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.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.