The Album of Donald Evans

On the night of the twenty-ninth of April, 1977, a fire, sweeping through a house on the Stadhouderskade in Amsterdam, caught the American artist Donald Evans on the staircase and burned him to death. He left behind him, scattered among collections on both sides of the Atlantic, several thousand miniature watercolors in the form of postage stamps. These stamps were “issued” in sets by forty-two countries, each corresponding to a phase, a friendship, a mood, or a preoccupation in the artist’s life. In style, they more or less resemble “colonial” stamps of the late nineteenth century. The sets were then mounted on the black album pages of professional philatelists, a background that showed up the singularity of each stamp as a work of art in its own right while, at the same time, allowing the artist to play games of pattern and color on a grid.

In Moslem theology, God first created the reed pen and used it to write the world. Less ambitious, Donald Evans used the same sable brush, a Grumbacher no. 2, to paint a limpid, luminous world—a kind of Baudelairean pays de Cocagne—that would, nevertheless, mirror his own life and the life of his times. The result is a painted autobiographical novel of forty-two chapters, whose original pages, like the pages of some illuminated manuscript, have wandered abroad: indeed, the chances of reassembling them are as remote as the chances of realizing the peaceable world they portray.

Fortunately, Donald Evans kept a meticulous record of all his work and entered each set of stamps in a catalogue, which grew as his work grew and which he called “Catalogue of the World.” The master copy—and several Xerox copies—survived him.*

Whether by accident or some design, his life was short, circular, and symmetrical; his one obsession—the painting of postage stamps. He painted them during two five-year periods, as an introverted schoolboy from the ages of ten to fifteen; then as an adult, from twenty-six to thirty-one. The fact that he believed he had “peaked” at sixteen or seventeen; that he had, by thirty, relived his childhood; that there are reasons for supposing that, in his eyes, the Catalogue was complete; that, having worked on the tropical zones of his world, he should have been painting the stamps of an icebound, polar country when he himself was consumed by fire—all go to reinforce the impression of symmetry.

When his friends recovered from the horror of his death, they began to celebrate his exemplary life, and to puzzle over the pieces. Because Donald Evans was so secretive, and because of his habit of slotting friendships into compartments, the autobiographical complexity of his work might well have escaped notice, or at least lain dormant, were it not for the detective work of Willy Eisenhart, who has prepared a key toward the elucidation of his subject in a cool, tranquil text that reminds one of the best American reporter style of the 1920s. It is also a very beautiful book.

Donald Evans was born on the twenty-eighth of August, 1945, the only son of a real-estate appraiser in Morristown, New Jersey. His mother kept a neat green lawn and was a member of the local gardening club. As a boy, he built sandcastles, and cardboard villages and palaces. He pored over maps and encyclopedias and dreamed the geography of a world that would be better than the one in which he lived. He also collected stamps—and, at the time of the coronation of Elizabeth II, drew his own commemorative issue for the coronation of his own imaginary queen.

By ten, this precocious autodidact was hard at work on his own private philately. At first, to quote Eisenhart, the stamps “were crudely drawn and crudely perforated with his mother’s pinking shears, but he quickly became more accomplished. He began to outline the stamps in pencil and then fill them in with his pen and brush, and he solved the technical problem of the perforations by pounding out rows of periods on an old typewriter.”

By fifteen, he had filled three volumes of a “World Wide Stamp Album” with postal issues from mythical countries such as Frandia or Doland, Slobovia or Kunstland East and West. Each country had its own complicated history—of invasions, federations, liberations. Each, in some way, expressed his “romantic” yearning for the remote and exotic, or the private concerns of his family and friends. Then he started going to football games; he set his sights on college, and he stopped making stamps.

There followed ten conventional years—not so conventional by the standards of his home town—but conventional enough for a middle-class American boy coming of age in the Sixties with a contribution to make in the arts. He wanted to be a painter and painted enormous abstract expressionist canvases in the manner of de Kooning. He graduated in architecture at Cornell. He traveled to Europe; looked in on the Warhol Factory; learned to dye and weave textiles; smoked marijuana; did yoga; took an interest in Gurdjieff; and was always falling in and out of love.

After leaving Cornell, he came to New York where he lived in a sparsely furnished apartment in Brooklyn Heights and got a job as an architectural designer in the office of the architect Richard Meier. But the scale of the city dwarfed and depressed him. He felt apart from the pushy exhibitionism of its artists. His love affairs were unhappy and he retreated back into his shell, back to the introverted world of his childhood—and its stamps. One day he happened to show his stamp album to friends who encouraged him to continue it. He did so—and left the United States.

In February 1972, he packed his water colors and a stack of perforated paper and flew to Holland where a friend had rented a cottage “behind the Dike” (Achterdijk) near a village not far from Utrecht. Immediately, he set to work on the stamps of a “Dutch” country called Achterdijk.

During the Vietnam years, young Americans flocked to Holland as they had flocked to Paris in the Twenties. But for Donald Evans Holland was not a hippie heaven of easy sex and easy drugs. He felt reborn there; and, one day, after stamping an antique envelope with the postmark “Achterdijk,” he addressed it to an imaginary correspondent, “De Heer Naaktgeboren” (Mr. Naked-Born)—which was a surrogate name for himself. He loved the flat wind-blown landscapes of Holland and the high varied skies. He liked the open-mindedness of the Dutch, and paid them the compliment of learning their language. He liked the abstract beauty of Dutch brickwork; the compact scale of the architecture; and, from the seventeenth-century masters, he appropriated certain techniques, of drawing and water color, that were perfect for his stamps.

Donald Evans lived, off and on, in Holland for his five remaining years—in lofts, rented rooms, and tiny apartments. He was, by temperament, hypochondriac: when it was found that his chest troubles were caused by a vestigial third lung, he had it removed and recorded the event, from his hospital bed, with the stamps of twin kingdoms called Lichaam and Geest, which means “Body and Soul.” He was also liable to bouts of wandering fever; and he even invented a capital city called Vanupieds (Barefoot Vagabond) to describe his habit of roaming around the world. Many artists moan about being chained to their studios, but Donald Evans could set up in a railway waiting room. Perhaps the very portability of his work states his contempt for the arts and pretensions of settled civilization—the nomad’s contempt for the pyramid.

His color sense was as faultless as his draftsmanship. A set of his stamps sits on a page like butterflies in a case. And, needless to say, he loved butterflies and came up with a country for them—Rups, which is the Dutch for “caterpillar.” He himself said he had no originality, and that he preferred to work from photographs or given images: yet one flat panorama of Achterdijk has the “breathed-on” quality of a sepia-wash landscape by Rembrandt. His art was so disciplined that it was patient of receiving anything that happened to attract him—zeppelins, barnyard fowls, penguins, pasta, a passion for mushroom hunting, Sung ceramics, shells, dominoes; drinks at the Bar Centrum; windmills that were “abstract” portraits of friends; the vegetable market at Cadaquès, or a recipe for pesto from Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Cooking: his way of recording the pleasures of food and drink reminds me, somehow, of Hemingway.

He never set foot in Asia but, as a boy, had been fascinated by camel-trains and caravansaries and had invented desert countries for his stamp album. Later, he liked reading British travel books about the Middle East and, to create a country called Adjudani—the Persian for “Jewish”—he borrowed images from Wilfred Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs and, to my delight, he borrowed an image from me—the photo of a Timurid tomb-tower taken in an Afghan village on the Russian frontier.

As a boy, too, he had dreamed of the South Seas. Now he dreamed up a coral archipelago—Amis et Amants—a “French” colony populated by happy, friendly, amorous blacks: the stamps of one issue, titled Coups de Foudre, show a row of storm-blasted coconut palms, each painted in a different color combination to suggest the different thunderbolts of love. Or there were the Tropides—tiny islands in Vermeer-like dots and dashes. Or the arctic country of Yteke, named after a Dutch dancer friend who could only perform in a cold climate.

He had no literary gifts himself. Sometimes he thought of writing—or of getting someone else to write—an accompanying text; but in the end he preferred to leave each stamp as a window into his world, and the rest to the imagination. His favorite modern writer was Gertrude Stein—perhaps because he learned from her the value of the variant within the repetition. In a “commemorative” issue painted in her honor, he inscribed a set of stamps with texts from her Tender Buttons, the prose poem of 1914, which was first published by another Donald Evans, an American poet.

By common consent, the art of the drop-out generation is a mess—and the art of Donald Evans is the antithesis of mess. Nor is it niggling. Nor is it precious. Yet I can’t think of another artist who expressed more succinctly and beautifully the best aspirations of those years: the flight from war and the machine; the asceticism; the nomadic restlessness; he yearning for sensual cloud-cuckoo-lands; the retreat from public into private obsessions; from the big and noisy to the small and still. On one of his Gertrude Stein stamps he inscribed these haunting lines from her “Valentine to Sherwood Anderson” which could also serve as his epitaph:

Let us describe how they went. It was a very windy night and the road although in excellent condition and extremely well-graded has many turnings and although the curves are not sharp the rise is considerable. It was a very windy night and some of the larger vehicles found it more prudent not to venture….

  1. *

    Catalogue of the World” will be published in facsimile by Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, Amsterdam, in 1982.