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Museum of the City of New York Opens 'CITY AS CANVAS: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection' Today

The Museum of the City of New York announces City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection, the first exhibition of the treasure trove of 1970s and '80s graffiti art amassed by artist and pioneering collector Martin Wong, who donated the entire collection to the City Museum in 1994. The exhibition features seminal paintings and "black book" sketches by DAZE (Chris Ellis), DONDI (Donald White), FUTURA 2000 (Leonard McGurr), Keith Haring, LADY PINK (Sandra Fabara), LEE (Lee Quiñones), RAMMELLZEE, SHARP (Aaron Goodstone), ZEPHYR (Andrew Witten), and many more New York graffiti artists, as well as photographs by Charlie Ahearn, Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper, and others that show the era's graffiti-covered subways and buildings. City as Canvas will open today, February 4, 2014, and remain on view until Sunday, August 24, 2014.

City as Canvas explores the cultural phenomenon of New York City graffiti art, beginning with historical photographs of graffiti long erased from subways and buildings, and delving into paintings and sketchbooks collected by Martin Wong (1946-1999). Graffiti emerged as a powerful form of self-expression in New York City in the 1970s. With Wong and his friends at its epicenter, the movement evolved from illicit expressions on subway cars and station walls, to colorful paintings embraced as valuable works of art by collectors and patrons from the Downtown scene of the 1980s.

Wong was drawn to the ubiquitous graffiti writing he saw all over New York City when he moved from San Francisco in 1978. While working at Pearl Paint, an art supply store on Canal Street in Manhattan, he befriended New York City graffiti writers, many of whom were teenagers. At a time when others saw graffiti as an urban blight, Wong recognized the artistic and cultural value of his friends' work, which he began collecting through purchase or trade. The resulting collection features 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. Interested in keeping the entire collection intact, Wong donated it to the City Museum in 1994 before returning to San Francisco, where he remained an active artist and friend of graffiti artists until his death from AIDS in 1999.

With nearly 150 works from Wong's collection on display, many of which were restored for this exhibition, City As Canvas highlights the vibrant colors, varying techniques, and personal styles that vividly reflect the culture and social pressures of the era. The exhibition also traces the evolution of the New York graffiti art movement at a moment when street art has emerged as an important part of the dialogue about art in public space. As revealed by the intense public reaction to Banksy's month-long New York "residency" in October, 2013 and the sudden whitewashing of Long Island City's legendary 5Pointz facade one month later, graffiti continues to elicit passionate emotions-both positive and negative-while fascinating New Yorkers and visitors from around the world.

"Graffiti art is now widely admired, but many questioned its merits during the movement's development in the 1970s. Martin Wong had the foresight to collect graffiti art and advocate for young 'writers,' just as New York City's street art scene was on the cusp of gaining international prominence," said Susan Henshaw Jones, the Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York. "Understanding the importance of graffiti as an urban statement, the City Museum embraced the opportunity to acquire Martin Wong's collection, which included many works by artists living just blocks away. We're thrilled to show this rare collection for the first time since Wong donated it 20 years ago."

Exhibition highlights include:

  • Mixed media works on canvas, cardboard, paper, and plywood by icons of the New York graffiti art movement. Among the works featured are DAZE's Transition (1982), LADY PINK's The Death of Graffiti (1982), LEE's Howard the Duck (1988), a vivid oil painting of the artist's massive handball court mural, created 10 years earlier and since destroyed, at Corlears Junior High School on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
  • Historical photographs by Charlie Ahearn, Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper, Jon Naar, and Jack Stewart that document New York's graffiti art movement in 1970s and '80s. Included are Martha Cooper's full-color portraits of graffiti artists standing in front of their work, drawing in their sketchbooks, and breaking into subway layups (side tracks used for storage), as well as her landscape images of graffiti-covered subway trains rumbling through the city.
  • Black book drawings by DONDI, RIFF 170, WICKED GARY (Gary Fritz), and others. The only museum collection like it in the world, the sketchbook drawings illustrate not only the artists' process and style, but the various purposes the black books served. In addition to sketching ideas for large works on subways and buildings, graffiti artists circulated their black books among friends to share drawings and lettering styles with one another.

Complementing the black books is Wicked Gary's Tag Collection (1970-72), a large work that showcases ink-drawn "tags," or signatures used by more than 70 graffiti artists. The work functions as a who's who of New York graffiti writers, and includes tags by the movement's pioneers such as PHASE II, COCO 144, and SNAKE I (Eddie Rodriguez).

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