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Issues of high and low—fine art versus popular culture—ran rampant through Art in the Streets, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA). The first major U.S. museum exhibition devoted to exploring the history of graffiti and street art, it took any number of risks with regard to the challenges it posed to conventional notions of museum art. The exhibition succeeded in large measure and was at once raucous, thought provoking, and illuminating. Not surprisingly, it drew impressive crowds. At its best, the exhibition expanded definitions of art, revealing meaning and beauty in the most humble circumstances and paintings and sculptures enriched by the energy and gritty rawness of the streets. Less familiar artists were introduced, and distinctions between fine and popular art were eroded. In its weaker moments, the show was more of sociological or anthropological interest than artistic and raised questions of aesthetic standards and the museum’s role.
The exhibition began with a series of commissioned pieces in the plaza outside the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA and extended through the interior. There, further commissioned paintings and murals intermingled with re-creations of historically significant installations, paintings, a skateboard park, photographs, films, an illustrated timeline, and more. Art in the Streets was the first exhibition organized by the recently appointed director of MOCA, Jeffrey Deitch, whose New York gallery, Deitch Projects, had previously represented a number of the featured artists. He curated the exhibition in collaboration with Roger Gastman and Aaron Rose, both longtime promoters of graffiti art.
Art in the Streets was timely, given the recent explosion of interest in graffiti and street art among artists, museums, the media, and the general public. Evidence may be found in the following: the over two hundred artists who have participated in the Primary Flight and Wynwood Walls projects in Miami since 2007 and 2009, respectively; the exhibition Street Art presented at the Tate Modern, London, in 2008 and TAG seen at the Grand Palais, Paris, in 2009; the Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective at the Musee d’art moderne, Paris, and Shepard Fairey’s solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (click here for review), both in 2010; JR’s winning the TED Prize in 2010 and being the subject of a feature article in The New York Times Magazine in 2011; and the Academy Award nomination for Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop in 2011. The organizers of Art in the Streets sought to set this international phenomenon in context and explore its recent historical past, with particular emphasis placed on the seminal role played by Wild Style graffiti, which proliferated in New York City in the 1970s.
Wild Style graffiti was an art form developed by inner-city teenagers in which tagging—the writing of one’s name or other mark of identity—became a public art spectacle (hitherto it had been a more hermetic or clandestine activity). Large-scale, multicolored tags written in bubble or angular letters, with fill-ins and drops shadows to produce three-dimensional effects, often accompanied by cartoon characters, covered subway cars and city walls, redefining the urban landscape, being seen by some as vandalism and defacement and by others as adornment and manifestations of freedom of expression. This graffiti style, which had close ties to the street activities of hip–hop, punk music, and breakdancing, was widely disseminated in the early 1980s in Charlie Ahearns’s film Wild Style (1983), Tony Silver’s film Style Wars (1983), and Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfont’s book Subway Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984), all of which were well documented in the exhibition.
It was also in the early 1980s that Lee Quinones, Futura, Fab 5 Freddy, Lady Pink, Dondi, and other leading figures of Wild Style graffiti who had moved beyond tags to produce large-scale murals (a dynamic, elaborately conceived collaborative piece by Quinones, Futura, and others appeared on one of the Geffen’s exterior walls) began to paint on canvas and be represented by such blue chip galleries as Sydney Janis, Marian Goodman, and David Zwirner. Although many of these artists went on to achieve success as commercial designers and illustrators, the spray paintings on canvas that occupied several galleries in Art in the Streets suggested why their exposure within the mainstream art world was short-lived, the energy and broad “strokes” of their street practice generally failing to translate to studio art and to a gallery situation geared to close, contemplative scrutiny.
Not so the work of Basquiat (aka SAMO), Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf, which arose from the same milieu. These artists initially exhibited their work with that of the Wild Style painters at such alternative spaces as the Fun Gallery (one of whose early group installations was recreated in the show). Art school trained and equipped with a mastery of line, frames of art-historical reference, and distinctive vision, Basquiat, Haring, and Scharf simultaneously extended and broke away from conventions of graffiti art to create fresh advances in painting on canvas.
Although all three became prominent figures in the art world, none had an impact comparable to that of Wild Style, which directly or indirectly inspired each of the artists featured in the exhibition, virtually all of whom became involved with graffiti art in their teens, some working alone and some in “crews.” Art in the Streets emphasized the youthful and communal origins of graffiti art by including any number of photographic series featuring teenagers carousing and variously connected to subcultures surrounding drugs, music, skateboarding, tattooing, and gangs. Among the photographers represented were Larry Clark, Ed Templeton, Terry Richardson, Teen Witch, High Holland, Dash Snow, Estevan Oriol, and Gusmano Cesaretti—their work helping to elucidate some of the regional differences found among graffiti writers on the American scene (Cholo or Mexican-American gang graffiti, based in East LA, for example, made use of the stylized gothic typeface used on the masthead of the Los Angeles Times).
Throughout the exhibition, work by leading figures from the world of graffiti art was intermingled with work by artists who continue to make art in the public arena, but who, like Basquiat, Haring, and Scharf, “crossed over” into the mainstream art world. This is not inherently problematic, although in seeking to remain inclusive and avoid hierarchies, and in taking a quasi-sociological look at the phenomena of graffiti and street art, critical judgment seemed occasionally to be suspended, such that lesser work was juxtaposed with art that is masterful and innovative. For example, Mr. Cartoon, Neck Face, and the late Rammelzee, all of whom have large and even cult followings within the worlds of graffiti and popular art, seemed out of place within the context of an art museum. The unbridgeable gap represented by their work between the low and high raised questions about the museum’s responsibility to present work of quality. Moreover, MOCA missed the opportunity to educate its public by identifying those factors that unite the truly fine pieces in the show, which were formally developed, particularly with regard to the use of line and drawing, conceptually rich, and imbued with content and expression that communicate with audiences far beyond the circle of the artists and their friends, having broader cultural relevance.
Among the highlights in the exhibition was the work of Os Gemeos, identical twin brothers based in São Paolo, who were represented by two ambitious installations, an outdoor sculpture and a painting. Their finely detailed, labor-intensive works combine found objects and materials with abstract designs and yellow-hued characters drawn from their dreams, Brazilian folklore, and the street. Their work is at once magic realist and deeply humanitarian. An air of poetic nostalgia permeates the work of the late Margaret Kilgallen, who was once a central figure in a San Francisco community of skateboarders, musicians, and street artists, which included her husband, Barry McGee. Kilgallen was represented at MOCA by her final installation, Main Drag (2001), in which her interest in old-fashioned typography and signage and in the shacks and imagery of Depression-era America was translated into a large-scale mural and freestanding tower, all hand-painted in muted tones. In Outside-in (2011), a commissioned mural just inside the entrance to the Geffen, the Belgian artist Roa filled two walls with gorgeously rendered drawings in black acrylic and spray paint of animal carcasses. An interactive installation, the viewer was able to open a series of doors to reveal the animals’ skeletons concealed behind, the whole a contemporary update of the seventeenth-century Flemish tradition of the still life with dead game. It may be mentioned in this context that a politically charged, hand-painted mural on the Geffen’s exterior by the Italian artist Blu, which also dealt with the subject of death—in his case, the human cost of war—was whitewashed by the museum before the exhibition’s opening, rousing considerable controversy.
Unlike the artists considered above, whose work looks back to graffiti-writing traditions, a few of the artists featured in Art in the Streets make extensive use of stencils, cut-outs, and posters, which are prepared in advance in the studio and derive power and meaning from their placement in the public domain. For the past decade, New York-based artist Swoon has pasted increasingly elaborate block prints and paper cut-outs on city walls. These generally depict human figures rendered with precision and pathos and reflect a range of art-historical and vernacular influences. For Art in the Streets, Swoon created an installation of personal meaning that was mythic in feel. Entitled The Ice Queen and inspired by her grandmother, it consists of a fifteen-foot-tall white paper tower crowned by exquisitely drawn images of the head of a woman and a fox. In contrast to Swoon’s “museum piece,” the miscellany assembled by Banksy in the large gallery devoted to his work was vehemently anti-institutional both in nature and theme. Art in the Streets was among the first major museum exhibitions in which Banksy agreed to participate, the artist famously avoiding art-world systems. Few of the featured works betrayed the exquisite drawing that is a fundamental characteristic of his stencils, although many were strong in concept and wit.
Art in the Streets repeatedly demonstrated that works of quality and vision render moot any questions regarding the low and high. Graffiti and street art that is filled with meaning, intelligently conceived, strong in drawing, and that provokes thought and feeling forces definitions of art to expand to accommodate these brave new forms.
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