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 February 21, 2014.   0 Comment
Some of my most vivid memories from occasional visits to New York in the late 1970s and early ’80s are of the graffiti-covered trains roaring through the city’s subway system. With their giant, pneumatic, spray-painted letters spelling names like Crash and Daze against apocalyptic backgrounds, those unauthorized moving murals amazed me. I thought they were beautiful and inspiring. It was the golden age of New York graffiti. Never before or since has that illegal art form flourished so wonderfully.

As told by the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition “City as Canvas: Graffiti Art From the Martin Wong Collection” and its catalog, the story of New York graffiti’s rise and fall is fascinating. It involves enough diverse players to populate a fat novel by Tom Wolfe. From the teenage “writers” — the preferred term of graffiti artists — who started it all in the early ’70s, to the high-end art sophisticates who embraced it and tried to profit from it, to the government authorities who eventually crushed it in the early ’80s, the cast of characters was as colorful as graffiti itself.

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“City as Canvas” displays jackets by various graffiti artists from the collection of Martin Wong. Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

“City as Canvas” views the movement through a relatively narrow but revealing window. Organized by Sean Corcoran, the museum’s curator of prints and photographs, it relies on a collection of graffiti-related materials assembled by the artist Martin Wong from 1978 to 1994.

Not a graffitist, Mr. Wong made a name for himself in the 1980s with paintings of gritty urban scenes rendered in a funky, magic-realist style. While working at the art supply store Pearl Paint in Lower Manhattan early in that decade, he got to know and befriend a number of young graffiti writers, and he began to collect their drawings, paintings and sketchbooks.

In 1989, Mr. Wong founded his Museum of American Graffiti on the top floor of a townhouse in the East Village, but real estate complications ended that venture after only six months. In 1994, suffering from AIDS, Mr. Wong donated his collection to the Museum of the City of New York and returned to his hometown, San Francisco, where he died in 1999.

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Lady Pink put herself in “The Death of Graffiti." Museum of the City of New York

“City as Canvas” crams about 150 paintings, drawings, sketchbooks and documentary photographs into a single gallery the size of a basketball court. Most of the stars of ’70s and ’80s New York graffiti are represented, including Daze (whose given name is Christopher Ellis), Dondi (Donald White), Futura 2000 (Leonard McGurr) and Lady Pink (Sandra Fabara), one of the few women to achieve recognition in a mainly boy’s club.

The exhibition’s congestion works well as a reflection of graffiti’s exuberant profligacy. It captures the communal spirit animating the artists, who like hip-hop musicians of the ’80s, often collaborated, hung out together, competed with one another and collectively developed a kind of deliriously complicated calligraphy known as wild style.

The crowding also helps in that it discourages focusing on one thing at a time, which conventional art exhibitions tend to foster. Few works in “City as Canvas” hold up to such extended scrutiny. These artists were more oriented to the commercial aesthetics of graphic design and illustration, and it shows in facile technique and the prevalence of extroverted style over personal substance.

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Documentary photographs in "City as Canvas" include Martha Cooper’s of Dondi at work. Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

That’s not to say there aren’t numerous arresting pieces. One is Lee Quiñones’s re-creation on canvas of his late-’70s spray-painted mural in which the comic book character Howard the Duck uses a garbage can lid to shield himself from a splattery explosion around jagged letters spelling “LEE.” Another is Lady Pink’s “The Death of Graffiti” (1982): In a style recalling 1930s Social Realism, it envisions the artist herself naked and standing on a pile of spray-paint cans. She points to a subway train, one of whose cars is resplendently covered in graffiti and another, auguring the future, is white and clean.

After a flurry of interest from galleries, critics and collectors in the early 1980s, the high art world lost interest in graffiti. Some of the artists went on to lucrative careers in the design world. Cey Adams, for example, became the art director for Def Jam records. But of all the artists associated with the movement, only Keith Haring, who’s in the show, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who’s not, achieved lasting, mainstream visibility.

It’s in the nature of graffiti that it can’t be contained by any established institution, commercial or educational. As a site-specific art form, it dies when separated from the where and when of its creation. Also, its energy comes from the artist’s self-identification as an aesthetic and social outlaw. The great graffiti works, some of which are documented in the show in photographs by Charlie Ahearn, Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper and Jon Naar, were triumphal assertions of selfhood by youngsters not otherwise accorded much significance by the world.

The closest you get to graffiti’s living spirit here is in the artists’ black, hardcover sketchbooks. In them you see the writers Blade, Daze, Crash, Sharp and others developing their signature styles and practicing their graphic skills. There’s more freshness and joyful discovery in these books than almost any of the show’s finished works.

Graffiti thrived in the 1970s and early ’80s because the nearly bankrupt city government lacked the resources to stop it. With the city’s return to solvency the golden age ended, and it’s probably just as well that it did. It was bound to flag as the original writers aged. I’m probably not the only New Yorker thankful for today’s clean, unmarked subway cars. But I still treasure my recollections of the time when graffiti roiled the town.


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