City as Canvas: MCNY Explores Origins of Graffiti Art

Once upon a time, before Banksy murals were making the covers of auction catalogues, what many today know as street art was viewed as urban blight. Martin Wong saw creativity ripe for collecting. A new exhibition brings together works from his trove and traces the evolution of the New York graffiti art movement. We tagged writer Nancy Lazarus to take a sneak peek.

Untitled by Zephyr, 1984, MCNY
Pictured above, an untitled 1984 work by Zephyr, a key figure in the transition of the writing movement from trains to canvas. The below portrait of artist and collector Martin Wong was taken in 1985 by Peter Bellamy. (All images courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York)

Martin Wong by Peter Bellamy, 1985, MCNY“Street art has become the biggest art movement the world has seen,” said Sandra Fabara, the graffiti artist known as Lady Pink. She was one of the few female artists involved in the street scene of Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the 1970s and 1980s. That’s where Martin Wong, an avid collector, befriended and mentored a group of fellow graffiti artists.

“He was passionate, not just a patron,” said Christopher Ellis, aka Daze, one of many members of the group who paid tribute to the late Wong on Monday at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), which today opened an exhibition of works from Wong’s pioneering collection. On view through August 24, “City as Canvas: Graffiti from the Martin Wong Collection” consists of nearly half of the 300 mixed media pieces that Wong donated to the museum in 1994, five years before he died of AIDS. Sean Corcoran, MCNY’s curator of prints and photographs, curated the show, and the artists helped to identify many of the pieces in the exhibition.

Howard the Duck by Lee Quiñones, 1988, MCNY
Lee Quiñones, Howard the Duck (1988). This vivid oil painting recreates 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.

The vast reach and growing phenomenon of graffiti art is inescapable, as the movement has evolved from artists using aliases and creating illegal tags, letters, and images on vacant buildings and subway cars to receiving commissions for paintings and murals for upscale hotels, restaurants, and collectors’ homes. Street art has also been a popular topic of museum exhibits in recent years. Yet as Lee Quiñones said, “There have been graffiti shows elsewhere, but this show revisits the graffiti movement in its infancy.” Added fellow artist Aaron Goodstone, aka Sharp, “It was a movement born out of the energy and spirit of each other.”

Another theme that emerges from the MCNY exhibition is the intergenerational nature of street art. As filmmaker Charlie Ahearn, director of Wild Style and a collector of Wong’s art, observed, “For Wong, it was about one artist passing the baton to younger artists.”

The show celebrates graffiti art in all its forms, placing canvases alongside the painted side of a subway car and a decorated refrigerator door, and showing street signs near a trio of painted denim jackets.

One of the show’s multimedia highlights is a 13-minute documentary by Ahearn. Photos of the artists accompany the works and add historical depth. Fifty-five “black books’ or sketchbooks form the core of the collection, since as the film notes, they served as personal diaries for the artists to permanently record what they were doing. Otherwise, as Leonard McGurr, aka Futura 2000, remarked, “It’s day to day, and one day it’s here and tomorrow it may not be.”

Writer Nancy Lazarus is a frequent contributor to UnBeige.