A look at the artists that find their work commemorated on postage stamps.
From the very beginnings of postage stamps, these small items have been amazing works of art. Long before stamps were digitally designed and printed, they were press-printed with incredibly detailed engraving plates. Classic stamps would show ships, royalty, maps, and regional crests. These days they can show anything stamp creators want, as approved by CSAC, the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee.
In this series of articles, we want to take you on a tour of some of the art and artists that have celebrated in commemorative stamps. Even though most stamp artists aren’t engraving plates anymore, they are still creating fine examples of modern art.
The Art of Modern Stamps
Old stamps were produced by engravings. These were used as pressing plates to print the art onto paper for cutting. While the craftsmanship of stamps has faded with the use of modern digital design, the freedom of design choices has only multiplied. Today, most stamp designs are clean, digital illustrations that use any color they can. They are bolder and crisper than older stamps.
In many ways, that also describes contemporary abstract artwork, as well. Abstract designs are often bold and clean. Crisp digital designs line the walls of galleries and museums. Artistic expression is no longer about one’s ability to add more detail to a painting, but one’s purposeful choice in what details to include and why.
This bold, detail-frugal style is easily seen in the abstract works of Ellsworth Kelly, the artist we’re looking at in this article.
Ellsworth Kelly at a Los Angeles art museum opening in 2008. Image by Jeremiah Garcia, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Ellsworth Kelly: A Man of Bold Shapes and Colors
Kelly spent over 70 years refining his distinctive style. In World War II, he designed camouflage patterns and created posters for the U.S. government. From the start, we see his proclivity towards dramatic shapes.
After his military service, Kelly honed his skills even further through painting. He usually stuck to precise shapes and painted with bold, flat colors. He would often paint everyday objects, like the roof of a barn or a tennis court, but he’d remove all but the necessary details, presenting the images as collections of planes of color. In his paintings, reality became abstract.
The type of painting he did is a style now called hard-edge painting. This style is known for abrupt transitions of color and clean lines. It was a highlight of modern art from the 1950s. If you look at the link above, you can see some of his works that are hanging at the Museum of Modern Art.
In addition to painting abstracts, he also was known as a sculpture and sketch artist. In 2013, Kelly received the National Medal of Arts. Even after his death in 2015, his work continues to hang in major museums in the U.S. and around the world.
There were so many possible paintings the USPS could have chosen to include in the 10-stamp set dedicated to Ellsworth Kelly. The ten paintings selected show the distinctive bold and simple style Kelly was known for.
For example, the painting “Yellow White” is so clean and simple, it practically looks unfinished. “Orange Red Relief for Delphine Seyrig” is a painting that features two red-to-orange rectangles overlapping on a white background.
Other paintings in the set are a bit more complicated. “Blue Red Rocker” shows an object that looks to be folded and set on a white surface. It looks almost familiar but also completely foreign at the same time.
Why would the US Postal Service choose to highlight an abstract artist? These stamps, after all, look very different from the more classic designs like flowers and flags that have been common for decades.
We think it’s because of his place in art history and their striking appearance. They capture an era of modern art and the work of an artist who was admired while he was living. Also, their pure abstractness makes them quite unique for a stamp. Stamps usually have lots of tiny details, but these are quite simple. These boldly-colored stamps will stand out in any collection.