You Call This Art?

You Call This Art?

Put a frame—real or metaphorical—around something and hang it in a public place. Is this art? No museum exhibition better asks the question than the Museum of the City of New York’s current show, City as Canvas: Graffiti Art From the Martin Wong Collection.

Drawn from the museum’s perhaps unequalled collection of graffiti art created between 1971 and 1992—a gift to the museum in 1994 by the late Martin Wong (1946-1999), an artist and visionary collector—the show is an often daunting sensory overload of 150 paintings, sketches and photographs. Artists represented include CEY, DAZE, DONDI, FUTURA 2000, Keith Haring, LADY PINK, LEE, RAMMELLZEE, SHARP, TRACY 168, ZEPHYR and others. All started out as graffiti writers in the 1970s, using markers and spray paint to tag their names on buildings, buses and anything that either stood still or moved fast. In other words, every surface the city could dish up. It was a teenage phenomenon. Roguish, undisciplined, arrogant, self-expressive, selfish, illegal, angry. Many observers take the high road when justifying the movement, saying it deconstructed the written word into abstraction. That may be intellectualizing too much. To others, these were delinquents, candidates for reform school—if they could be caught. A bit extreme perhaps. Under the mentorship of Martin Wong, many street artists moved into the studio, abandoning the youthful joyride for more conventional artistic expression. Twenty years after the movement’s peak, they continue to make art and continue to develop. Many have international reputations. The colors are brilliant, the patterns exhilarating, the themes challenging.

What punched my hot button? More than anything: the photographs documenting what these artists did to public and private property in the city. Returning to New York in the late ’70s, after 10 years abroad, I was disheartened (boy, is that putting it mildly) at how my city had been defaced. It wasn’t until 1989 that the subways, inside and out, became free of graffiti. My reaction (negative) to the exhibition has as much to do with memories of my frustration and anger at the city for allowing itself to be debased as it does with the perpetrators who debased it.

If you never lived in or visited NYC in the 1970s/1980s, see the show for its historical perspective. If you want to know what art is—or is not—see the show: You won’t be indifferent. And that’s a good thing.

>> City as Canvas: Graffiti Art From the Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Ave., 212.534.1672, thru Aug. 24, 2014



1. LADY PINK, "The Death of Graffiti," 1982, Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

2. SHARP, "Untitled," 1990, Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York