New York’s City as Canvas exhibition in the Museum of the City of New York presents 130 objects by local graffiti artists from the 1970s through the 1980s. From February 4 through August 24, 2014, the donated collection of East Village artist, Martin Wong’s assemblage of works will feature mixed media paintings and sketchbooks from artists such as Lee, Futura 2000, Dondi and Daze to name a few. In addition, photographs that reveal the decade’s graffiti-shrouded subways and buildings are also on display.
The exhibit looks at the cultural trend and influence of NYC graffiti art, beginning with historical photographs of graffiti that has long since been removed from building walls and subways. City as Canvas delves into “black book” sketches, works on paper, and paintings that Wong accumulated on cardboard, paper, canvas and plywood. There is even a refrigerator door with a painting by artist, Quik! With the use of various techniques applying vivid pigments in ink, aerosol and paint, each graffiti writer’s personal style replicates the social burdens and culture of that decade.
After moving from San Francisco in 1978, Wong was captivated by the pervasive graffiti found all over the city. At the time, other New Yorkers viewed the graffiti as an urban stain on their city, but Wong saw otherwise. He spotted the artistic, cultural importance and skill of graffiti. He began collecting work through trade or purchase from the artists that he befriended.
New York City’s prevailing graffiti first emerged in the late 1960s to early 1970s as a powerful tool of individualism. Vibrant color plastered building facades, subway cars and station walls. Once it started to achieve the notice of the media, galleries and collectors also stopped to take note. By the 1980s, young artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat were persuaded to produce their work onto canvas.
The graffiti movement evolved from prohibited expression to colorful paintings on canvas. These graffiti writers created an artistic movement that generated a global phenomenon. It transformed music, fashion and popular visual culture.
Now broadly appreciated, graffiti art can be seen beautifying other cities such as Philadelphia’s City of Murals. Susan Henshaw Jones, the Museum of the City of New York Ronay Menschel Director, acknowledged that to recognize the significance of graffiti “as an urban statement,” Wong had the foresight to collect the art and support the young writers when the NYC street art scene was on the tip of achieving international distinction.
Among the featured pieces in the City as Canvas exhibition in New York is Lee’s 1988 Howard the Duck, a vibrant oil painting replicating one side of the artist’s 25 x 30 foot handball court mural, originally created in 1978 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and since destroyed. Lee painted an estimated 115 whole subway cars, and later joined the Fabulous Five, an elite quintet of seemingly “mystic graffiti writers.” The “Five” were most known for painting a moving 10-car train from end to end, and top to bottom. Lee has said that the graffiti experience was a driving force for him to progress as a painter, and is the “rites of passage without a sense of direction.”
Another writer, Lady Pink, rose to recognition in 1979 as the only female adept at matching the boys in the graffiti subculture. Her 1982 The Death of Graffiti illustrates two different subway cars, one obscured in graffiti and one septic white. A woman stands in the foreground, atop a mound of spray paint cans pointing at the buffed-white cars to indicate urban renewal.
According to MCNY curator, Sean Corcoran, one rare piece in the exhibition is an early tag collection from 1970 to 1972. Identified as the “Wicked Gary Tag Collection,” it is an assemblage of signatures or “tags,” from fellow writers written on cardboard pieces. The 70-piece compilation was placed into a wooden frame.
A handful of photographers such as Martha Cooper documented the graffiti movement. One of her images shows graffiti-swathed subway trains as they roll through the city.
New York’s City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection not only presents the vision of Martin Wong, but as a whole, the exhibition shows the impact and enduring legacy that young graffiti writers had on New York City. For more information on this event including admission and directions, please visit the MCNY links listed below.
By Dawn Levesque