"City as a Canvas" Museum of the City of New York / february - august 2014 / New York
The first time exhibition of works from the expansive street art collection of Martin Wong. Martin Wong, an East Village artist and collector of graffiti art, amassed a treasure trove of hundreds of works on paper and canvas—in aerosol, ink, and other mediums. The artists, including Keith Haring, Lee Quiñones, LADY PINK, FUTURA 2000, SHARP (Aaron Goodstone) and many others NY graffiti artists were seminal figures in an artistic movement that spawned a worldwide phenomenon, altering music, fashion, and popular visual culture. The exhibition City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection begins with photographs of graffiti writing long erased from subways and buildings.
Wong, who died of AIDS in 1999, donated his collection to the City Museum in 1994.
GROWING UP in New York City during the 1970s and ’80s, I assumed that subway cars would always be psychedelic—rolling metal loaves with multihued fluorescent frosting, brightening grim tunnels and el tracks with every color of the spectrum. This, as we all know, was not to be. As a 1982 painting by legendary graffiti writer Lady Pink foresaw, a combination of citizen hostility, law-enforcement crackdowns, and new easy-wipe surfaces ensured that the jagged, letter-based “wildstyle” pieces and ambitious, often topical murals were all but extinct on the MTA by 1990. Pink’s The Death of Graffiti is included in the Martin Wong Collection, part of the Museum of the City of New York’s standing collection since 1994 and currently on display there as the exhibition “City as Canvas.”
In the painting, a naked woman (Pink herself) stands atop a rainbow bridge of spraypaint cans, pointing at a passing train on an elevated track. A car adorned with one of Pink’s pieces is followed by a pristine, graffiti-free car. The fact that the “clean” subway car is white—not silver or metal grey—is telling. While there have always been white graffiti writers, the form’s association with nonwhite urban culture has made both its celebration and efforts to eradicate it inextricably bound up with issues of race and class. MCNY’s location—on a gold-coast Fifth Avenue street a few blocks west of Spanish Harlem—seemed to trace New York graffiti’s journey from its uptown source through the downtown waystation of the ’80s East Village gallery scene and back again to an entirely different institutional uptown (Museum Mile) that is so close and yet so far. I grew up on East Ninety-Sixth Street, so traveling to the show for the private opening last Monday night felt like coming home.
If it’s true that 90 percent of all artistic product is crap, the non-crap 10 percent suffers unduly when 100 percent of the work is unavoidably in your face everywhere you go, which has always been the case with graffiti. Viewing street art in august museums may appear to be missing the point, but given the ubiquity and high visibility of bad graffiti, where the amateurism isn’t even charming and the act does seem to be approaching vandalism, there’s something to be said for curatorial winnowing. Even better if the initial collector was someone as intimate with and devoted to the form and its top practitioners as Martin Wong, a gay, Chinese-American painter from San Francisco who moved to the Lower East Side in the late ’70s and befriended some of the city’s best graf writers. These relationships quickly became symbiotic once Wong secured a job in the canvas section of Pearl Paint, a massive art-supply store on Canal Street. Through “five-finger discounts” and creative accounting, Wong was able to keep many of these writers—some of whom were transitioning from trains to canvases and getting shows at the Fun Gallery and other downtown spaces—in painting materials on the cheap.
Wong started collecting graffiti pieces in various formats early on, often bartering art supplies or his own meticulously crafted paintings of urban facades, but occasionally even paying money to acquire coveted “black books,” graf writers’ notebooks, where the artists sketched new pieces intended for subway cars or building walls and which functioned almost as imagistic diaries. Viewing some of the black books at the show, I was struck by how personal and intimate they were, amazed that the writers were willing to part with them at any price. Some of the stars of the scene had already made the transition to canvas—Lee Quiñones, Lady Pink, Daze, Dondi, Futura 2000, Sharp, Rammellzee, Zephyr, among others—and Wong showed rare acumen in collecting many of these paintings.
Wide-angle photographs of bombed cars and covert shots of writers plying their nightly trade in the train lots taken by Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper, Jack Stewart, and others rounded out Wong’s graffiti art collection at the show, along with a rare 1981 documentary film by Manfred Kirchheimer, Stations of the Elevated, projected onto a wall in the gallery. The film stock had the same nicotine-yellow cast that so many New York movies of the period have (e.g., The Warriors ). As I was getting lost in nostalgia on a bench in front of the projection, a brusque older man sat down next to me and asked, “Whaddaya wanna know? I made the thing.” Kirchheimer told me that the film was going to be screened at BAM in June, and then he left, perhaps misinterpreting my ramblings about nicotine scrims and the earthtones of late ’70s New York (brown cars anyone?) as criticisms of his cinematography.
That night I spotted Quiñones, Daze, and a tall, older black man in an impressive vest festooned with Black Spades and Zulu Nation patches, who must have been someone from the original scene (but was always too busy to interrupt). Jeffrey Deitch was in the house. I expected to see Ms. Rapture herself, Debbie Harry, but no luck. And sadly, my favorite character of all, Rammellzee, died several years ago (though he was represented by some of his truly singular “Ikonoklast Panzerism” work). Overall, the crowd was perhaps the most diverse—in age, ethnicity, and style—I’d ever seen at an American museum. There were many reunion hugs between the old-timers, and the whole evening had the feeling of a homecoming—for them, for me, for graffiti—to an earlier New York.
On one wall, quotes of various luminaries opining on New York graffiti in its heyday were printed. There were some “pro” comments (Warhol, Mailer), but far more “anti” (politicians, law enforcement, rich people). One Kathleen Westin, MoMA Junior Council Co-Chair, apparently said, “The people who graffiti ought to be shot at dawn.” If Ms. Westin could see this well-tailored collection today, in an establishment museum setting, she might change her mind. Or at least be persuaded to put down the gun.