The rubber stamp is the twentieth century’s definitive emblem of bureaucracy, providing an official mark of acceptance or rejection of governments and corporations. Military, housing, and job applications have been sealed with a stamp, as have births, marriages, and deaths. “Greetings from Daddaland,” curated by John Held Jr. — who ran the Stamp Art Gallery in San Francisco in the mid-1990s — provides an alternate history of that tool, charting its renegade use by countless artists and pranksters over the past century.
Dadaists Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp were early adopters, with the latter represented here with reproductions of chess-themed stamps that he made around 1919 and used during his stay in Buenos Aires. After the wars, Nouveau Réalist Arman popularized the stamp, and Held includes a long, thin stamp of a paintbrush that the artist made in the mid-1950s — a perfect complement for his art, which was created through the obsessive accumulation of the same objects. Next, Fluxus members and other radicals (like Ray Johnson and Robert Watts) picked up the stamp in the 1960s, and their experiments are catalogued in voluminous detail.
The walls of one room are lined with dozens of selections from the Traveling Art Mail (TAM) Rubber Stamp Archive, strips of paper mailed by the Dutch stamp-art collector Ruud Jansssen to other artists and enthusiasts over the years that read, “I kindly ask you to print a few of your (funniest…) stamps on this paper.” The responses he received range from opaque, banal messages — “NO SPITTING,” “BE BLANK,” one card reads — to ornate prints of wristwatches and detailed portraits and still lifes that have the detail of fine woodcuts, highlighting the medium’s remarkable range.
The prints in the TAM Archive also encapsulate the strange characteristics of the stamp as an art medium: they are usually anonymous, and they are endlessly reproducible. (One wonders whether the art resides in these coveted rubber stamp or their free prints.) Authorship and uniqueness are tossed aside by the medium, which was designed to create fleeting pleasures, not everlasting masterpieces — exactly how these artists wanted it. Today, when bureaucratic processes have moved into an unseen digital world, it all looks almost quaint.