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When the West Coast Art Scene Got Serious

In the mid-twentieth century, New York City was asserting itself as the new global center for modern and contemporary art. Fifty-Seventh Street was lined with galleries showing the Modernists and Abstract Expressionists, while downtown, artist-run spaces were giving a place to the next generation who were dissolving the boundaries among media by embracing bold, anarchic gestures in performance and installation.

As the buzz of that art scene gathered volume, the trailblazing Ferus Gallery lassoed the art world’s focus westward to Los Angeles. Ironically, it was in Los Angeles where Pop in fact popped. California was always the more eccentric, free-minded coast, now producing artists such as Wallace Berman, Jay Defeo, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin, and John Altoon, to name a few—and Ferus, run in its heyday by legendary curator Walter Hopps with gallerist Irving Blum, was the gallery that brought them to wider attention.

Portrait of the Artists: A group shot from a 1962 group show at Ferus Gallery

It took Todd Alden of Alden Projects™ twenty years to collect the sixty-six exhibition posters on view in Ferus Gallery: Between the Folds, a rare and sparkling gem of a show that tells the story of Ferus through its graphic output. If art traces a history of ideas and aesthetics, ephemera like this highlights the ways in which artists projected themselves and their work, strategizing how all would be received and understood. In retrospect, Hopps and Blum—a pair of autodidacts who were a study in opposites—were instrumental in the imaging, and imagining, of American art and artists.

Walter Hopps was an uncommon animal in the landscape of American art: brilliant, sensitive, unyielding, eccentric. His colorful story—as told to Deborah Treisman for his posthumously published memoir, The Dream Colony: A Life In Art—reads as though his life was propelled by a kind of manifest destiny, as though art was always his rightful kingdom. Born in 1932 and raised in Eagle Rock, just west of Pasadena, Hopps recalled the pleasure he found at the age of four or five in cutting and pasting images of the American flag and ads for Campbell’s soup cans into his scrapbook. (He would go on to curate the first exhibition of American Pop, New Painting of Common Objects, in 1962.) As a first grader, he got into trouble for creating collages with wallpaper intended for his class’s dollhouse. After a school trip to the home of Walter and Louise Arensberg, he skipped not a few days of high school to spend time, at their invitation, to learn about Modernism from their unrivaled collection of Dadaist and Surrealist art — which included three iterations of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.

Andy Warhol, “Andy Warhol (Pepper Pot)” (1962)

When he first met Irving Blum in 1958, Hopps was at work at Ferus in West Hollywood, which he’d founded with artist Edward Kienholz in the spring of 1957. Blum was a once-aspiring actor who was making ends meet working in sales for the luxury textile brand Scalamandré. The elocution lessons he’d taken in his theater days gave his speech a honeyed, moneyed affect and, according to Hopps, Blum — a self-taught art enthusiast — just showed up at the gallery one day and began wooing a pair of collectors with a silk-tongued sales pitch. Near to closing time, he introduced himself to Hopps, who quickly figured that Blum would be key to turning the upstart gallery into a more profitable, powerful venture. Shortly thereafter, Hopps bought out Kienholz, and the rest — as they say — is art history.

Ellsworth Kelly, “Ellsworth Kelly” (1966)

Under Hopps and Blum, Ferus presented the art of those-in-the-know as lit by the ambient Hollywood glow. If the gallery’s previous incarnation advertised itself with tactile letterpress graphics that echoed those of the book covers of Northern California’s Beat poets, the new Ferus portrayed itself as a birthplace of future legends. The posters of this era illuminated less about the art on view than about the artist on view; creating an aura—from the sacred to the silly—was everything. To announce the opening of John Altoon’s show on October 15, 1962, a moody, mysterious portrait of the artist was commissioned from celebrity photographer William Claxton, best known for his iconic images of jazz great Chet Baker and heartthrob actor Steve McQueen. (Another young photographer they tapped for portraits of Craig Kauffman and Roy Lichtenstein was film actor Dennis Hopper.)

Billy Al Bengston, “Bengston” (1962)

In a more playful hat tip to Hollywood, painter and sculptor Billy Al Bengston appropriated a production still from Buster Keaton’s 1927 silent comedy The General for the poster of his exhibition the following month. Bengston doubles the Keaton image, composing them as a call-and-response: one, the set-up; the other, a punch line. In the first, the words Where’s Bill? Buster Keaton are handwritten in the top right corner; in the second, Bengston cut and pasted a photograph of his face—sporting a bushy mustache and a toothy, goofy grin—into the scene. One way to interpret the joke: How does an artist make cultural history? With scissors and glue, of course.

The Ferus artists almost always had a hand in the design of their posters—or at least consented to the images that appeared. Two announcing the 1959 and 1961 shows by sculptor John Mason (a dead ringer, as it happened, for the deceased AbEx master Jackson Pollock) presented portraits of the artist, stone-faced and oozing machismo, posed in front of his totemic, brutally forged ceramic works—a not-so-subtle bid for his ascendancy. However, the real scene stealer in the Alden Projects™ exhibition is Ed Ruscha, who took complete charge of his posters every time, eventually placing hybrid ad/artworks in the pages of Artforum (then located upstairs from Ferus), where he worked from 1965 to 1967 overseeing the magazine’s layout. His are most complicatedly works of Pop Art in their own right, collapsing art and commerce with true wit.

Ed Ruscha, “Ruscha (Double Standard)” (1964)

Ruscha designed one announcement to mimic a Western Union telegram: “Los Angeles Fire Marshall says he will attend STOP See the most controversial painting to be shown in Los Angeles in our time STOP.” His poster for his 1964 exhibition of Standard gas station paintings featured an unattributed photograph by Hopper above a dizzying typeface in which a single word was written: RUSCHA. In the pages of the magazine, the artist created ads tinged by the consumer smuttiness of Madison Avenue. One “caught” the artist in bed asleep with two women dozing on either side of him. The caption: ED RUSCHA SAYS GOODBYE TO COLLEGE JOYS.

In 1962, Hopps left Ferus to become curator at the Pasadena Museum of Art, where he would organize the globally lauded Duchamp retrospective of 1963. Blum kept the doors open until 1967, when he started a new gallery under his own name. The posters from that era are flashier, each designed from the same template and almost corporate-looking by comparison. Most of these highlighted a single work of art, the primacy of aura now more often bequeathed to the objects rather than to the artists. In the gloss of these images, one sees a certain tipping point into the polish and professionalism that have since overtaken contemporary art. Blum’s gallery focused on bringing New York artists West, rather than the other way around, representing the likes of Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, Donald Judd, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol, whom he’d given his first show of the Soup Cans in 1962. With this seismic shift, New York artists took center stage at Ferus, and the Californians—as per their nature—were left to plot future eruptions.

Ferus Gallery: Between the Folds
Alden Projects™
34 Orchard Street
212-229-2453
aldenprojects.com
Through November 19

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Claes Oldenburg’s Soft Serve Escape From Late-term Abstract Expressionism at MOMA

Roaming through MOMA’s chockablock installation of highlights from Claes Oldenburg’s early career, you can sense a febrile mind and lightning-speed hands digging out from under the sludge of late-term Abstract Expressionism. It’s 1960, and for inspiration the Swedish-born (in 1929) painter is turning away from the sublime visions of the previous generation and toward the garish cornucopia of New York’s mercantile frenzy. In one dashed-off drawing, two kids yip happily, a huge street sign hovering behind them. Oldenburg insists that you see the world through his eyes—and damned if that splattered slab of cardboard doesn’t capture the jutting presence of a store sign, and who wouldn’t look at those two chunks of wood and that blotched scrap of paper and see a pair of flags? Follow his gaze, and the abject blossoms into the glorious.

Oldenburg reflects our peculiar, sometimes violent splendor back upon ourselves: 1961’s Studies for Store Objects—Petticoat, Flag, Gun pretty much sums up one strain of American romance. The artist’s furious strokes of gouache and torn shreds of paper shove aside the sepia tones of the frontier for lurid postwar neon, billboards, true-crime mags, and lingerie counters.

“Ray Guns,” bulbously phallic sculptures and drawings, populate the main galleries. Everything—a barking dog, scrawled with head cocked and tongue bulging; toy airplanes—falls under this engagingly absurd rubric. Perhaps, as many drive-in movies of the day imagined, aliens are always among us. Certainly Oldenburg’s giant ice-cream cone and 7-foot “Floor Burger” could have beamed down from Jupiter.

The museum’s atrium hosts the “Mouse Museum,” a walk-in structure shaped like the head of Walt Disney’s favorite rodent—if it were solid black and lying flat on its back. In Mickey’s brain, as it were, brightly lit vitrines are crammed with store-bought tchotchkes collected by the artist: inflatable legs, plastic hams, tiny golf clubs, toy fire engines, rubber banana peels, plastic lollipops, clothespins balanced on end like proud orators.

Oldenburg has curated America’s id, along the way transforming it into colossal outdoor sculptures which have delighted and flummoxed the public in equal measure. After six decades, he must be onto something.

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Spring Arts Guide Picks: Art

Palermo: Works on Paper 1976-1977

April 25–June 29

As noms d’artiste go, he had a ringer. Born Peter Schwarze, the adopted Peter Heisterkamp was rechristened Blinky Palermo by his teacher Joseph Beuys at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Beuys, it seems, found the physical resemblance between the promising young student and an American gangster too good to pass up. The nickname stuck—an auspicious beginning for a moody, brilliant figure who would eventually be seen as the James Dean of 1970s European painting. Talented, handsome, and hard-partying, he died at age 33 under mysterious circumstances in an exotic locale (the Maldives) in 1977. Palermo’s short career constituted a kind of Cold War détente between Beuys’s romantic utopianism and the clear-eyed materialism of fellow students Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke. An upcoming exhibition of works on paper from a single year of Palermo’s three-year sojourn in New York (he lived downtown between 1973 and 1976) captures some of that balancing act. Held at David Zwirner’s new West 20th Street location, the exhibition is also Palermo’s first in NYC in 26 years. Featuring rarely seen works from private collections and MOMA’s vaults, the show presents full-bore Palermo—abstraction that is colorful, restless, and intense. David Zwirner, 537 West 20th Street, davidzwirner.com

Fred Wilson: Local Color

March 28–June 30

From a celebrated artist whose chosen medium is museology comes a 20-year-old installation made up of age-old African and Caribbean artifacts as well as common objects the artist snapped up on the sidewalks of 125th Street. Titled “Local Color” and originally staged at the Studio Museum in 1993, Wilson’s Bobby Womack–meets-orthodox-curator museum display asks questions about what kinds of materials are preserved by history, how they’re presented, and, ultimately, whom they represent. The Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 125th Street, studiomuseum.org

Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The Store

April 14–August 5

From the department of art meets life come two key historical installations by one of New York’s pioneering Pop artists, Claes Oldenburg. Consisting of cardboard and burlap cutouts of cars, street signs, and urban motifs, which Oldenburg then graffitied, The Street—originally exhibited in 1960 in the basement of Judson Church in the Village—was followed in 1961 by The Store, a functional shop that sold plaster versions of common thrift-store objects like cigarettes, dresses, and hamburgers. Despite their canonical nature, MOMA’s restaging of these historical gems still manages to dissolve the distinction between everyday items and museum treasures. Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, moma.org

Velázquez’s Portrait of Francesco I d’Este

April 16–July 14

On loan for the first time from Galleria Estense in Modena (temporarily closed since May 2012 because of damage from a devastating earthquake), Velázquez’s portrait of a 16th-century Modenese duke makes clear why the Spanish master is considered by many to be the greatest painter who ever lived. Shown in armor, wearing a red sash, and with smoky peepers turned directly toward the viewer, Velázquez’s subject radiates cockiness, sensuality, and world-beating charazzma. The perfect likeness of a Hollywood leading man for an age of plague, war, and pestilence. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, metmuseum.org

Better Homes

April 22–July 22

A group show of contemporary sculpture that examines the changing idea of “home” in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Featured artists include a vibrant roster of established and emerging artists, including Jonathas de Andrade, Neïl Beloufa, Keith Edmier, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Robert Gober, and Kirsten Pieroth. Expect elegant, ironical, and DIY meditations on how interior space has been redefined and redecorated, as well as its evolving impact on people’s identity. SculptureCenter, 44-19 Purves Street, Long Island City, Queens, sculpture-center.org

Valerie Hegarty: Alternative Histories

May 17–December 1

The second in a series of shows that invite contemporary artists to activate the museum’s period rooms, Valerie Hegarty’s exhibition invades several antebellum parlors like Tecumseh Sherman vanquishing Savannah. Featuring a Native American–patterned rug sprouting grass, roots, and flowers, and 19th-century still-life paintings with fruit bursting from their frames, Hegarty’s movie set–like installations also prove trenchant meditations on memory, mortality, and the weird memorializing function of museums. Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, brooklynmuseum.org

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DARK & TWISTED

Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans is one of the most recognizable paintings that represents a quintessential image of Pop Art. But not all of it was a glorification of popular culture. Sinister Pop, at the Whitney, takes a look at Pop Art from the movement’s inception in the early 1960s through the ’70s and focuses on Pop’s “darker side, as it distorts and critiques the American dream.” The show includes “figures long associated with Pop Art alongside those who were not,” Donna De Salvo, the Whitney’s chief curator said, and also “attempts to bring a more textured and complex reading to a period that was pivotal in the U.S. and internationally.” Some of the artists in this exhibition are Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Ed Ruscha, Warhol, William Eggleston, Peter Saul, Christina Ramberg, and Vija Celmins, among others.

Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: Feb. 21. Continues through March 31, 2012

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I Examination

Although Lucas Samaras has been producing and exhibiting photographs, drawings, paintings, constructions, room-sized installations, and artists’ books in astonishing numbers and with frightening regularity since 1959, he remains a cult artist. Almost famous, never exactly popular, Samaras has cultivated his outsider status virtually from the beginning and maintained it despite nearly 40 years in the stable of the Pace (now PaceWildenstein) Gallery, one of New York’s blue-chip powerhouses. If “Unrepentant Ego,” his second retrospective at the Whitney (the first was in 1972), is unlikely to change any of this, it’s certainly not for lack of trying. The show, with nearly 400 works spanning his entire career, is smart, focused, and almost dizzyingly spectacular. Even if viewers are likely to overdose halfway through, I can’t imagine anyone not being excited and inspired by it.

Like most artists, Samaras is too self-absorbed to be truly ingratiating, but he’s a shameless entertainer and a born provocateur. “Secretly I wanted to become a movie actor,” he has confessed in print. (He settled for vivid appearances in Claes Oldenburg and Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, and recycled his unused head shots in countless assemblages.) “I wanted to speak only with my body.” In his photographs, Samaras does exactly that; his body is one of the most eloquent and unguarded in art history. From the beginning, his work involved an alarming level of self-consciousness. Photographic portraits, some going back to his childhood, peer out from his obsessively embellished box constructions and decorate the handles of a velvet-encased carving set. Although his body is often fragmented in the early work—reduced to no more than a thumb, a foot, an eye, or the implicit memory of a mirror—Samaras is everywhere, haunting the Whitney with a presence at once sinister and comic.

That presence is made vivaciously explicit in Samaras’s first photographs, a series of nude Polaroids taken between 1969 and 1971 that show no signs of aging. Anybody with a new instant camera is bound to get naked and start snapping away. But Samaras turns this intimate exhibitionism into a brilliantly sustained tour de force—a portrait of the artist as the ultimate imp of the perverse. Before they were exhibited anywhere, a portfolio of these “AutoPolaroids” was published in Art in America with a brief introduction by Samaras. “[T]hese photographs are a way of studying my polaroided self as an abstraction or translation for esthetic speculation, psychological perspicacity, sensual subtlety and warm embarrassment,” he wrote. Taken late at night and early in the morning in the privacy of his Upper West Side studio apartment, the photos allowed him to be “my own critic, my own exciter, my own director, my own audience.”

The sheer inventiveness of the Polaroid work is stunning. Samaras, who had never studied photography, didn’t just master the instant camera, he practically performed miracles with it. Working in color and in black- and-white, he improvised a whole repertoire of theatrical staging and lighting effects and pulled out all his trademark props: knives, nails, scissors, mirrors, razor blades, bubble bath, colored yarn, a bed of nails, and his own infinitely malleable flesh. What Samaras couldn’t create in camera, he painted in on the finished print. But when Polaroid introduced a self-developing color film whose emulsions could be manipulated before they were fixed, he was able to experiment with the print itself and create swirling, explosive distortions that mix psychedelia and psychology with gleeful audacity. An eye, a fist, a screaming mouth, or Samaras’s nude, foreshortened body emerge from a furious storm of strokes or a snow of colored dots. Standing in his kitchen, the artist melts, stretches, divides in half, and marches ghostlike alongside three other selves.

Echoing (perhaps unintentionally) Hans Bellmer and Pierre Molinier and anticipating Cindy Sherman, John Coplans, John O’Reilly, Francesca Woodman, Matthias Herrmann, and a slew of artists who’ve investigated identity, gender, and the body in the past two decades, Samaras’s Polaroids are self-portraiture at its most revealing. Like the boxes encrusted with fake jewels and bristling with pins, they’ve also got a tantalizing attraction/repulsion thing going on. Samaras always seems to be screaming “Love me! Love me!” and muttering “Fuck you” under his breath. But if the artist is a mess of contradictions, the work is self-contained, sophisticated, and relentlessly experimental. The photos that follow the two ’70s Polaroid series explore portraiture and self-portraiture with staggering doggedness—slicing, layering, double-exposing, and, in the most recent series, digitally morphing the image. There’s no question that Samaras, especially in his current grand wizard incarnation, is a riveting subject. Unfortunately, his new “PhotoFictions,” many more of which are at PaceWildenstein (32 East 57th Street, through January 17), look like the sort of gee-whiz surrealism any maniac with Adobe Photoshop would concoct: marbleized flowers, freakish metamorphoses, wacky inversions of scale, doubling, displacement, dreck. There are some genuine knockouts in this series, but it’s hard to believe the artist who transformed the humble Polaroid into a dream machine is only fitfully successful with a computer program. No matter. Even if Samaras ends with a whimper, his bang reverberates endlessly.

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Circuit Party

Brice Marden’s two-gallery show—his first exhibition of new paintings in New York in five years, and his best since 1991, if not since the mid 1970s—proves once again that this artist is a special case. In a time that is skeptical of straightforward abstraction, Marden’s work is widely loved. The advertisements and announcements that have, over the years, pictured him sitting on Cézanne’s tomb or wielding long sticks with charcoal on the end or shown his naked wife standing among his work, whether ironic, audacious, or romantic, are intended to make us think: “Behold, the lair of the Zen cave painter, the rock-star shaman. See his muse.” Contrary to most instances of self-conscious image manipulation, Marden’s behavior has never obscured his accomplishments. The work and what surrounds it are of a piece.

Great-looking at 64, he paints with the vigor of someone half his age. Still, it’s difficult to talk about his art without sounding old school or new age. Ask someone what makes Marden great or why him and not a number of other artists who evince similar qualities, and you’ll hear words and names you don’t usually hear: “touch,” “color,” “poetry,” and “Pollock.” Marden began his career in 1966 to great fanfare, exhibiting monochromatic encaustic paintings that minimalism had already made theoretically passé. Even then he excelled at something he excels at today: making old issues new.

As easy as it is to like Marden’s paintings, and as effortless as they look, art hasn’t come easy to him. His growth has always been laborious; for a while in the late 1970s and early ’80s it was tortured. Marden’s beauty is coaxed, not natural. De Kooning praised Gorky as “willing to be confused.” Marden is similarly willing. Although he has made dogmatic pronouncements like “Art is an intense search for truth” and “Painters are among the worker priests of the cult of man,” Marden’s confusion is ever-present but also quite subtle. Some would say frustratingly or fussily so.

Marden admits he’s “a plodder.” However, if one were to see his oeuvre from the last 15 years, in a sequential, time-lapse, slow-motion movie, each work seamlessly blending into the next, Marden’s confusion would loom large. An elusive drama of rigor, control, and disquiet would emerge, a saga of gradual development. The shifting of little things would become more apparent, as would the funneling of techniques into and out of the work. Marden’s art looks graceful, but it is always in turmoil.

With this stirring, if overblown, two-gallery outing, Marden has raised plodding to new heights. Two or three recent canvases are as strong as any he’s ever made. On subtly inflected fields of incandescent, almost Persian color, circuitous lines twist and turn. Anchored in the upper right corner, a ribbony one might glide down across the center, cut back, curve, and gently caress the left hand edge before falling away toward the bottom of the canvas, where it may swell once or twice, graze the lower edge, swoop back to the top of the work, deviating now and then in an arching arabesque, before rejoining itself. The eye follows these meanderings, never completing a circuit, switching from one color to another.

Whether you see them as snakes in a box, subway maps from Shangri-la, or wallpaper patterns, these lines measure, echo, and correspond with the four sides that contain them. They’re trains of thought and flights of fancy. Given the simplicity, recognizability, and recurrence of his formula, not to mention an opacity of intention, a tendency toward preciousness, and an undeniable decorativeness, it’s a wonder Marden has been able to make so much out of such rigid limitations.

But he has. The exhibition of seven paintings and 11 drawings, dating from 1996 to last year, on 24th Street is laudable but ungainly and lacks the emotional grip of the 22nd Street show, which is speculative and grand. There, seven new canvases and 12 drawings show Marden sidestepping the sleepwalker state mature artists sometimes slip into (see Claes Oldenburg/Coosje van Bruggen at Pace), and intensifying his exploration of what the painter Stephen Westfall calls “deep structure”—meaning patterns that are simultaneously personal and universal.

Marden’s newest paintings are less lyrical than previous ones, the system more obvious. Everything is thought out yet mysterious. Recalling the solidity and sensuousness of his earliest work, surfaces are more worked over and distressed. Instead of being twiggy the lines are languorous, more full-bodied, and deliberate; they’re less calligraphic or nervous, and move you about dreamily but assuredly.

Resulting configurations may resemble circuitry, game boards, abstract figures, or still lifes. Each canvas is comprised of five or six colors. Importantly, the lines are ordered following the colors of the spectrum. A brandy red is always furthest forward, followed by dusky orange, yellow, green, blue, then violet. (In Round Rock, Tight Rock (4) and 6 Red Rock 1, my two favorites, the order is fiddled with.) Oddly, Marden never uses indigo. In contrast to older works, lines occasionally spill over edges. This thrusts the asymmetric grids forward, eliminates much of the middle ground, and makes these canvases more intense.

Whatever he’s thinking about, regardless of abstraction’s viability, and in spite of his work’s sporadic repetitiveness, Marden is still pursuing something primal in ways that remain transfixing.

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In Praise of Graffiti: The Fire Down Below

In Praise of Graffiti: The Fire Down Below
December 24–30, 1980

John Lindsay hated graffiti. He vowed to wipe it off the face of the IRT, and allocated $10 million to its obliteration. But the application of vast resources is no match for disciplined determination, as we should have learned in Vietnam. Graf­fiti survived Lindsay’s defoliation plan, and it has thrived on every subsequent attempt to curb its spread.

In 1973, there may have been a few hundred ghetto kids writing in a few definable styles. Now thousands call themselves “writers.” They come from ev­ery social stratum and range in age from nine to 25. Their signatures — called “tags” — have transformed the subway into what the Times calls “some godawful forest.” And now that the perpetrators have moved above ground, trucks and elevators, monuments and vacant walls look as if they have suddenly sprouted vines.

It is, says Claes Oldenburg, “a big bouquet from Latin America.” It is, says Rich­ard Ravitch of the MTA, “a symbol that we have lost control.”

***

 

The great debate over graffiti, and what ought to be done about it rests on the assumption that its intention is to defile. “It’s the feeling that an antisocial element has been in the system and had its way,” says an MTA spokesman, defending his department’s annual $6.5 million an­ti-graffiti budget — money, after all, that might otherwise be used for repairs. The Times has rounded up the usual assort­ment of social workers and shrinks to bolster its contention that graffiti is “an effort to deal with deep feelings of fear by seeking out an experience that involves facing that fear.” Psychologists who treat these incipient felons “believe their pa­tients, virtually all of whom have less­-than-perfect relationships with their fathers, are intent on defacing his car, the car of authority.”

The casual rider might conclude that perp and victim share an inability to con­trol the danger in their lives. Says the indefatigable Ali, who, like many graffiti writers, has a ready capacity to articulate the ideas behind his work: “Graffiti takes away the placenta, and reminds people of how violent the subway is. The real van­dalism is what you’d see if you scraped the windows clean.”

The debate over graffiti has been con­ducted by people who are unwilling to decipher the message it conveys. Once you learn to interpret the medium, it becomes clear that no single intention is involved. Some kids do write to deface — to “bomb” a car, as they say; but the wholesale ob­struction of windows and maps is a sure way to perpetuate your status as a novice, what serious writers call “a toy.”

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Entering a graffiti zone — and these now include schoolyards, stairwells, and selected intersections — is like reading a newspaper. A writer can tell who has been there, which parts of the city are repre­sented, how long since the site has been buffed, and whether there are any star­tling innovations — “isms” — he wishes to incorporate. This communicative func­tion, says Ali, puts graffiti in “the griot tradition” of African storytelling — whether or not you grew up close to your dad.

But tagging is only the most elemen­tary form of graffiti, and the insides of cars are a practice zone in which aspiring writers fashion the techniques they will need to do “a piece” — i.e., masterpiece. The idea is to impose yourself on an entire car, to move from “a throw-up” to the carefully delineated blend of tints and lines graffiti writers call “a fade.” This riotous effect can be achieved on the car while the paint is wet, or in midair, when a writer sprays two cans at once to see the fade as it forms in the mist.

From the time a surface is sighted — ­usually a train laid up on the center track — it can take 12 hours to complete a piece. Often working from sketches prepared in advance, a writer and his “crew” may spend a weekend in tunnel light, drinking, smoking, listening to the radio. Most writers return with cameras to document their work, since the TA’s buffing ma­chines can reduce the most ambitious ef­fort to a swampy blur. In graffiti, the dimensions of space and time are beyond control. All things must pass, usually within a month.

There are two ways to look at this stuff. From the platform, mammoth letters roll by like frames in a stereopticon. Seen a block from the el, bands of color undulate like the tail of a kite: At that speed and distance, one becomes aware of how im­portant motion is to the spirit of graffiti. A willful transformation occurs as the rav­ished train is forced to boogie. The harder trick is to throw something up that looks good standing still.

Among writers, Lee is regarded as a master of freehand rendering, perhaps the first to execute a top-to-bottom, full-car design. But on the Lower East Side, where some graffiti aficionados are too young to frequent the subways, Lee is regarded as a prophet. He works anonymously, in the dead of night, covering handball courts with apocalyptic messages and monu­mental imagery. If you want to glimpse the future of this form, run right down to the playground on Madison Street, off Clinton. A bilious dragon awaits you, hov­ering over a skyline on the verge of erup­tion. Talk about Gulley Jimson: This vision was executed by a teenager with a ladder and a little paint.

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Iconography has figured in graffiti since the early ’70s, when Stay High pilfered the stick figure logo from The Saint and appended it to his tag. But a growing segment of this movement would like to see graffiti abandon representation for an open assault of color, a fauvism-on-wheels. Futura 2000, who took his name from a Ford, serves up a fade that resembles cosmic soup. Within this Day-Glo cauldron, triangles glide by — the edges carefully defined with the aid of masking tape — and clusters of circles that clearly suggest Kandinsky, perhaps because that’s where Futura first encountered these shapes.

Graffiti draws from every form of pictorial information that has entered the ghetto over the past 20 years: billboards, supergraphics, wall murals, underground comics, and custom car design. Sci-fi il­lustration — especially the lurid roman­ticism of Frank Frazetta and Vaughn Bode — was an early source of inspiration, but now that the most ambitious writers are taking classes in drafting and going to museums, there is a deliberate attempt to work in references to artists who command respect. Lost to the buffers now is Blade’s rendition of Edvard Munch’s scream, and Fred’s assemblage of Campbell’s soup cans. It is possible to imagine a car decked out to resemble something Jackson Pollack dreamt (although, to accomplish that, a writer would have to overcome the traditional graffiti disdain for drips). Or figures out of Klee riding shotgun on the IRT. These artists share with graffiti an interest in what Kandinsky called “the effect of inner harmony” in a childish line.

A writer appropriates an image made famous by an artist the way he in­corporates another writer’s line. It’s all out there, like cans of paint waiting to be “racked.” But image-theft is not the only reason writers raid the museums. A subway Munch raises the heady possibility that art can happen anywhere. Like conceptual art and Pop, graffiti questions the context in which art is appreciated. It renews the dream of work for its own sake, the idea of creation as a democratic process — in short, radical humanism. Ali speaks of “taking responsibility for your environ­ment” by creating a surface on a subway train. “The production of art,” wrote Jean Dubuffet in 1947, “can only be conceived as individual, personal, and done by all.”

There’s a lot of positive mythology floating around what some writers call “the graffiti community.” Aspiration runs high when you’re living in a project on Columbus Avenue, 10 blocks north of the gentry line. You walk into Fiorucci and mutter, I can draw like that. At the same time, there’s a feeling that graffiti is some sort of revolutionary act. A writer hauls out a book of Soviet art to show me photos of what he calls “a propaganda train.” These cars rumbled across the coun­tryside, decked out in heroic iconography designed by artists who were committed to the revolution. The graffiti writer is clear­ly impressed by one tableau, featuring a rising sun. “Look at that fade,” he sighs.

***

Graffiti is a setting from which art may emerge, as was rock ‘n’ roll back when ev­eryone on my block sang doo wop with an absurd intensity, and some of us got respect for it. Mourning John Lennon, it is hard to remember that rock musicians were once commonly regarded as delin­quents, or if you were liberal, rebels without a cause. The music didn’t cover up subway maps, but there was aggression to burn among its staunchest fans. Alan Freed was arrested after a riot at one of his shows, and charged with incitement to anarchy. Ten years later, the music inspired a more visionary insurrection.

SE3, a/k/a Haze looks a bit like Buddy Holly, black hair spilling over his brow — ­but neatly. The son of a West Side analyst, he took to the Bronx at an im­pressionable age, commuting to hang out. But to get over, he had to earn respect in the subway yards, swimming upstream with all the other toys. One night, SE3 was busted in the South Bronx. “We have your son on a graffiti charge,” said the cop at 4 a.m. The ride home from the station house was silent — like an iceberg — but the fric­tion it produced sent SE3 into exile at a school in Massachusetts. He was forced to pass up acceptances from the high schools of Art and Design, Music and Art, and Brooklyn Tech. In New England, he repressed his interest in graffiti, studied architecture, worked in oils; but once back on the pavement, SE3 returned to hanging out. He renewed the old connections — ­with Dondi, Crash, Zephyr, Futura, Ali­ — and began incorporating his fine-arts training into graffiti. This was like Buddy Holly playing the Apollo. SE3 had become what Zephyr calls “a pioneering white boy.”

The big lie is that graffiti is confined to “antisocial elements.” Increasingly, it is the best and brightest who write on sub­way walls, tenement halls. They travel in bands with names like Crazy Inside Art­ists (CIA), Children Invading the Yards (CITY), Rolling Thunder Writers (RTW), Out to Bomb (OTB). Unlike the news­paper that has called for their demise, these bands are racially integrated, which gives writers access to the same cross-­cultural energy that animates rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, the graffiti sensibility has a musi­cal equivalent in “rap records” — another rigid, indecipherable form that can sus­tain great complexity. I’m sure Ali would agree that rap records are also part of the griot tradition.

For me, the real mystery about graffiti is why this generation has chosen to ex­press its ambitions in pictorial terms. The answer may lie in the changing nature of prestige in New York. This has become a visual city, with photography, video, and graphic design emerging as hip cultural forms, and with Soho replacing Greenwich Village as the paradigmatic neighborhood. Thousands of visual artists migrated to New York in the ’70s, many settling in high-graffiti neighborhoods. There is an unvoiced connection between these groups, as there was in the ’60s between bohemians and rock musicians. With little formal training or access to galleries, how does one get in on the art action? One shows on the subway.

***

“I sold a piece tonight. For $200.”

Futura is dressed in downtown formals — a white Lacoste over baggy black slacks and clean white sneakers. He’s accom­panied by his father, his cousin, and his girlfriend Rennie. They’re standing before a monumental fresco in a spray paint, bearing the unimpeachable Futura logo. The crowd is in a pre-Christmas, buying mood.

Sígame,” says 16-year-old Lady Pink, one of the few female writers to have earned respect. She leads her father, who is holding an Instamatic, by the hand. She wants him to take a picture of her piece­ — fluorescent orchids — which hangs next to one in which Ali has borrowed Stay High’s stick figure and placed it on a Dali cross. These canvases suggest the sentimentality graffiti is prone to when it tries to go imagistic, but also the extraordinary use of color, and that “effect of inner harmony” — is it in the paint, the way it’s applied? The secret is safe with Ali, who roams through the gallery in the baggiest of slacks, the floppiest of jackets, a chino rainhat, and wrap-around silver-slitted specs, cruising girls who could be Debbie Harry.

Clearly, this is not a typical opening at the New Museum, the visual extension of the New School annex, where you might expect to find an enigma in aluminum and sand but not an original Lee. Through January 8, however, the New Museum is throwing open its doors to Fashion Moda, an international art conspiracy located in the South Bronx. The resulting show is unlikely to strike Hilton Kramer as having anything to do with art. But New Wave is about cross-cultural referencing, if it is about anything. With its ghetto rep and its eclectic eye, graffiti is an authentic element in New Wave aesthetics. Says one artist, “It’s our reggae.”

The point of departure for “graffiti as an alternative to standard art” was pro­vided by a New Wave musician named Jean-Michel Basquiat, who joined forces with two friends a few years ago to tag Soho and the Village with phrases like the one above. Samo, as this crew called itself, combined rants against consumerism with assertions about textual ambiguity — all of it copyrighted. It’s unclear whether con­ceptual artists began picking up on Samo’s strategy, or whether Samo bor­rowed its m.o. from conceptual art. At any rate, a number of young artists are under­taking phantom installations that can only be called graffiti. Keith Haring began by drawing crawling people and dogs in black marker; lately, he has taken to em­bellishing Johnny Walker ads with flying saucers. Last summer, when Ronald Rea­gan spoke in the South Bronx, he pointed to a wall that said BROKEN PROMISES, and expounded at length on what could have driven the residents to write such a thing. The actual perpetrator was John Fekner, a conceptual artist who transfers phrases onto abandoned autos and tene­ment walls.

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When asked to comment on graffiti, Robert Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers were unavailable, but Andy Warhol con­fided, “I like it.” Curatorial types were also queried. “I have no feelings about it, one way or another,” said Thomas Hoving. “I really don’t know enough to make a statement,” added Alicia Legg at the Museum of Modern Art. When a photo from the series that accompanies this piece was submitted by MOMA’s publications department for use as a Christmas card, Kathleen Westin, co-chairman of the museum’s Junior Council, put her foot down. “I thought it was the most revolting idea that ever came up,” she volunteered. “The people who do graffiti ought to be shot at dawn.”

But a number of galleries — the Razor, the O.K. Harris, the 112 Workshop — have shown work by writers, and the movement may soon make its debut in Paris and on 57th Street, under the aegis of the Pierre Cardin galleries. There are at least three graffiti documentaries making the rounds of distributors, and New Wave filmmaker Charles Ahearn is now working on a film with Fred. Fred and Lee are stalwarts of the Fabulous Five, a group that writes on the number five line of the Lexington Avenue IRT. When I caught up with Fred, this 24-year-old veteran expressionist was en route to Milan, for a show at the Paolo Seno gallery. This is his second Italian exhibition; the first was warmly received by Unita, the Communist Party paper, which suggested that the Fabulous Five be hired to paint the Victor Emmanuel mon­ument (built by Mussolini and contemptuously known as “the wedding cake”).

“My art is like an artifact,” Fred says. “Like, the paintings I do, I want people to look at them as an art based on graffiti.” He has started reading Artforum. He has developed a fondness for Dada. He has cut a rap record. “With a little time and paint,” Fred says, “anything is possible.”

***

The Soul Artists, an amalgam of 21 writers, including many of the best to have surfaced underground, want the MTA to give them carte blanche on the outsides of cars. In exchange, they propose to regulate what goes on inside and to impose a ban on writing over windows and maps. Pas­sengers might welcome such a compromise — assuming it could be enforced, since graffiti inspires a lot of very independent toys. Imagine a contest in which the best artists select the most original designs submitted by graffiti writers, creating a new emblem for New York, attracting tourists from all over the world, and freeing millions of dollars now used to buff the stuff.

With or without the MTA’s coopera­tion, we may soon be inundated with graf­fiti, as the Soul Artists attempt to trans­pose the form onto fabric, video, posters. Writers are beginning to regard graffiti as something you can do on paper, or in a book. A lot of these kids carry “piece books,” the kind you used to whip out in high school for autographs at the end of the year. At special events like the New Museum opening, they stand around tag­ging each other — but not the walls. The best writers copyright their major pieces. Many carry portfolios; a few have even begun to buy their paint.

Though some writers would agree with Fred that “graffiti dies when it’s legal­ized,” the possibility of a career in fashion, graphic design, or even art is making in­roads into traditional assumptions about what graffiti is. Or might be. Graffiti may enter the commercial mainstream and bestow itself on haberdashery, like punk. Or its simultaneous discovery by artists and kids at large could change the way we think of public space. Imagine workshops dotting the ghettos, and in the quiche districts, thousands of otherwise benumbed adults taking to the streaks.

You can collect graffiti, wear graffiti, make graffiti. It’s not a form, but an attitude toward form. “Thunderism,” Fred calls it. Imagine! ■

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Where To See Graffiti

Given the MTA’s churlishness (a John Lennon memorial car, executed last week, has already been buffed), the best way to evaluate the potential of graffiti is to seek it out on walls. “Monumental graffiti works” by Lee are viewable on handball courts scat­tered across the Lower East Side: on Madison Street between Clinton and Montgomery, Cherry between Clinton and Montgomery, and Cherry between Pike and Market streets. The Bronx Graffiti Disco, on 204th Street and Jerome Avenue, features a facade by Crash, Medi, Mitch, and Noc. Con­nie’s Supermarket, at 148th Street and Brook Avenue (near Fashion Moda), has been embellished by Crash. Closer to quiche, Unique Clothing Warehouse on Broadway near Bleecker has a piece by Lee. And a half-dozen graffiti can­vases are at the New Museum, Fifth Avenue corner La Catorce. (If you’re driving home to — or past — Ohio stop at the Canton Art Institute, for an audio-visual graffiti spectacular, fea­turing photos by Henry Chalfant and a rap-tape by Fred.) R.G.