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Fondation Cartier Brings to Light the Extraordinary Development of Graffiti
Today, graffiti has entered the cultural mainstream, crossing over to the realms of studio art, design and advertising.

PARIS.- The Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain presents Born in the Streets—Graffiti, on view from July 7 to November 29, 2009. Occupying the entire gallery space of the Fondation Cartier, as well as the building’s façade and surrounding garden, the exhibition brings to light the extraordinary development of an artistic movement that was born in the streets of New York in the early 1970s to rapidly become a worldwide phenomenon.

Today, graffiti has entered the cultural mainstream, crossing over to the realms of studio art, design and advertising. Yet, despite its immense popularity, this essentially illegal activity continues to evolve at the periphery of the contemporary art world, its origins and history little-known to the general public. This exhibition attempts to sketch the general contours of a subject that is vast and complex, a form of expression that has come to embrace many different techniques, ideas and styles.

The exhibition traces the origins of the graffiti movement while offering a panorama of the diversity of contemporary writing. It provides the public with the opportunity to rediscover an art both ubiquitous and continually evolving, and thus relate to the city in a new way.

Though the origins of graffiti can be traced to other major American cities, this mode of expression gained its true momentum in the New York of the early 1970s, in the streets of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn.

Unlike previous types of writing on public walls, New York graffiti exploded throughout the city, evolving and developing rapidly, before entering the art world to become a media sensation. The first section of the exhibition traces the history of this cultural movement, from its beginnings to its global expansion and eventual recognition by the contemporary art world. It also presents some of the styles and techniques of graffiti writing, as well as the many key figures who contributed to its explosive development.

It all began in New York in the late 1960s. In a city on the verge of bankruptcy, teenagers began to write their names on walls and buses. Written with markers, and then spray paint, these signatures quickly spread throughout the city. This activity, called “writing”, attracted new followers every day. Coming primarily from the working-class Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, and later from the Bronx, and Brooklyn, they were for the most part between the ages of 14 and 16, and belonged to the Hispanic and African-American communities.

The movement began with the “tag”, meaning a signature consisting of a writer’s pseudonym, often accompanied by the number of his or her street address. Julio 204, Taki 183, and Joe 182, like many others, aimed to spread their name as far across the city as possible. As early as 1971, in order to increase their visibility, writers chose the subway as their primary canvas. Initially, tags were confined to the interior of the car but, little by little, they found themselves on the train’s exterior, to be seen by commuters, pedestrians and most importantly, other writers. In order to distinguish themselves from one another, writers began to develop individual styles using original calligraphies for which they gained recognition. The simple tag soon evolved into a large outline that was later filled with patterns such as polka dots, stars, and arrows. Paintings such as these, which could also include comic book-inspired characters, were sometimes called “masterpieces”.

Later, the paintings increased in size to the point where they covered the entire exterior of the subway train, the first “whole-cars” appearing in 1974. Sketching in their black books, graffiti artists experimented with lines, shapes and patterns, carefully preparing the works they would paint on the trains. Faced with difficult and dangerous conditions, working often at night, in guarded train yards with little distance to view their work, the writers acquired great agility and a technical mastery of their medium. The stylistic approaches of great writers such as P.H.A.S.E. 2, Blade, Kase 2 and Dondi definitively left their mark on the movement, enriching it over the years with formal innovations.

The many documents presented within this exhibition—the photographs of Jon Naar, Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper, and Flint Gennari, Coco 144’s previously unseen interviews with graffiti pioneers, the rare archives of Jack Stewart, and numerous films from the period—provide an exceptional account of this essentially ephemeral art form. The Fondation Cartier has commissioned three of the period’s most significant pioneers —P.H.A.S.E. 2, Part One, and Seen—to create monumental, large-scale wall pieces within the gallery space. These works, created specifically for the gallery space, reveal the significance of graffiti’s beginnings in New York, reaffirming the great vitality of the movement throughout its 40 year history.

The late 1970s and early 1980s was a period of significant transition within the graffiti movement, a period in which it gained recognition as part of a larger culture and moved beyond the city limits and the nation’s borders. The art world began to take an interest in graffiti with new galleries opening dedicated almost exclusively to graffiti artists.

Stefan Eins’ Fashion Moda (1978), one of the only galleries located in the Bronx, and Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery (1981) in the Lower East Side exhibited the first canvases of Lee, Dondi, Fab Five Freddy, Futura, Lady Pink, Crash, Daze, and many others. Working in studios, many writers started to experiment with new techniques and media. As a result, European galleries and institutions took an interest in their work and invited them to exhibit their art abroad. Simultaneously, others artists inspired by the explosive energy of graffiti art brought their practice to the street. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring exhibited their work alongside the writers, forging friendships and artistic connections. Though their work was visually and conceptually different, these young painters shared with the New York graffiti artists a similar relationship to the city.

The New York phenomenon became known to a larger public through films that popularized certain major figures of the movement. The film Wild Style (1982), and the documentary Style Wars (1983) revealed, in particular to teenagers, the relationships between graffiti, breakdancing, and hip-hop. Indeed, for some graffiti artists the idea of a common street culture was closely linked to their practice, while for others, the worlds of breakdancing and hip-hop were completely unrelated to their work.

Musicians coming from the punk movement also connected with the energy of the graffiti movement, leading to new artistic collaborations. Groups like Blondie and The Clash, or Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols, invited Lee, Dondi, Fab Five Freddy, or Futura to participate in their music videos.

During this same period IGTimes, the first magazine to focus on contemporary urban youth culture, was created by the artist, David Schmidlapp, later joined by P.H.A.S.E. 2 as artistic director. Its circulation was limited, but it nevertheless reached Europe where graffiti was taking its first steps, most notably in Paris, London, and Amsterdam.

During the mid-80s, the anti-graffiti crusades led by the city of New York and its transit authorities had greatly intensified, eventually pushing many writers to abandon subway painting. Since that time, graffiti writers have nonetheless continued to use the urban environment as a realm of expression and in the second half of the 1980s, a new generation of artists emerged. JonOne, West, Ghost, SaneSmith, Sento, Reas, Wane and many others, have carried on the flame of their predecessors, inheriting their struggle with the authorities while continuing to change the visual landscape of the city.

In order to demonstrate the contemporary vitality of graffiti as well as its diversity of forms and styles, the Fondation Cartier has asked ten artists from different countries to create works and ephemeral installations specifically for the exhibition.

Chosen for the singularity of their approach and the force of their artistic vision, Basco Vazko, Cripta, JonOne, Olivier Kosta-Théfaine, Barry McGee, Nug, Evan Roth, Boris Tellegen/Delta, Vitché, and Gérard Zlotykamien present their work within the Fondation Cartier’s gallery spaces as well as on its glass façade.

In collaboration with the Association le M.U.R., the Fondation Cartier has also invitedartists to create large-scale posters, in the presence of the public, every first weekend of the month. These posters are exhibited at the Fondation Cartier for one month before being moved to the billboard of the association, located at the intersection of the Saint-Maur and Oberkampf streets in Paris. The artists participating in the project include Alexöne, the collectif 1980, Fancie, Jean Faucheur and WK Interact, Honet, NP 77, Poch, RCF 1, Sun7, and Tom Tom. In addition, L’Atlas, DTagno and Yseult have been invited to create unique and temporary works for the garden of the Fondation Cartier.

Through an important program of documentaries and films, the exhibition also shows how graffiti is practiced within the urban environment. These films focus on graffiti in action and bring to light the great variety of current writing styles and techniques. The documentary, Pixo, screened for the first time in the exhibition, presents an extraordinary form of graffiti that has developed uniquely in Brazil, known as pixação. In addition Agnès Varda’s film Murs Murs, screened twice a week, provides the opportunity to discover the muralists of Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1980s. From São Paulo to Amsterdam, San Francisco to Paris, graffiti today continues to evolve, adopting new forms and modes of expression.

Fondation Cartier | Manhattan | Bronx | Brooklyn | Jon Naar | Henry Chalfant | Martha Cooper | Flint Gennari |

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