commissioned for and published in
by Banana Productons
Vancouver, British Columbia, CANADA, 1990
Concepts exist without names and without definitions. They can drift undefined from mind to mind for many years. Eventually, if a concept proves valid it becomes an idea. In birth the idea is given form. Often a word is devised as a name or label to identify the form and this word is then tentatively defined. Finally the definition is clarified and the term or name for the concept enters the realm of human conversation as a natural addition. The origin of the concept is not often identifiable. The search for its conception can be long and difficult as there is no specific gestation period to act as a guide. The term 'Artistamp' represents such a concept and this is the story of my personal quest to define it and seek out its origin.
Joel Smith was teaching at Simon Fraser University when I began working there in 1969 as an associate in Visual Arts in the Centre for Communications and the Arts. Joel is a visual artist and had for some time been using the face of postage stamps as a surface for his miniature paintings. He believed that in difficult times items of great value (such as works of art) should be small. This would allow them to be easily and secretly transported through international border crossings should the need arise. He also believed that the postage stamp size was ideal and he liked the idea that a man could carry around a collection of original paintings in his wallet. When the urge struck all he had to do was pull it out of his hip pocket to gaze upon the treasured collection. He called these works Postal Paintings. During this period I was responsible for organizing and mounting visual art exhibitions in various places around the University. One of those exhibits was entitled The Smallest Documented One-Man Exhibition in the World. It consisted of one of Joel's postal paintings. The work was presented in the theatre foyer on an architect's model of the stage. A very large white poster with an actual size full-colour reproduction of the painting was published to promote and document the exhibit. A limited number of the posters were signed by the artist.
Thanks to my father I had been an avid postage stamp collector in my youth and that involvement drew me to Joel's postal paintings. Even today, an especially attractive stamp from some far off land may be added to my collection. The attraction of postage stamps lay in their ability to carry a great deal of aesthetics and information on very small services. The perforations seemed to give them a unique visual sensuality and the gummed backing necessitated very special handling which implied fragility and value. The fact that they were issued in large quantities made even the most beautiful accessible to the young collector.
In 1970, I travelled to Montreal in search of potential exhibit material for the University's new gallery, scheduled to open in January of '71. On a table in La Guilde Graphique's printmaking studio was what appeared to be a mint sheet of postage stamps. Closer examination revealed that it was a sheet of 18 black and white, gummed and perforated 15 cent Quebec pseudo-postage stamps. Carl Daouset, the creator of the stamps explained that an edition had been printed to complement a book of poems entitled les lettres mortes (the dead letters). I convinced him to sell me a single sheet for they were the first true Artistamps I had found.
Sadly for me, Joel left SFU in 1971. We have however, remained in touch. In my introduction to his exhibit Joel Smith - Postal Paintings, held at The Simon Fraser Gallery in November of '73, I wrote that his postal paintings "demand total concentration, inviting even complete use of our peripheral vision. As the viewer moves closer he is invited, by an apparent ability to enter into an inclusive world, to act as either participant or voyeur. "
Not long after Joel's departure, the California artist Robert Fried visited the gallery with part of his edition of Non-negotiable Eights. This set of prints consisted of a series of five large screen-prints of pseudo-postage stamp images, each with the perforations indicated by heavy embossing. In addition the images had been reduced and printed in multiples on sheets (55. 8 x 71cm) of both gummed and ungummed paper. Each sheet contained 50 Artistamps and the edition on the ungummed paper was signed and numbered. Fried's stamps and stamp images had been superbly produced in four-colour. Needless to say, I acquired the series for the University.
Now my curiosity peaked. Joel Smith in Vancouver, Carl Daouset in Montreal and Robert Fried in San Francisco - non of these artists were acquainted nor were they aware of each other's work in the postage stamp format. Yet these three artists in three separate regions of North America shared the concept. How many more artists were producing such work? How widespread was this concept? Was it strong enough to provide sufficient material to mount an exhibition? Not long after, on trips to Quebec and Alberta, more stamp images came to light in the form of large screen prints of Newfoundland postage stamps by Christopher Pratt and the wildlife postage stamp images by Harry Savage.
Dana Atchley and Ken Friedman dropped by the gallery in the early '70's. They were part of what I like to refer to as the gypsy art movement of the period - artists travelling around North America promoting their ideas and activities by producing art events and leading discussions in artist's studios, university galleries and artist-run spaces such as The Western Front in Vancouver. Whenever these artists appeared I would inquire about others they knew who might be producing pseudo-postage or who were in some way working with the postage stamp format. Following their they helped spread the word of my quest. Atchley agreed to contribute his 1967 hand-coloured photocopied stamp images to the gallery's growing collection.
Friedman was involved with the Fluxus movement and had founded Fluxpost West in 1964. At the time of his he was based in San Diego. Friedman introduced me to the para-postal activity of Fluxus and encouraged me to pursue the idea of an exhibit. He gave me the names and addresses of several artists and organizations to contact and I set the exhibition date for the Fall of '74, trusting that enough material would be located to give a creditable showing. Friedman agreed to the gallery issuing a stamp acknowledging the exhibition and commemorating the 10th anniversary of Fluxpost West. My worldwide search for exhibition material began.
The collection which resulted was officially opened at the Simon Fraser Gallery on October 28th, 1974 by the former Postmaster General of Canada, Hon. William Hamilton. Immediately following the showing the exhibition began a tour of other galleries in British Columbia. Additions were made to the exhibit material as the tour continued and funding for a catalogue was obtained from The Canada Council in 1976. By this time the exhibition included approximately three thousand stamps and stamp images representing the work of thirty-five artists and art groups in nine countries. In May and June of that year the collection was included in the exhibition Timbres et Tampons d'Artistes organized by the Cabinet des Estampes in Geneva. I was able to accompany the material to Switzerland and assisted in its installation. This was my first trip to Europe and I stayed four weeks, during which time I designed my Helvedada stamp sheet for John Armleder at ECART. I visited several other artists including Herve Fischer, of L'Ecole Sociologique, Paris. Fischer and I had corresponded for some time and he had been instrumental in locating the exhibit in Europe. Fischer had made many attempts to have the collection shown in Paris. It seems, however, that it was too 'political' for French taste.
Upon its North America the exhibit continued to tour in Canada and western United States. In 1977 the gallery received a grant from a private foundation which permitted the University to acquire those works which had, up to that point, been on loan from the artists. Donald Evans in Holland was extremely pleased with the sale of two of his watercolour postal paintings and two postal-work collages. As a result of this sale he painted a sheet of Simon Fraser Tartan FAUNA stamps and donated it to the gallery.
A late night call in 1975 from E. F. Higgings in Colorado turned out to be of major importance to my continued involvement with artists' stamps. Higgins, who had just recently learned of the exhibition, wanted to make his work as a stamp artist known to me. In the summer of '76 one of Higgins' stamp sheets was accepted in FOOTPRINT: Northwest International Small Format Print Exhibition organized by Sam Davidson for his gallery in Seattle. Higgins came out to Seattle for the opening where he met C. T. Chew who was also producing colour Xerox stamp sheets. Two of Chew's stamp sheets were later acquired from the Davidson Galleries for the University's collection. After Higgins' move to New York City we were able to meet on those occasions when my travels took me there. By then he had his own perforator and Doo Da Postage Works was in full production. During those visits we would work together to create a stamp edition. Though Higgins I met many other stamp artists, both personally and by correspondence, including Citizen Kafka, Rose Avery and Buster Cleveland. Higgins and I continued to exchange stamps and information and in the Fall of '79 jointly produced and issued a commemorative to mark the opening of Artists' Stamps and Stamp Imagesat P. S. 1 gallery, just across the river from Manhattan.
It was during that 1979 trip to install the exhibit that I visited the Leo Baeck Institute and followed up on a tip that its collection included some original artist's stamps. At the Institute I learned about one of the largest internment camps of World War II. Camp Gurs was located in the foothills of the Pyrenees close to theSpanish border near Pau in unoccupied Vichy France. Conditions at the camp were reported to be worse than in the camps of Nazi-occupied France. In 1941 Gurs held 15,000 internees (800 Jews had died there from malnutrition and epidemics in 1940). Included among them were many degenerate artists blacklisted for their style, subject matter or political activity. International relief agencies such as the YMCA had donated musical instruments and art supplies to the inmates. The availability of the art supplies led to two exhibitions being presented at Gurs during 1941.
The German artist Karl Schwesig, by then a crippled hunchback dwarf, had been a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf and member of the socialist painters' group The Novembrists. He was not Jewish. He was however, an outspoken anti-Nazi and a member of the Communist Party as well as (it is believed) a worker for the armed Communist French resistance movement. Schwesig was interned in Gurs in 1940. In 1941 he drafted a series of mock postage stamps in coloured ink on the blank perforated margins of official postage stamp sheets. Twenty-one of these stamps depict the men, women and children of Gurs, as well as the conditions of life in the camp - black marketing, poor clothing, lack of food, epidemics, coffins, mud, lice, etc. Three large stamps commemorate the Liberty, Equality and Fraternity of the camp while a fourth Air Mail depicts Uncle Sam as an eagle flying into the camp carrying a relief basket. *
These works were very important to the artists' stamp movement. They were a precursor to the work of Donald Evans and Joel Smith and very likely represented the origin of the idea. They were certainly the oldest examples that had come to my attention. Naturally I wanted to make them known to other stamp artists and the art community in general. After some discussion and further correspondence I was able to obtain permission to formally issue the stamps in a limited edition. The Institute provided me with full-size colour transparencies and I sought ways to finance the project. It was to be some time before funding could be found. Meanwhile the exhibition continued its travels and in 1980 was presented at the Hedendaagse Kunst-Utrecht in Holland.
Some time in '82 Michael Bidner contacted me about his project to create a computer database of artist's stamps and stamp images, and to publish a comprehensive catalogue of all such material. He had named the concept - "ARTISTAMP", and even gave copyright notice on the term, granting 'fare use' of the term to everyone. Bidner's definition was all inclusive with the exception of artist's rubber stamp prints. ARTISTAMPS, according to Bidner, "are produced by artists and artist groups as artworks and are primarily used in a mail art context via the international correspondence art network. The term covers adhesive stamps, stationary items and stamp images issued as prints, drawings, paintings, etc. Works designated as ARTISTAMPS can be found listed in the official ARTISTAMP catalogue. "**
(See: The World of Artistamps Volume 1,
by Rosemary Gahlinger -Beaune and Giovanni Bianchini - ed.)
Before his untimely death in the spring of '89, Bidner had been in touch with some 500 artists who had produced artistamps fitting his definition. He had amassed a collection of artistamp material weighing over 520 pounds. Unfortunately he was not able to complete his database and publish the definitive ARTISTAMP catalogue he had worked for so many years to create. It was and still is my contention that Bidner's definition was too broad. I do not believe that every work by an artist using the postage stamp format is an artistamp. A drawing cannot be an artistamp, nor can a painting or collage. An Artistamp can be made from a drawing or collage and one can paint an artistamp. In the case of the latter it is just that, a painting of an artistamp. It is not the genuine article. What then is an Artistamp?
In 1984, after its tour in Great Britain, I withdrew the University's collection of artist's stamps and stamp images from circulation and placed it in storage. In the fall of 1985, after 16 years of mounting exhibitions at Simon Fraser University I resigned my position as University Art Curator and Director of the Simon Fraser Gallery to devote myself full-time to my own art and interests. It wasn't long before I was dreaming of mounting a second look at artistamp activity. More artists and more work was coming to my attention and my participation in the Central Visual Artists' Association in Vancouver brought me into closer contact with two major stamp artists: Anna Banana and Ed Varney. Anna Banana was devoting more and more time to the production of artistamps with her Banana Post and International Art Post series and Varney continued to produce his Mundo Postale and Universal Post series. Varney's 1976 $1000 Canadada artistamp had been adapted for the poster of the Artists' Stamps and Stamp Images Canadian tour.
Dogfish called me from Seattle in April of '88. We hadn't met but I knew him through his production of the unique Tui Tui postal editions. We discussed the prospect of Higgins' trip from New York to see C. T. Chew's major exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. On the agreed date I drove to Seattle and found Chew deeply involved in giving a gallery talk at the Museum. Higgins and Dogfish soon arrived. I hadn't met Chew either except through correspondence and meeting Dogfish and Chew was like meeting old friends not seen in a long time. Later that day I met with Sam Davidson to discuss the importance of mounting a new exhibit of artistamps and we agreed to pursue the idea further. After the meeting and on short notice, Dogfish was able to have a Tui Tui Passport issued to me and I was able to the three stamp artists in that remarkable place on the water. The next day I drove Higgins to Vancouver. During his stay we got together with Banana and Varney several times. At one session in my studio we produced a series of artistamp collages to commemorate Higgins' visit. He took them back to New York and eventually published an edition for us.
Over the following Christmas holidays I met again with Davidson to finalize details for the artistamp exhibit. He agreed that I should investigate the material that might be available and contracted me to curate the exhibition which he scheduled for December the following year. The idea of curating such an exhibition for a commercial gallery intrigued me. This was to be quite a different exhibit from the first one back in '74. This time I would not deal with stamp images, only artists' stamps, or rather my concept of artistamps which was a refinement of the Bidner definition. As the exhibit was to be held in Davidson's Print Gallery, the acceptable material would have to be multiples not one-of-a-kind originals, and as it was a commercial gallery, most, if not all of the material would have to be for sale. The exhibit would focus on artistamps in the classic postage stamp format; i. e. , those bearing the name of some authority and some form of denomination (both either real or imaginary). Full sheets of gummed and perforated artistamps would be preferred. Selection of the final exhibition material would not, however, be so restricted for we were aware that some stamp artists did not have access to a perforating machine and some printing processes do not work on gummed paper.
The following January I published a WANTED poster and began mailing it to known stamp artists around the world. Through Rosemary Gahlinger, I was able to gain access to the mailing list of Michael Bidner and match it with my own and that of Anna Banana. This resulted in a database of 382 potential contributors, including 182 artists groups.
Higgins returned to Seattle in July of '89 for an exhibit of his Fire Cracker paintings at the Davidson Galleries. Anna, Varney, Dogfish and I met again at Chew's studio where he gave us a demonstration of his computer graphic technology. We immediately proceeded to make a series of Fire Cracker stamp images on the computer. Later these images were laser printed and the artistamps perforated. The sheet was then issued under Chew's Triangle Post production name.
As a result of the distribution of my WANTED poster and the subsequent request for information on current activity, responses from seventy-seven artists were received. Sixty artists had completed the follow-up questionnaire. Five additional completed forms were received after the deadline for sending material to Seattle. Fifty-two artists and art groups were finally invited to participate in the exhibit. They had sent, as requested, multiple copies of several signed and numbered artistamp editions. The works for public exhibition were then selected and the additional sheets were placed in the Artistamp Drawers where they were available for public review and purchase both during and following the exhibition. The opening on December 6th was a great success. Banana and Chew came with artistamp face masks and Dogfish sported his uniform. Banana stood on the balcony and tossed her Banana Post artistamps into the air and we watched the masses below scurry to catch them. On December 7th we held a press conference and my interview with a local television reporter was aired on the evening news after hundreds of people had dropped by the exhibition during Seattle's monthly Gallery Walk.
In addition to the necessity of actually placing a dollar value on a sheet of artistamps (Many artists had never considered their artistamp sheets as marketable objects and some were actually opposed to the idea. ), there were difficulties with some of the material due to the continued lack of a concise definition. This was clarified to some extent in a book Dogfish had sent to Anna in the fall of '89. The book Lick'em, Stick'em by H. Thomas Steel, defined and illustrated an advertising medium called Poster Stamps which had its roots in Germany during the early part of the century. Designed by graphic artists, poster stamps were in fact miniature posters. They were gummed and perforated as are Artistamps and official postage stamps. They were not; however, designed and produced by artists for their personal use as are Artistamps. Some of the material submitted to the Seattle exhibit clearly fell under the poster stamp category. They were not Artistamps.
Thus, my personal quest which had its seed planted in 1970 reaches the age of maturity. The great Western tradition of categorization and definition had been carried on. I can now follow the progress of the 'artistamp' concept from its inception in the mind of an artist in a World War II internment camp in 1941 through its labelling and description by another artist in 1982 to its final clarification today.
an object which meets the
- It was conceived in the mind of the artist.
- It was produced by or at the instruction of the artist who conceived it.
- It is a print, preferably on gummed paper.
- It is produced in multiples, most often in several rows and columns on a single sheet which is then, when possible, perforated.
- It is produced in a edition, preferably signed and numbered.
- It gives some indication of the imaginary or actual issuing authority.
- It carries a denomination of some sort.
- It is a work of art.
Jas W Felter, 1990
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