Flyboy in the Buttermilk
I can safely say that Jean scoffed at the term graffiti when applied to himself. --Rene Ricard
The creative period of New York graffiti art lasted for about a decade, beginning with the appearance all over Upper West Side walls and sidewalks of "TAKI 183" in 1971 and culminating, around 1980, in the realization of spectacular works by individual masters that covered the sides of subway cars. The artists called themselves "writers," and their primary works were alphanumeric signatures, or "tags," executed in fonts of singular originality, occasionally illuminated with vernacular images poached from comics or from recent art history. I suppose the closest analogy would be the creation of intricate capital letters by Celtic scribes in such works as the Book of Kells. Seldom has a movement gone so far so fast. The illustrations in a book like The Faith of Graffiti, published in 1974, show tags that have evolved well beyond TAKI 183, but scarcely prepare one for the baroque splendor of those in Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant's 1984 edited collection Subway Art, most of which were executed around 1980. Subway Art ends with an inscribed rap epitaph by the writer Lee Quinones in relatively straightforward lettering: "There was once a time when the Lexington was a beautiful line/When children of the ghetto expressed with art, not with crime...."
The centrality of the signature is easily grasped, since the primary goal of graffiti was "getting fame," and the subway car--or "burner"--offered a billboard-size surface with the added advantage of mobility. Glory consisted in the abrupt emergence of one's freshly painted tag from a tunnel's darkness onto a viaduct, like the one across 125th Street. The primary audience consisted of other writers, who knew one's identity, appreciated the dangers involved in "getting up" and admired the artistry and originality of one's achievement. In a recent letter, Tony Silver--who made a wonderful documentary with Chalfant, Style Wars--wrote, "I liked the idea that the transgressive writers with no consciousness of the art world had taken over public space as vandals with their tags and burners, and discovered they could be artists, creating their own canon."
When I asked Silver why Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was something of a graffitero in the early 1980s, was not included among the writers in his film, he said that he could not fit him in. Despite the fact that Basquiat worked as a street artist for a time and even had a tag--SAMO--he viewed himself, from the outset, as a fine artist, and the unprecedented art world of the 1980s rightly accepted him on his own terms, though the outlaw aura of graffiti probably abetted his meteoric ascent. By 1984 some of the writers were trying to cross over into the gallery scene, but it proved impossible to sustain the energy that had made them underground stars. Basquiat, however, flourished in the downtown art world. In May of that same year, he had his first one-person show at Mary Boone, one of the hottest galleries of that moment, and was included in "An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture," with which the Museum of Modern Art inaugurated its 1984 reopening. He had re-created on canvas the visceral excitement other writers achieved only in the rail yards of the MTA.
Though writing was an important feature of Basquiat's art, he is closer to Cy Twombly than to CRASH or DAZE, who showed at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1984. Graffiti, even at its most inspired, really belongs to the visual culture of the early 1980s, whereas Basquiat's work, for all its graffiti gestures, belongs with the art of that decade. And while he sought fame as eagerly as the uptown writers, he was after the kind of recognition that the establishment alone confers, not the ephemeral celebration of co-conspirators in an underground network. Moreover, fame was not the substance of his art, as it was in the art of the writers. Like artists in any period, he was concerned with what Hegel would call the highest needs of the spirit. Basquiat's painting was close to the best the art world had to offer in his day, and his achievement only grows more impressive with time, as is evident in the powerful retrospective of his work at the Brooklyn Museum, a short walk from where he grew up. The show is up through June 5, after which it goes to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (July 17-October 10) and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (November 18-February 12, 2006).