“What a message! what a picture!/all pink and gold and classical/a romantic French sunset for a/change. And the text could not/but inspire—with its hint/of traduction, renaissance and/Esperanto: verily The Word!.../”. ‘A Postcard From John Ashbery’, Frank ‘O Hara
I went to see postcard art at an exhibition at the British Museum last year. The exhibition was curated from the private collection of Jeremy Cooper, and included work by Susan Hillier, Gilbert and George, and Tacita Dean, and covered art movements such as Fluxus (Joseph Beuys, Klaus Staeck) and the Vancouver 71 /77 projects (postcard correspondence between artists).
The exhibition was curated thematically: Feminism, Performance, Conceptual, Graphic, Political, Collage, Art and Language, etc. The postcards were displayed as pin boards inside glass cabinets; but just as a lepidopterist’s collection of dead butterflies is a world away from butterflies in flight, so the erstwhile life of these postcards were devitalised.
The exhibition was wide-ranging: from the work of Richard Hamilton (‘Witley Bay, 1966’, ‘Five Tyres Remoulded’) to the conceptual work (red typography on a white card) of Gilbert & George, from the postcards recording performance by Stelarc and Chris Burden, to the use of postcards as political propaganda (“War Is Over!/If You Want It”…) in the the bold typographic art of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, which made the journey from postcard to billboards outside movie theatres.
Dieter Roth’s traditional ‘tourist’ postcard, an arresting work called ‘120 Piccadilly Postcards’, an eerie collage, managed to be nostalgic and postmodern at the same time.
I was intrigued by Susan Hillier’s artists’ postcards, with the subject of rough seas in British coastal towns, a sample from a bigger exhibition of Hillier’s work at The Tate in the 1970s called ‘Dedicated to the Unknown Artists’, which amounted to 300 original artists’ postcards depicting rough seas around Britain displayed on fourteen panels. Hillier’s curated art demonstrating the importance of the past, memory and heritage in how we see the world and view art: how objects become artefacts, the artefacts revivified, what was unnoticed or lost, is seen again, found or re-discovered and presented in a new dimension as art.
The American artist Stephen Shore was an avid collector of postcards until he decided to make his own from photographs of Amarillo in Texas. The work, ‘Greetings from Amarillo: Tall in Texas, 1971’, was an attempt to pay homage to postcards because they (in his words) ‘conveyed cultural information without the pretence of art’. His work was originally unsuccessful and none sold, so he printed thousands of copies and over several years deposited the postcards around the U.S., in drugstores and on newstands. This sense of art uncontained and on the move, the wireform stands miniature galleries, and the potentially wide, albeit disparate, audience gives a dynamism to postcard art that it is difficult to imagine from his postcards here encased in glass.
Elsewhere there were portrait postcards by David Hockney from his early sketches and drawings, a display of graphic postcards from Peter Doig, a cabinet for Language postcards (‘The World Exists to be put on a Postcard’, by Simon Cutts), and Altered Postcards— a postcard by Yoko Ono where she’d clipped a circular hole in a blank postcard and written “A Hole to see the sky Through”. The postcards by Ono and Cutts showed the diverse range of art at the exhibition, which included postcard invitations to the opening night shows from a variety of artists, including one from Andy Warhol.