Postcards have always been a means of reproducing famous works of art, often picked up by visitors as a memento of an exhibition or as a gift for an art loving friend. But the humble postcard has been utilised by artists over the years, taking its diminutive size, immediacy and inexpensive production to create modern and powerful conceptual forms of art.
I got the opportunity to see examples of postcard art at the exhibition The world exists to be put on a postcard: artists’ postcards from 1960 to now, at the British Museum, London. This free show, which runs until August 4th 2019, contained hundreds of works by several well known modern artists, including Andy Warhol, Gilbert & George, Jim Dine, and many others.
Much of the art on display was grouped with various political and iconoclastic themes (reflected in social zeitgeists today) and projected the postcard as a piece of fine art in its own right through various ways such as graphics, concepts and humour. It was not surprising to find pervasive pop art themes and narratives throughout, as the postcard can be considered a concrete example of a throwaway and temporary culture.
The postcards displayed reflected the personal versus impersonal and immediate versus obscure in human society, through direct statements and images or through the manipulation of established forms. Dieter Roth, for example, produced a large series of images depicting Piccadilly Circus (1965) that took established touristy viewpoints of this famous London landmark and manipulated them through silk screen printing.
Daniel Buren’s photographic series Halifax, 7 days, placements, 7 colors (1974) depicted an unoccupied building decorated by the artist with coloured stripes in Halifax, Novia Scotia. Buren took photographs of the stripes each day for a week, with the colours rotated at the same time each day. The scene is repetitive, save for the changing stripes which seem to co-exist with the subtle local lighting and parked vehicles that also change each day. Because the building was unoccupied, Buren’s statement seems to be saying “I was here”, as if the stripes are the only evidence of him having existed there.
The long-running conceptual art collective Fluxus worked extensively with postcards (many were on display in the exhibition) and much of their aim has been placing an emphasis on performance rather than finished product.
Other postcard artists incorporated the experience of participants into the ‘performance’ in humorous ways, like Stephen Shore, with his series Greetings from Amarillo (1971) which featured postcard photographs of ordinary local American street views and cityscapes of Amarillo in Texas. These were coloured with turquoise skies, seemingly mimicking the over-tinted look of tourist postcards. The ‘performance’ came, however, when he placed the cards randomly into store newsstands and carousels for members of the public to pick up. An even cheekier prank was made by artist Ron Van den Berghe.
Other standouts for me was the exhibition invitations section, featuring rare and original postcard invites and flyers of prominent artists over the years. Some of these, like Andy Warhol’s invite for Holy Cow! Silver Clouds!! Holy Cow! exhibition (1966) at the Contemporary Art Centre in Cincinnati, Ohio, almost become a piece of the artist’s work in their own right. But it also begs the question: What is the future for the postcard in art? Are flyers and invites increasingly obsolete in the wake of our increasing dependency to promote ourselves through the internet?