Where Graffiti and Fine Art Coexist

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

There is always room for urgent, angst-ridden scribbling in art, and there is no shortage of artistry in the unsolicited mural decorations left by delinquents on urban streets. But “graffiti art” remains something of a contradiction in terms, simply because the essence of each is a context that defeats the other. On the one hand, graffiti should be illegal, or at the very least clandestine, in order to fulfill its socioanthropological impetus: the need of the marginalized to make a mark.In art, by contrast, marks are sanctioned, sought, expected, and neatly contained.

PaceWildenstein is currently showing three artists who owe their energy to graffiti, and are no less “fine” artists for it: Antoni Tapies, whose new paintings are at the 57th Street gallery, and the inspired pairing of Jean Dubuffet and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Chelsea space.Each artist has tapped a notion of the primitive or the archaic implicit in graffiti’s anti-aesthetic – with magnificently self-defeating results, since they are all aesthetes to their fingertips.

Dubuffet (1901-85) and Basquiat (1960-88) came from very different places culturally, historically, and intellectually.The Frenchman, a tail-end Surrealist, sought to overcome his academic schooling by emulating outsider artists whose efforts he championed and collected.He coined the phrase “art brut”for their aesthetic and his own.He came out of a long tradition of “epater le bourgeois,” in his case exploiting the unbridled, authentic expressions of people working from inner necessity to jolt viewers out of complacency.

On the surface, Basquiat was the kind of artist Dubuffet might have been looking for: Someone who brought the vibes of the street into the studio and who seemed true to his African-American roots. But Basquiat was by no means an artistic version of the noble savage. Though he didn’t attend art school and enjoyed a brief career as a graffiti writer,his dense formal and iconographical vocabulary, developed in the studio, was deeply versed in art history. His negritude was no less studied and considered, cultivated in every sense. One wonders, looking at his early canvases (from 1981-83), elegantly juxtaposed with Dubuffet’s late works (acrylic and paper collage works from 1976-79), whether Dubuffet would have seen Basquiat as a protege or as a riposte.

There is remarkable consistency in values between the two bodies of work. At the heart of the show, Dubuffet’s “Les lieux conjuges” (1976) hangs adjacent to Basquiat’s “Per Capita” (1981). Both are big paintings. At 8 and 12 1/2 feet long, respectively, each puts the viewer in mind of a field that could extend beyond the confines of the work. At the same time, they both work as contained images, playing artfully with the edges and directing the eye around the composition, anti-compositional though they both so studiedly are.

Another feature the artists have in common is that they collide seemingly different language sources while achieving consistency of personal touch.”Les lieux conjuges” is a summation of different styles and idioms from across Dubuffet’s career. It recalls his graffiti-like, schematically scrawled personages of the 1940s and the smoothly modulated, filled-in abstract shapes of the 1960s. The use of collage emphasizes this sense of piecing together a career, making something new out of the assemblage while breaking down any neat expectation of order.

The results are lively, but hardly subversive.The accumulation of figures has a two-fold effect.The painting reads abstractly, with different shapes and values bouncing back and forth. But they also read literally as a piling up of different layers of imagery, like Lascaux – or a ghetto wall.

“Per Capita”throws the eye and mind around the canvas: The application of marks and areas of color seems fast and furious, but a miraculous sense of order militates against gratuitousness. Basquiat hints at a political critique by listing per capita earnings, state by state, and including the half-quote “E pluribus,” with the “unum” absent.

If you want more anarchy and anger from your early Basquiat, and less aesthetic resolve, Deitch Projects is presenting an exhibition curated by Glenn O’Brien and Diego Cortez that explores 1981, the year Samo the street writer (as he signed himself) became Basquiat the studio artist. It is a crowded display of slight works on paper and unconventional supports. They even have a leather jacket with Basquiat’s trademark crown on its back. “Jimmy Best,” with spray paint and oilstick on two sheets of metal,dominated by the words “Jimmy Best on his back to the suckerpunch of his childhood Files,”seems like an authentic slice of vandalism.


PaceWildenstein would have done well to put up some Brassai photographs of 1940s Parisian graffiti. The Hungarian found a timely beauty in the primordial urgency of awkward stick figures scratched into ruinous walls, and these images were crucially influential for both Dubuffet and Mr.Tapies.

Mr. Tapies came of age artistically in the grimmest period of Franco’s repression, felt especially keenly in the artist’s native Catalonia. His insistence on drab, dark materials contained, at one point, a political message about the times. It was a coded way of declaring historical materialism and critiquing lifeless leadership.

This artist doesn’t just tap graffiti: He wants the wall, too. “Lotus” (2003-04) has thick patties of marble dust and synthetic resin adhering to the panel. Words like “La Serp” and “Lotus” are carved into this material. Crosses (a trademark motif) and more words are spray-painted over this sandy support. This is typical of work that seems to replicate within the polite confines of a picture frame the grossness and grittiness of urban fabric, as if to say that environment is essential. Graffiti doesn’t exist in thin air – it comes to life in bricks and mortar.

Considered one of the grand old men of contemporary art, Mr. Tapies provides a link between the primitive and occult impulses in Surrealism (he looks a lot to his fellow Catalan Miro) and the fluxus artist Joseph Beuys and his neo-Expressionist heir, Anselm Kiefer. With his heavy themes, symbols, and colors, Mr.Tapies’s art is often on the brink of being precious, but the current show reveals something of the “homo ludens” he aspires to be, often extracting surprising and welcome poetry from lumpen materials and leaden gestures.

Dubuffet-Basquiat until June 17 (534 W. 25th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-929-7001). Basquiat until May 27 (76 Grand Street at Wooster Street, 212-343-7300). Tapies until June 17 (32 E. 57th Street at Madison Avenue, 212-421-3292).

The New York Sun

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