Géza Perneczky: ARTISTS’ STAMPS (the exhibition)

What strikes the viewer at first is the freshness of the exhibition, - the material is the yield of the last couple of years. A broader historical perspective, a detailed retrospection on the past twenty-five years is only limitedly represented. The Galántai collection (it should be noted; the Galántai couple are known in the Mail Art-field under the cover-name of “Artpool”; the visitor will continually encounter similar, institution parodizing names of this kind), so the Artpool collection does nevertheless incorporate, in a surprising way, at least a sketchy history of the evolutionary turning points in the development of the Artists’ Stamp. So, for instance, we can find a facsimile print, if not the original, of Donald Evans' (USA) palmtree-series from an invented country (Tropides Islands), and a couple of unique originals from the same artist (these are the Mauritius-es of artists’ stamps!). Next to Robert Watts' (USA) Yamflug and Fluxpost captioned FLUXUS-stamps, we can find those stamps of Ken Friedman (USA) on which he used rubberstamp motifs taken from Beuys (D) and Maciunas (USA), or Joel Smith’s (USA) “Big Dada” stamp-series which illustrates the origins of the genre stemming right back to classical avantgarde. A special curiosity of the collection are Tamás Halász’s (H) stamps carved from erasing rubber and produced with a rubber-stamp technique, which he made when he was 16 years old with no knowledge whatsoever of the then developing art-form; - these stamps remind us of Donald Evans' exotic stamp-phantasies with their utopistic charm.

But if we are at the beginnings, let me draw two more recent works into the foreground which formulated the “ontology” of artists’ stamps. The first isn’t even a stamp, it is only a drawing. Robin Crozier (GB) sent it for the exhibition sketched on an envelope. It depicts a stamp which is framed by a larger stamp, - the theme of the stamp therefore, is the stamp itself. This stamp-depicting stamp is then mounted on an easel - the way classic paintings are - : the stamp has turned into art! The other work is a stamp-sheet from Guy Bleus (B) on which two types of stamps alternate each other. One of them depicts postal stamps which are marked with the well-known X-sign of the FLUXUS movement. The other one depicts the back of a nude. This naked body of a woman is clothed by nothing but stamps thrown over her shoulder cascading down in tresses behind her back. If we think of the (cultic and aesthetical) role that the female nude has played in the history of the past three to four thousand years, then this stamp-dress will gain a special importance for us. This is further enhanced by the stamp- (and FLUXUS) motifs placed around the figure. The meditative solitude, the creative self-concentration of the nude standing with her back towards us, evokes memories that can be traced back in the European history of art right up till Dürer’s famous engraving, Melancholy.

A number of other stamps can be related to this “stamp about stamp” idea. Mogens Otto Nielsen (DK) did not draw his stamp, only the intention can be read from the perforated squares (as in a Concept-piece): “We Illuminature”. Galántai (H) actually stuck a postal stamp into every single artist' stamp on his sheet. Others accentuated the creative element in their works. Angelika Schmidt (D) stamped the sign “Handmade-Stamp” on her stamps. The captions on the felt-tip coloured stamps of Marilyn. R. Rosenberg (USA) speak of the wonders of “stampism” in a playful gabble-language: “Philatelical Photophily Stamps”, for instance. Czechoslovakia was the only country in the world right up till the recent past where you could buy framed, adhesive, perforated labels in big sheets which were ideally suited to print stamps from them with the aid of rubber-stamps. The author too had grasped this opportunity with a caption indicating in its white (hence invisible) colour the hermetics of the artists’ stamp medium: “Secret Mail Art”.

We can discern another group that - although also connected to the “stamp-about-stamp” theme - does not speak of the metaphysics of stamps, but ventures instead to develop the distinguishing marks of the stamp-form. Stefan Wewerka (D) was a Pop Art representative whose characteristic trait was the creation of tilted objects. His slantingly tilted, consequently rhombus-shaped stamp-sheet originally started out as nothing more than a by-product to his activities but immediately became extremely popular. Endre Tót (H) used to provide everything with a zero-quantity as a concept-artist and, among others, designed a stamp with a naught sign on it and a caption saying “Zeropost”. Even the real post issues triangular stamps now and then, but Ruud Janssen, the enthusiastic Dutch Mail Artist, was the first to design a pentagon-shaped one. The narrow stamps of Bálint Bori (H) are totally unique, sometimes even reaching half a metre in length (he stuck the ornate upper and lower bordering edges of large-size maps together to form stamp-pictures out of them, - inbetween them, inside the narrow slit between the two long strips, the whole world is there in imaginary form). He also stumbled upon another form of infinity: he cut stamp-like squares out of the parts of maps that indicate oceans. It is self-evident that the artist should make the characteristic perforation of the stamp his object of interest. Achim Schnyder (D) divided an envelope into perforated areas, J. O. Olbrich (D) did the same with printed sheets of paper.

One is not obliged to proceed from the stamp towards form, but can also go the other way: from the form towards the stamp. A work from Robert Watts (USA) was the most beautiful I had yet seen among these: the stamp-sheet is a big map of the Moon with the starlit, black sky as the background; and this A4-size paper is divided into stamps with perforations (to tear out an individual stamp would mean that we had destroyed the picture). G. E. Marx Vigo’s (RA) sheet is of similar construction. Here we can see a dense forest of calligraphic sings, and in front of this background a caravan of camels moves on, not in the least taking any concern in the perforations which divide the stamps and cut through the animals freely. This theme of the stamp-image that runs over the perforations - hence, through many stamps - is relatively frequent, sometimes only as a sign, as in the case of Jaroslav Supek’s (YU) stamp-sheet with the inscription “TOTAL”, or Carl Camu’s (D) sheet which bears the word “camouflage”. H. R. Fricker (CH) simply printed the letters of the alphabet on the individual stamps, and so only the complete sheet carries the total meaning. Jo-Anne Echeverría Myers' (USA) sheet is a peculiar example in this category, since it is no more than a one-dollar bill that has been divided by perforations. The listed works bear a tangible resemblance to the playful or grotesque mentality of neo-dadaism; but we know of positively aesthetical solutions as well, as the incredibly subtle marble paper-surfaces of Pat Fish (USA) which she divided into stamps, or Sándor Győrffy’s (H) painting of a red violin which is similarly divided into stamps with the aid of perforations. The basic idea is the infinitely large sheet of paper from which the perforation cuts out tiny stamps, but these stamps are only parts of the whole, - in a figurative sense as well, as the artists’ stamp does not “stop” at its borders but progresses onwards in the wake of its intellectual and communicative strength, the same way as the telephone or telex cables do that encompass the whole surface of our globe. This was the thought that I had tried to express with my stamp-action entitled “Post Infinite”. The common feature of the stamps which were produced with various techniques is that the captions run out of the stamps in all directions, onto the neighbouring stamps or the words of the cancellation postmark.

There are many artists who make artists’ stamps simply out of the already existing postage stamps. One of the members of this “stamp from the stamp” trend is Miles De Coster (USA), whose work entitled “Non-Postage-Stamps” was made by painting ordinary postage stamps black and punching a round hole in the middle of every single one. Gábor Tóth (H) repainted the postal sheets in a more varied form, sometimes only in part, sometimes completely, sometimes black, sometimes white, - as a result, the stamp-sheets have acquired a particular kind of rhythm. Gaetano Colonna (I) took the stamps of all kinds of countries and only changed one thing on them: he wrote his name in the place of the country’s own. Bernd Löbach-Hinweiser (D) printed the sloganNo weapons into the spaceabove the original postage-stamps. Sebastian Brehmer (D) simply cut the stamps up into strips and stuck these parts together again, only a bit more densely (this technique reminds us of the works of the Czech collage-artist Jiri Kolar). Cestmir Kocar (CS) paired up the proper postage stamps with their own xerox copies as a kind of shadow-picture. The further development of postage stamps, the manipulations of various kinds, naturally lead us out of the domain of artists’ stamps in the narrow sense. Perhaps the most frequent are those compositions that can be classified as prints on which the artist “continues” the image of the stamp on the paper or the envelope or supplements it with additional pictures and designs. It would be impossible to introduce all these works, I would like to pick out just one as an example which is also displayed at this exhibition: Enrico Sturani (I) applied the picture of the popular pope John XXIII onto a postcard with a picture of a nude on it in such a way so that the hand of the Pope touches the breast of the naked woman. In an extreme case, the stamp may turn into an object, - an example of this is Guigou’s (F) large-size composition, which depicts a well-known French stamp, the portrait of a woman with the Frisian hat, - in the shape of a brick wall. Inside this wall there is a small grated window, and behind the grills we can glimpse the tiny brick-red stamp that symbolizes France, this time in its original form (this exceptionally interesting piece was sent especially for this occasion by László Jean-Noël). The works that revolve around the stamp-form almost imperceptibly lead us over to the field of technical curiosities. It is worthy to note that the spreading of artists’ stamps would be inconceivable without the widespread use of photocopying. Most stamps are made with the aid of the common black and white photo-copying process, but there is a considerable proportion of artists who take advantage of colour photo-copiers (wherever this is possible at all, of course). Monochrome or multicolour offset-printing is also popular, but the artists, if they have the means to do so, favour the colour photo-copier in the case of colour prints because it evokes a more aggressive effect with its irritatingly sharp, lacquered colours and instantly captures the attention of the viewer.

Many Mail Artists create stamps with the rubber-stamp technique; this is a cheap and easily variable process that could be illustrated with countless examples. If I now mention the finely dimensioned stamped stamps of Mario Lara (USA), or the rustically simple apple-stamps of Michaela Versari (I), that would be but a random choice from a mass of possibilities. Stamps made with photographic techniques are a much greater rarity. The miniature photos of B. J. Tisa (USA) are perhaps the most widely-known in this family, but Tamás Soós' (H) “Day Art” stamp is also present at this exhibition, not to mention the works of Eleanor Kent (USA), who places colour photos on his stamps. The incorporation of the computer into stamp design is a very interesting and yet almost totally unexplored domain. One of the possibilities is where the computer designs (or variates) the motif of the stamp and the artist applies these images (by means of photography for instance) onto the stamp, - this was the technique used by Ginni Lloyd (USA) in bringing the computer-manipulated-variations of Marilyn Monroe’s face-features onto her stamps; similar also is David Cole’s (USA) stamp-series entitled Paumonock Post, where computer-drawings are applicated on the stamp surface. Even more exciting a technique is the direct printing of the finished-stamps by the computer. There is only a single example of this here: Shelton Wilder’s (USA) “Luna Stamps”.

The question of technique cannot be neglected when we examine the chronology and spreading density of the artists’ stamp either. Peter Frank, one of the American theoreticians of the art-form, contended that the appearance of artists’ stamps in the United States and Canada preceded the European and South-American movement by almost ten years, and the art-form continues to be more widespread in North-America than anywhere else in the world. One of the evident reasons for this is the genealogy of the genre from the FLUXUS movement (FLUXUS was primarily an American artistic phenomenon), but the technical problems cannot be left out of consideration, since they were a general hindrance to the European artists up to the 1970s whenever they wanted to produce cheap prints or reproductions of drawings. There are some countries in the world where children play around freely with xerox machines at the kindergarten. - But there are others - large areas in the Third World for instance - where even professional artists can hardly gain access to machinery of this kind. It is exactly the stamps made with computer-techniques that show the best that the precedence of the American artists and their swifter reactions to the changes in technique is still a characteristic symptom. On the other hand, the European and Latin-American field that had inbetween developed is now full of interesting achievements and has become substantial in number. The reader must have noticed by now that in citing examples for the various directions in the genre, I had given priority to artists from these regions and with this, attempted to counterbalance the slightly America-centered literature.

Nonetheless, one can’t treat the stamp-artists active in the United States only peripherically. It follows simply from their huge number and work intensity that they have an immense effect over the others. But even more so as a consequence of the optimistic and unrestrained mentality which is characteristic of many domains of American artistic life in general. There is a whole row of American Mail Artists who have placed the emphasis of their activities on the production of stamps, among them E. F. Higgins III (whose stamps bear the logo DOO-DA), and Carlo Pittore (who, corresponding to his sensuous temperament, likes to call himself Pittore Euforico, and on whose stamps we can read the inviting request: “Post Me”). Opposed to these two New York notabilities stand the West-Coasters: Dogfish, whose stamps bear evidence of incredible colouring and variability, the many-sided and humorous Rocola, or the sensitive Darlene Altschul (Tarzana).The West-Coasters are in a very close relationship with Canadian Mail Artists, where stamp-making also looks back on long and powerful traditions. One of the most significant focal points is without doubt the activity of Anna Banana on the West Coast of Canada, but I cannot fail to mention the artist [Mike Bidner] who works under the name of Artistamp, and who has been working for the last couple of years on a comprehensive catalogue of all the artists’ stamps of the world. Among European masters only one has attained the yield-capacity of the Americans, the Italian warehouse-chain owner Cavellini, who has the financial means to print colour stamps in unlimited quantities not having to care with the devalvation of value and the inflatoric effects that accompany such prolific activity.

The style of this group of artists is direct, - they open up themselves and shout out the satisfaction that stems from their work to the world. Hence, the same way as on seeing the ontological depths on the stamps of the Belgian Guy Bleus, one would be inclined to turn to an art-historian of a Panofskyan rank for an analysis of content and iconological questions that run hand-in-hand with European mentality, here, in the case of the above mentioned artists, a commentary of a Marshall McLuhanian-type culture-philosopher would be much more appropriate. Here, the stamp is a medium which has completely melted into one with the conveyed content, the stamp is the message. This is the sphere where we find the most works which - conforming to the original form of the stamp-genre - represent the features of the “emperor” or his or her “relatives”. The artist’s self-portraits and artist's-friend-portraits of Higgins III were originally large-sized painted portraits which were applied on the stamp-sheet with photographic techniques. Carlo Pittore likes to make genre-like pictures of the dadaist atmosphere of artists’ meetings, and has lately even produced close-ups of boxers' movements (hidden self-portrait?). I can’t even attempt to list all the stamps with self-portraits on them. I would just mention the names of the Italian Vittore Baroni and the Polish Henryk Bzdok, on whose stamps the facial features and the “Bzzz” signs remind one of the waving of flags.

The stamp-sheets of miniature portrait-galleries of fellow artists lead us over to the field of anthologies. One of these is the memorable “Portrait Postage” - series by Guy Schraenen (B), which he sent off to all parts of the world as a supplement to his “Libellus” Mail Art magazine in 1981. Wulle Konsumkunst (D) published a similar sheet under the title of “Masters of Mail Art and Actionart”. Every artists’ meeting offers a further opportunity for the creation of anthologies of this kind. One of these series, that stirred great excitement upon its appearance, was the sheet prepared in honour of the Mail Artists who were unjustly left out of a New York exhibition in 1984 at Franklin Furnace. A series made by John Held Jr. (USA), used on a gallery of portraits painted by myself not at all destined for stamps entitled “Mail Art Olympus” is similar in atmosphere. When an international artist crowd gathered not so long ago for a Mail Art symposium in Calgary, Canada, Russell Butler (USA) prepared a gallery of portraits of the participants. The freshest among these works bears the title “Los Angeles Marathon”, and is the joint product of the Creative Thing-Spiegelman-Meade-DKA artist-group. Although not a real portrait, H. R. Fricker’s (CH) now famous shadow-phantom - first as a rubber stamp, later in different stamp-variations-also counts among the portrait-works. Fricker was the one who announced the “ Decentralized World-Congress “ of Mail Artists, in other words, the acceptance of smaller, occasional gatherings into “the whole of Mail Art proper”. It is perfectly obvious that these meetings serve as excellent occasions for the publication of joint stamp-sheets.

The anthologies transgress, of course, to the territory of the catalogue; instead of portraits, one can publish the miniaturized versions of the participating works at an exhibition in stamp-format, - a perfect method to cut the costs of expensive glossy catalogues. Edwin Varney - also known as Big Dada - had issued such sheets in Canada in as early as the seventies, and these were followed by various stamp-anthologies and catalogue-type sheets; - Al Souza (USA), Artpool [World Art Post] (H), Vittore Baroni [Arte Postale] (I), Peter Küstermann [porto edition] (D), etc. Some of these sheets appear regularly, like a periodical, - Baroni’s works for instance. Creative Thing (USA) even thought up a title for his stamp-magazine: “Rant”. One of the most beautiful stamp-anthologies was issued by J. P. Jacob (USA) as a collection from the works that his artist friends had sent him on the occasion of his marriage. The title of the collection is “Wedding Post”.

Naturally, even the artists’ stamp can’t avoid the appearance of immortal idols on its sheets. We have already encountered the name of Marilyn Monroe; Higgins III (USA) brought to life the inevitable Mona Lisa version too. But in the alternative society of our days, it is frequent that not the fascinating personality, but only its quintessence, sex or sex-substituting symbols and signs get allotted the major role. Hence, it is these that we come upon more often on artists’ stamps. Anna Banana’s (CDN) erotic performances and “Bananapost” stamps definitely played a pioneering role, but Paweł Petasz’s (PL) “Atlantis Post” stamps are filled with similar erotic charges. The most obviously erotic works are those of two Yugoslavian artists: Andrej Tisma and Miroljub Todorvic. The sign-like figures can naturally serve more common (or more commonly accepted) causes. Buster Cleveland’s (USA) sheet, “Budapest-Dada”, is a composition of letter-signs; the “Cultural Communication Issue” of Cracker Jack Kid (USA) is restricted to similar visual symbols. Both works are simultaneously publications that refer to some kind of international Mail Art event and therefore are related to stamp-anthologies. The stamps of Mark Pawson (GB), built up of signs made of the linear computer-codes found on Common Market products, are some of the most interesting pieces in this field. While many signal-type stamps are related to concrete or visual poetry and are miniaturized versions of the latter as it were, Pawson “steals” and reinterprets signs of commercial origin for his stamps.

Finally, let me return to the appraisement of European artists’ stamps and East-European works in particular. After all, this is perfectly justified in the case of an exhibition which is organized in Budapest. It is only more recently that the production of technically high-standard works has become more widespread, - the earlier artists’ stamps were usually made with rubber-stamps or lino. Stamps of such professional beauty as the works of the East-German Rehfeldt-couple were long regarded as rarities. East-European Mail Artists were more closely attached to graphic sheets of undefined form and improvised drawings of unique style and technique. When they began to make stamps, those counted more or less as informal gestures rather than graphic works related to printed matter. (The spectrum of artists’ stamps in Latin-American countries serves as an interesting comparison: the aesthetically perfectly refined stamp-art of Edgardo-Antonio Vigo (RA) is quite exceptional, the freedom-fighter scenes of the Mexican César Espinoza or the rubber-stamp-technique stamps of Jairo Figueiredo with the improvized effects are more typical examples.)

Not the technique, but the drawing hand and the thinking head dominate the works of Birger Jesch (DDR), (his “Duftmarke” - “Scent Stamp” - piece preserves the traces of a drop of liquid, and on another one we can read the following slogan: “acid stamp from the 20th century”). Paweł Petasz (PL) circulated home-printed stamps in the seventies under the name of “Petapost of Freedonia”. What is reflected in these stamps is not so much irony as rather a strong belief in the redeeming force of Mail Art and artistic subculture in general, - quite an unusual subject by the way in the otherwise cheerful and light-hearted international Mail Art scene. “The ability to art. A root of democracy”, “Wash your brain - mail the slops” and “In art we trust”, are stamp-slogans which not only attract attention through their arbitrary use of English, but also with the ingenuity with which they reinterpret the worn-out clichés of official moralism and religion and adapt them to Mail Art. But most of all, they indicate that although the official institutions have slowly begun to open their doors to this new and strangely profane art-form, the artists themselves who create the stamps still remain faithful to the sphere which, for the past couple of hundred years, has been the favorite form of expression in artistic internationalism: Utopia.