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The Beginnings of Graffiti

  • City as Canvas
February 20, 2014
Asja Nastasijevic is an Art Historian with the major in Modern Art, involved in art writing and criticism for several years now. Art is her passion and writing about it is both work and pleasure.

In early February the Museum of the City of New York opened the show titled City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection based on the vast body of graffiti and street art works collected by the late artist and collector Martin Wong.  The show includes paintings, sketches and photographs from New York City’s graffiti golden age of the 1970s and ’80s, many of them on view for the first time, and features the work by graffiti legends of the New York graffiti art movement including Keith Haring, DONDI, FUTURA 2000, Lee Quiñones, Daze, Lady Pink and many more.  The exhibition will also feature a selection of Wong’s own paintings which are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum.

The Black Books

The exhibition relies on an extremely valuable collection of graffiti-related materials assembled by the artist Martin Wong from 1978 to 1994, which he donated in its entirety to the Museum of the City of New York in 1994. The collection counts 55 sketchbooks – called “black books” – and more than 300 mixed media paintings on canvas, cardboard, paper, and plywood, many of which were permutations of spray-painted works on subways and buildings that were later erased or painted over. The Museum of the City of New York selected 150 works and artifacts from Wong’s collection which will remain on view through August 24th.

City as Canvas
Sharp in Martin Wong Collection
City as Canvas
Sane Smith in Martin Wong Collection

Pearl Paint

Wong was not a graffiti artist, but he recognized the artistic and cultural value of the work of his graffiti friends, and became a passionate collector of their art. “No one thought what we did had any longevity, but Martin loved street culture”, says Aaron SHARP Goodstone. Wong was a painter who made a name for himself in the 1980s with his elegiac realist paintings of Lower East Side buildings and their inhabitants. He was drawn to the omnipresent graffiti writing he saw in NYC when he moved from San Francisco in 1978. While working at Pearl Paint, an art supply store in Manhattan, he befriended NYC graffiti writers and began collecting their drawings, paintings and sketchbooks through purchase or trade. These sketchbooks and drawings are likely the most joyous discovery at the show.

City as Canvas
Lee Quinon in Martin Wong Collection

The Museum of American Graffiti

In 1989, Wong founded his Museum of American Graffiti on the top floor of a townhouse in the East Village, but real estate complications soon ended that venture. In 1994, suffering from AIDS, Wong donated his collection to the Museum of the City of New York and returned to his hometown, San Francisco, where he died in 1999.

City as Canvas
Keith Haring in Martin Wong Collection

City as Canvas

City as Canvas explores the cultural phenomenon of NYC graffiti art, beginning with historical photographs of graffiti long erased from subways and buildings, and diving into paintings and sketchbooks collected by Martin Wong. Graffiti emerged as a powerful form of self-expression in NYC in the 1970s. It bloomed in the 1970s and early ‘80s because the nearly bankrupt city government lacked the resources to stop it. The exhibition traces the evolution of the NYC graffiti art movement at a moment when street art has emerged as an important part of the dialogue about art in public space. It also highlights the vibrant colors, varying techniques, and personal styles that vividly reflect the culture and social pressures of the era.