fluxpost was also in circulation. Maciunas mostly took part in the issuing of the sheets; by 1978 he had created forty-two of them named Fluxpost.

There was a fundamental difference between Fluxus and the New York Correspondence School. George Maciunas, in this respect being similar to Ray Johnson, built a network when he lined up numerous like-minded artists across the globe in a mailing list and encouraged the forming of a community by posting papers, posters, invitations and dozens of other types of publications under the aegis of Fluxus. His method exerted significant influence on the then emerging Mail Art since – in contrast to the later Artistamp Network – Maciunas mainly initiated one-way communication with his works informing or urging addressees or simply presenting them with a new creation rather than expecting a reply in the sense that they did not function as questions or calls for action. As opposed to this Ray Johnson often formulated a call of some kind, for instance asked the addressee to send the work on or enrich it in some way. As a result, in this process communication does not only take place between just two parties but is extended to include more participants, just like in a discussion taking place at a larger gathering. The difference between the two of them lived on in the features marking the two distinctive types of network that developed subsequently, one being Mail Art, characterised by one-way communication, and Correspondence Art, marked by chains and multi-party dialogue.

However, in terms of communication, the genre of the artistamp cannot be determined by whether a reaction is expected or merely information is given, since, just like in a conversation, rhetoric questions are sometimes asked, to which the answer is obvious but left unasked a vacuum would be left behind. For this reason the artistamp is often placed somewhere between Mail Art and Correspondence Art, however, it is often the case that a particular work belongs more closely to one of the two categories.

In the history of the artistamp the late sixties and early seventies represented the real heyday. Then, enthusiasm for the genre subsided temporarily only to gain a new impetus with the emergence of more sophisticated technologies and the Internet, at this point there being increasingly less limitation technically and financially. Numerous stamps, which by now are regarded as classic pieces, have been made and hundreds of artists made their voices heard in the worldwide communication space. Some names and types could be highlighted but it is very hard to establish distinct groups since this genre is extremely diverse and involves a great number of participants. This is why the Parastamp exhibition does not give a mere selection of particular artists or themes but rather created thematic groups from the most characteristic pieces of the artists represented in the Artpool collection. The grouping of works is made all the more challenging, since it is based on a subjective decision who highlights which aspect out of the numerous opportunities that are at hand, starting with the above-mentioned dilemma of whether these works belong to the realm of fine arts, they are signs conveying information or they are documents of a dialogue that has been going on for decades. This dilemma marks the path for the visitors so that they can select what they regard as the most valuable pieces.

The genre of the artistamp is more or less delineated since Internet culture is slowly making this genre redundant and will eventually force the existence of this form of art into oblivion. Yet, the end of the attitude that propelled this form of expression has still not arrived because who knows when a conversation ends?


[1] Dick Higgins: Five Traditions of Art History. In: D. H.: A Dialectic of Centuries. Notes towards a Theory of the New Arts. Printed Editions, New York, Barton (Vermont), 1978. p. 10.

[2] Ken Friedman: Mail Art History: The Fluxus Factor. In: Franklin Furnace Flue, 1984, Vol. 4., No. 3-4., p. 20.