City as Canvas: Graffiti Art
from the Martin Wong Collection
Opens at the Museum of the City of New York
Through August 24, 2014
First Exhibition of the Martin Wong Collection, Featuring 150 Works by
CEY, DAZE, DONDI, FUTURA 2000, Keith Haring, LADY PINK, LEE, TRACY 168, and
More New York Graffiti Artists of the 1970s–’80s
New York, February 3, 2014 – The Museum of the City of New York presents City As Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection, the first exhibition of the treasure trove of 1970s and ’80s graffiti art amassed by artist and pioneering collector Martin Wong, who donated the entire collection to the Museum in 1994. The exhibition features seminal paintings and “black book” sketches by CEY (Cey Adams), DAZE (Chris Ellis), DONDI (Donald White), FUTURA 2000 (Leonard McGurr), Keith Haring, LADY PINK (Sandra Fabara), LEE (Lee Quiñones), RAMMELLZEE, SHARP (Aaron Goodstone), TRACY 168 (Michael Tracy), ZEPHYR (Andrew Witten), and many more New York graffiti artists, as well as photographs by Charlie Ahearn, Henry
Chalfant, Martha Cooper, and Jon Naar that show the era’s graffiti-covered subways and buildings. City as Canvas opens Tuesday, February 4 and will remain on view until Sunday, August 24, 2014.
City as Canvas explores the cultural phenomenon of New York City graffiti art, beginning with historical photographs of graffiti long erased from subways and buildings, and delving into paintings and sketchbooks collected by Martin Wong (1946–1999). Graffiti emerged as a powerful form of self-expression in New York City in the 1970s. With Wong and his friends at its epicenter, the movement evolved from illicit expressions on subway cars and station walls to colorful paintings embraced as valuable works of art by collectors and patrons from the Downtown scene of the 1980s.
“Graffiti art is now widely admired, but many questioned its merits during the movement’s development in the 1970s. Martin Wong had the foresight to collect graffiti art and advocate for young ‘writers,’ just as New York City’s street art scene was on the cusp of gaining international prominence,” said Susan Henshaw Jones, the Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York. “Understanding the importance of graffiti as an urban statement, the City Museum embraced the opportunity to acquire Martin Wong’s collection, which included many works by artists living just blocks away. We’re thrilled to show this rare collection for the first time since Wong donated it 20 years ago.”
Wong was drawn to the ubiquitous graffiti writing he saw all over New York City when he moved from San Francisco in 1978. While working at Pearl Paint, an art supply store on Canal Street in Manhattan, he befriended New York City graffiti writers, many of whom were teenagers. While others saw graffiti as an urban blight, Wong recognized the artistic and cultural value of his friends’ work, which he began collecting through purchase or trade. The resulting collection features 55 sketchbooks—called “black books”—and more than 300 mixed media paintings on canvas, cardboard, paper, and plywood, many of which were permutations of spray-painted works on subways and buildings that were later erased or painted over. Interested in keeping the entire
collection intact, Wong donated it to the City Museum in 1994 before returning to San Francisco, where he remained an active artist and friend of graffiti artists until his death from AIDS in 1999.
With nearly 150 works from Wong’s collection on display, many restored for this exhibition, City As Canvas highlights the vibrant colors, varying techniques, and personal styles that vividly reflect the culture and social pressures of the era. The exhibition also traces the evolution of New York graffiti at a moment when street art has emerged as an important part of the dialogue about art in public space. As revealed by the intense public reaction to Banksy’s month-long New York “residency” in October 2013 and the sudden whitewashing of Long Island City’s legendary 5Pointz facade one month later, graffiti continues to elicit passionate emotions—both positive and negative—while fascinating New Yorkers and visitors from around the world.
City as Canvas was curated by Sean Corcoran, Curator of Prints & Photographs at the Museum of the City of New York.
“City As Canvas provides a window into the origins of the graffiti movement, which began as an illicit activity and evolved into an art form that spawned a worldwide phenomenon. Both notorious and celebrated, the style that New York teenagers pioneered and Martin Wong collected transformed the way we see the city and defined a genre that forever altered music, fashion, and popular visual culture,” said Corcoran.
Exhibition highlights include:
• Mixed media works on canvas, cardboard, paper, and plywood by icons of the New York graffiti art movement. Among the works featured are DAZE’s Transition (1982), LADY PINK’s The Death of Graffiti (1982), and LEE’s Howard the Duck (1988), a vivid oil painting of the artist’s massive handball court mural, created 10 years earlier and since destroyed, at Corlears Junior High School on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
• Historical photographs by Charlie Ahearn, Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper, and Jon Naar that document New York’s graffiti art movement in 1970s and ’80s. Included are Martha Cooper’s full-color portraits of graffiti artists standing in front of their work, drawing in their sketchbooks, and breaking into subway layups (side tracks used for storage), as well as her landscape images of graffiti-covered subway trains rumbling through the city.
• Black book drawings by DONDI, RIFF 170, TRACY 168, WICKED GARY (Gary Fritz), and others. The only museum collection like it in the world, the sketchbook drawings illustrate not only the artists’ process and style, but the various purposes the black books served. In addition to sketching ideas for large works on subways and buildings, graffiti artists circulated their black books among friends to share drawings and lettering styles with one another.
Complementing the black books is Wicked Gary’s Tag Collection (1970–72), a large work that showcases ink-drawn “tags,” or signatures used by more than 70 graffiti artists. The work functions as a “who’s who” of New York graffiti writers, and includes tags by the movement’s pioneers such as PHASE II, COCO 144, and SNAKE I (Eddie Rodriguez).
• The exhibition also features acrylic paintings by Wong, an artist “whose meticulous visionary realism is among the lasting legacies of New York’s East Village art scene of the 1980s,” according to The New York Times. The featured paintings reflect the influence of Wong’s friends on his own work. In Sharp Paints a Picture (1997–98), Wong depicts a shirtless SHARP wearing a respirator while standing in front of his painting. In C76, Junior (1988), Wong paints a scene of SHARP tucked into bed within a Riker’s Island jail cell.
• Graf Obsession: The Martin Wong Collection at The Museum of The City of New York (2014), a new 13-minute documentary by Charlie Ahearn, director of Wild Style (1983), the first feature film on the New York City graffiti scene. Graf Obsession contains rare, previously unseen footage of Martin Wong surrounded by both his paintings and his graffiti collection in his Ridge Street tenement apartment. It also includes interviews with DAZE, LEE, and
SHARP as they discuss the importance of Martin Wong and his collection.
• Manfred Kirchheimer’s special cut of Stations of the Elevated, a 46-minute documentary that he produced, directed, edited, and photographed in 1981. The film is one of the first to document New York City’s graffiti-covered trains in motion and presents the topic as a cultural phenomenon rather than an act of vandalism. Set to the music of experimental jazz musician Charles Mingus, the film was first screened by the Museum of Modern Art in New
York in the year of its release.
Among the public programs that the Museum will present to accompany the exhibition are:
• GRAFFITI 101: NEW YORK SUBWAY ART OF THE 1970s AND ’80s on Wednesday, February 12, 2014 at 6:30 p.m. Artist and author Chris Pape will present a lively overview of the New York City subway graffiti movement between 1969 and 1989, and provide an insider’s account of what it was like to paint subway trains.
• THE ART OF GRAFFITI: DRAW YOUR NAME on Saturday, February 15, 2014 at 2:00 p.m. Get an introduction to the stylized writing that grew out of the graffiti art movement, and learn to draw your own tag under the guidance of New York graffiti artist and teacher SEN One (George Morillo).
• LITTLE BLACK BOOKS: LEARN THE ART OF WRITING GRAFFITI on Sunday, March 9, 2014 at 11:00 a.m. Out of the subway cars of the 1970s and ’80s came black books—sketchbooks where writers practiced drawing and drafted murals. Explore the stylized writing and tags found in these elusive books with New York graffiti artist and teacher DAZE.
• WILD STYLE: A FILM SCREENING AND TALK-BACK on Thursday, March 20 at 6:00 p.m. First released just over 30 years ago, Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style (1983) was the world’s first hip hop motion picture, a heady evocation of the early days of spray-can art and hip-hop in New York City. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Charlie Ahearn and two of the legendary artists featured in the film, ZEPHYR and SHARP.
• OLD’S KOOL: ROOTS OF NEW YORK GRAFFITI on Thursday, April 17 at 6:30 p.m. In the 1970s, New York City teens claimed the city’s walls and mass transit system as their canvases—and in the process invented a new art form. J.SON (Jay Edlin)—a veteran graffiti artist, historian, and author of Graffiti 365 (Harry N. Abrams, 2011)—will lead a panel discussion about graffiti with four revolutionary yet unsung graffiti writers of the ’70s: COCO 144, JESTER ONE, LSD OM, and Al Diaz, a.k.a. BOMB ONE and later SAMO (in collaboration with Jean Michel Basquiat).
• STYLE WARS: A FILM SCREENING AND DISCUSSION on Monday, May 12 at 6:30 p.m. Winner of a 1984 Sundance Grand Jury Prize, Style Wars (1983) was the first documentary to investigate Hip Hop culture. The film screening will be followed by a discussion and Q&A with producer and cinematographer Henry Chalfant, as well as two artists featured in the film: breakdancer MR. FREEZE and graffiti artist CRASH.
• DON1, THE KING FROM QUEENS: PANEL DISCUSSION AND BOOK LAUNCH on Wednesday, May 28 at 6:30 p.m. LEE and DAZE talk with author, musician, and filmmaker Sacha Jenkins and KR.ONE (Louie Gasparro) about the impact of DON1, an influential graffiti writer who is the subject of Gasparro’s new book, DON1, The King From Queens: The Life and Photos of a NYC Transit Graffiti Master (January, 2014).