If you want to see graffiti, you’d normally go and roam the streets. This time you’d better go to the Museum of the City of New York. It brings the exceptional collection of Martin Wong.

Wong was an American artist who lived in San Francisco and New York. His visionary realism renders the legendary street scene of the Lower East Side in the seventies and eighties. But his interests went beyond his own artistic activity. He had a degree in ceramics and was an expert in Asian art and antiques.

But what the art world is particularly grateful for is Martin Wong’s outstanding collection of graffiti. Legendary graffiti artists, like Lady Pink and Keith Haring, were his friends. He received their work as gifts or he sometimes traded with his own paintings. The result is an extraordinary document of graffiti. But also a time document of New York.

Per definition graffiti is the ephemeral art that pops up overnight on urban walls. It’s not associated, not at all back in those days, with art that can be collected. Because of its temporary character for one. But also because of the fact that it’s simply not very practical to collect walls of public buildings or subway stations. We should neither forget the illegal aspect of graffiti!

Hence, Martin Wong’s collection consists of work on paper and canvas and photo (or any other support that is not a wall, for example a fridge door). And maybe this is why this collection is such an important document. Most of the sketches in the scrap books are preparatory studies for larger “on the wall” pieces. Very often we think (or thought) that spray painters were just a bunch of kids hanging out on the streets and who happened to have a can or two on them and inevitably started spraying the walls.

The exhibition shows how graffiti shifted from vandalism to the socially accepted art form that has earned its place in galleries and museums. Where one day it was frowned upon as offensive ventilating of adolescent frustration, it has now become an art form in its own right.

Still, even today, some find graffiti unacceptable and an eyesore. They should see how it was back then in those decades in New York City! The streets of (mostly Lower) Manhattan were literally covered in spray paint. There was hardly any inch left uncovered in the subway, that is in the stations, but also inside the trains. It almost made the word gritty synonymous to NYC. Compared to those times, New York has become a ‘clean and safe’ place. And some would say a ‘gray, dull and boring’ place.


CITY AS CANVAS – Museum of the City of New York – through August 24, 2014



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