On the lower level of Massachusetts Avenue’s Postal Museum lies a one-room exhibit with the punchy title New York City: A Portrait Through Stamp Art written on glorified street signs. The glitzy title hangs against the backdrop of a jazzy, abstracted Statue of Liberty. This exciting entrance houses commemorative, original artwork from the United States Postal Service (USPS) stamp series, including pieces from the Celebrate the Century collection. The USPS commissioned 150 pieces of artwork to create a robust stamp collection representative of significant events nationwide during the twentieth century. These stamps were issued in ten sets of 15 beginning in 1998. Each sheet illustrates a decade’s cultural and political impact. Of the stamps commissioned, New York impressively boasted a connection to 23 of these dynamic, powerful, and vivacious artifacts.
The exhibit, open until March of next year, hints at contemporary debates surrounding the mysterious and influential city. The stamps—highlighting some of America’s proudest moments—consequently paint a flattering and swelling picture of New York’s contributions to the nation’s arts, popular culture, and political landscape. In a campaign season obsessed with pinpointing New York’s values, this exhibit cheekily offers enlightening commentary: this is how New York in the twentieth century should be remembered.
The artwork achieves a digital, print-like quality through mixed mediums of pencils, gouache, ink, oil, acrylic, and gesso. Six kicky, saturated walls divvy up the small room into the categories: Icons, Baseball, Music, Broadway, Politics, and City Life. Fittingly, the artwork comes in a variety of sizes, styles, mediums, and aesthetics reminiscent of the elusive yet confident people and ideas that New York encourages and hosts.
Jumpy colors, scratchy brushstrokes, evocative imagery, and triumphant figures enliven the stamps. Images of a bustling, draft-style Grand Central Terminal, a smiling, textured Frances Perkins, a dramatic, eyebrow-raised Moss Hart, a geometric, spunky expression of Merengue, and a meditative, inky First Published Crossword Puzzle shine from the walls. Because the stamp subjects were partially determined based on a nationwide public balloting, the artwork provides an elegant demonstration of patriotism and nationalism.
During New York’s golden eras, the artists laced Americana into the pieces, often through hinted tropes of red, white, and blue as in “The Ellis Island Immigration Museum” or peaks of flags or banners as in “Showboat,” a stamp depicting the 1927 Broadway production, one of the first of its kind to recruit bi-racial talents. And in shadier decades, artists reflect that sombriety through muted palettes, but always leave something uplifting or hopeful as tribute to the New York motto of excelsior. “The Empire State Building” stamp effortlessly achieves this dichotomy: monochromatic graphite insinuates a dark moodiness appropriate for a Depression-ridden 1931 timestamp. But to combat this, the optimistic Empire State Building fearlessly reaches upwards and onwards, protruding out of the frame and into the future.
Dignified, creative, surprising, and tonal, the tiny exhibit packs a punch. From the larger-than-life entrance to the psychedelic color scheme, the room exemplifies New York’s talent, vision, wit, and attitude. While the artwork is fun in its own right, the theme and mood of the exhibit, along with the underlying social commentary, makes this pit stop at the Postal Museum an intriguing room to pop your head into.
However, the exhibit’s grandeur seems hyperbolic without the collection’s counterparts (which are also part of the extensive Postmaster General’s Collection.) While the celebration of New York makes for an interesting angle, viewers are left wondering about the other 127 stamps. It’s nothing a Google search can’t solve, but perhaps (and hopefully) a more voluminous exhibit is in the Postal Museum’s future.