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The stairwell leading down to the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver’s (MCA) first floor simulates the visual experience of a New York City subway. The walls are lined with DIY graffiti, written in a variety of colors and styles, offering the passage as a prologue for its exhibition, Wall Writers: Graffiti in Its Innocence. Graffiti historian, urban anthropologist, and guest curator Robert Gastman exhaustively examines the history of the early graffiti scene in New York and Philadelphia. Beginning in 1967 as youth started to routinely make marks on the streets, the study sets out to illuminate the conditions and personalities that gave currency to graffiti through to 1973, when graffiti began to approach a “grown-up art genre” (Gastman 23). One particularly aspiring youth and exemplar of the move from graffiti to fine art was Jean-Michel Basquiat, to whom the MCA’s ground-floor exhibition Basquiat before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979–1980 was devoted. The two exhibitions were parallel inquiries into artistic precedents, transgressive creativities, and youthful urbanity.
Wall Writers unfolds in three parts: a museum exhibition, a book, and a documentary film. The book and film provide the best-fitting outfit for the project, as they deep dive into the central figures of early graffiti through a rich compilation of interviews, photographs, newspaper clippings, notebooks, histories, and essays. The exhibition, on the other hand, behaves much like a conceptual art project: a spatializing of thorough research, a scattering of fragments from material culture, a storyboarding without clear beginning or ending, but much to be read in between. What the exhibition does that neither the book nor the film does is return the writing to the walls in photograph form and acknowledge through the sheer act of location in the MCA the place of graffiti within contemporary art.
1967. It was the start of a visible movement, an expanding cluster of rebellious, urban, teenage flâneurs. With a Magic Marker or spray can in hand, youth took to the streets, treating city spaces as their playing field, as blank slates or empty canvases primed and ready for an impulse to create. The color-to-concrete, guerrilla activity doubled as a genuine art practice for many of the earliest graffiti writers. The youth experimented with style, techniques, and materials. They developed an image vocabulary with lettering, numbering, and symbols. Arrows, stars, question marks, crowns. As more “tags,” or “hits,” seasoned the walls, the higher, bigger, and bolder their strokes became.
As Gastman painstakingly tells it, graffiti’s genesis story is tethered to its context, including public mistrust of the government (explaining the antiauthority sentiment), wide-scale challenges to labor laws and mandatory drafts (affecting young males especially), and declines in what was the worst of gang violence (leaving places safer for other street activities). The period witnessed antiwar protests, the Civil Rights movement, even summers of love. Amid the roar of the 1960s and 1970s were new technological innovations like the aerosol can and the vibrant pulses of an emerging hip-hop culture, a zeitgeist giving traction to graffiti writing together with deejaying and break dancing. Yet, Gastman clarifies for us, the earliest writers were not bent on issuing political commentary. The movement was driven largely by the search for self-expression and identity, by the desire for fame and fandom among peers, by teenagers being rebellious teenagers. The trove of interviews available in the accompanying book for Wall Writers asks the now-aged graffitists to recount their youth of more than forty years ago: their family lives, schools, social clubs, and relationships with other writers. Especially revealing of the initial impetus for making graffiti is the response to why wall writing: “To gain a reputation,” PHIL, JOE COOL, and COCO 144 seem to chime in unison.
To better grasp the consequences and resonances of graffiti is to regard it at the chiasmata of youth culture, mainstream media, the expansion of visual art and scholarship, and urban politics. Only after journalist Mark Perlgut’s 1971 article in the New York Times described TAKI 183’s all-over approach to tagging the New York City streets did the walls draw popular attention. Only then did their writing threaten to become truly public. Dialogue with graffiti ensued. Gordon Matta-Clark, as one example, helped to reify graffiti in “blue-chip” art circles (188). In his series Photoglyphs (1973), a selection of which are lined like railroad cars in the exhibition, Matta-Clark imaged graffiti on the walls and subways of the Bronx, printed them in black and white, then hand colored each. A high-profile artist engaging with graffiti writing signals the initial exchanges between the two scenes.
Graffiti penetrated academic discourse, too, albeit rather slowly with little acclaim at first. Julie Reich Mackey, in the early 1970s a new professor at Philadelphia’s Moore College of Art & Design, identified graffiti as urban folk art, ripe with knowledge about contemporary youth and city life. That Mackey has pride of place in the exhibition speaks to Gastman’s veneration of the scholar. Not only is her interest in graffiti to thank for the wealth of quality photographs of Philadelphia’s burgeoning scene—visual documentations she commissioned of Gunther Cartwright in the mid-1970s—but she also attempted to deduce a framework of graffiti styles, analogous to those found in the canons of art’s histories.
“There was the CORNBREAD style, which is totally plain, which, being an academic, I said was classic, and a more elaborate style with serifs; the middle style I said was baroque. Then there was an even more florid style which had images, like crowns, more cursive elements, and a visual complexity that I dubbed rococo. And finally there was an almost unreadable style, which I said to myself was decadent.” (304)
She discussed art over lunch with the writers, invited them to speak in her college classroom. More than contemplating graffiti from an armchair, Mackey articulated opinions as she sought the direct company of the writers.
The momentum of the graffiti movement significantly faltered in the 1980s as the grassroots rebellion was met with creative alternatives to public art and a mounting resistance from community members and local authorities. New mural programs committed room for the artistic expression of youth to act. Anti-graffiti campaigns pushed for the “cleaning up” of subways and other city spaces. The stakes when caught writing were raised, too, the penalties becoming more severe. And, of course, graffiti’s earliest makers were growing up, settling down, or looking to make an actual living. Gastman closes the pages of his study by noting the wisdom available in histories of nonconformity. I am reminded of Ben Shahn’s statements about nonconformity delivered during his lecture series at Harvard in 1956, “All art is based upon nonconformity [and] every great historical change has been based upon nonconformity, has been bought either with the blood or with the reputation of nonconformists.” Wall Writers expands the oft-recalled radical histories of the 1960s and 1970s, gives critical insight and timely record to a generation whose experiences and observations are literally painted into our cities’ stories, and is testament to the rhythmic energies of youth and the potentials of urban grassroots, sanctioned or not.
The “graffiti”-lined staircase leading back to the ground floor of the MCA proves the perfect segue to Basquiat before Basquiat: East 12th Street 1979–1980. Curator Nora Burnett Abrams closely chronicles Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “virtuosity in formation—the creative impulsiveness that yielded a distinctive voice” (Abrams 45). What emerges in the exhibition is an enthralling panoramic tour of a formative year in the life of a young artist and his stirring experimentations in aesthetics—illustrations, sculptures, paintings, writings, performances. Indeed, what makes Basquiat’s work so remarkable is that it has the viewer believe she is seeing the artist’s raw consciousness, where thoughts are worked and reworked, symbols syncopated, curiosities pursued, and the development of a cleverness that is as boldly defiant in art as in life.
Abrams contends that Basquiat’s later career was profoundly shaped by his experiences, obsessions even, between 1979 to 1980, just prior to his formally establishing a studio practice in 1981. It was a period when the budding artist left behind his more vagabond lifestyle, moved into a small apartment with his then-girlfriend Alexis Adler on New York City’s East 12th Street, and began testing the waters, all waters. He formed art rock bands, painted postcards to sell and sweatshirts to wear. He dreamed up characters, wrote and rewrote them, performed and reperformed them, drew and redrew them. His dazzlement with the street was salient in their apartment, which functioned not unlike a studio: inside apartment F8 converged street, art, and life. He brought upstairs with him found items like an old TV set, a briefcase, a radiator cover, then painted and performed with the objects. He marked on the walls, on the doors. “Jean was 24-7 art,” Adler remembers (17).
To Adler we owe these new kernels of knowledge about Basquiat, his voracious appetite for books and images, his unsystematic way of thinking and creating. Not only is she a living memory of his life between the street and the studio, she also participated in and documented his more ephemeral, impromptu activities. Adler’s black-and-white photographs preserve their apartment performances, such as him donning a football helmet and tinkering with a TV inside of their refrigerator. She archived the stuff of their being together, of his explorations: the bathroom door marked with his later-famous crown and copyright, his notebooks filled with the thinking through—a searching—of equations, languages, systems. The content (jumbled, combined, repeated, nonsensical though critical) of his events, texts, and images investigate everything from capitalism and racial identify to religion and art icons. No subject is too far afield, no medium out of the question. Basquiat is described by an old friend, Sur Rodney Sur, as a “jazz poet”: “a jazz poet using imagery and language to reflect on ancient, modern, and contemporary history” (110). The exhibition is pregnant with an unusual air of immediacy, authenticity, and ingenuity that is assuredly akin to the spirit of jazz.
The MCA’s exhibition design aspired to return the artist, the materials, and us with them to the F8 scene. Wall-sized photographs of the apartment and its hallway, looking every bit like what one might expect of the East Village in the early 1980s, and video footage of Basquiat in collaborative performances enliven the entryway to the galleries. Quiet white lines on the floor of the first room map the apartment space inside of the museum space, and a selection of Adler’s archive is here: the bathroom door, collages, performance photographs, even loose-leaf pages of handwritten scripts separately framed. By also having Basquiat’s notebooks digitized, Abrams offers viewers the opportunity to “flip” through his many pages, so that our vantage point of his thought processes is unobstructed by curatorial selections. The clothing on which he painted, too, is inventively displayed. Jutting out horizontally faceup from the wall, much like a sweater in a department store display or inside of a dresser drawer, the front of the garments are visible. Mirrors on the floor permit visible backs of the clothing, too. The presentation of artifacts suggests a wanting to know the art, the artist, from all sides. The exhibition poetically ends with a Basquiat canvas, an example of the contemporary paintings for which we know him best. The canvas is a demonstration of where the artist’s early wonderings and wanderings led.
The book catalogue amplifies the nuanced, sophisticated study found in the exhibition. Scholarly essays are interspersed with storytelling about the artist, of the apartment, of the New York City scene in 1979 and 1980. The voices belong to Adler herself, fellow bandmates, artists, filmmakers, and writers who made up Basquiat’s daily encounters, who we reason affected his inner landscapes. We now can imagine Basquiat pinning a book to a bedroom wall, “always dancing,” mischievous and attention grabbing, with a notebook ever in hand as he walks down the city streets and appears at gatherings unannounced. Much has been said by art writers and the popular press about Basquiat’s street-to-studio career, his uniquely zealous canvases, his addiction, and early death. In Basquiat before Basquiat, we see a slightly different picture materialize, one that is intimate, probing, almost tentative.
Meg R. Jackson
Assistant Professor, University of Denver