Phillips: 1970S / GRAFFITI / TODAY

Written by Kurt Boone

At Phillips New York, a new, opulent gallery space situated at the ultra-luxury high rise condominium 432 Park Ave. The top auction house put on view from January 13 – February 20, 2022  an impressive graffiti arts exhibition.  For this show, Phillips exhibited a time capsule of the graffiti and street art movement with works from 1970’s to present day through various medium from canvases to black books sketches to photographs and sculptors. Some of the artworks in exhibition were also on loan from the Sidney Janis collection at the Brooklyn Museum.

Art by Risk

Prices ranged from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars and more.  All the artists in exhibition were world renowned in the graffiti arts movement: Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Chaz Bojorquez, Julius “Tkid” Cavero”, Lee Quinones, Futura 2000, Eric Haze, Petal, Retna, Dondi White, Linus Coraggio, Fred Brathwaite aka Fab 5 Freddy, Melvin Samuel Jr. aka NOC, David Schmidlapp and Phase 2, Kaws, John Matos aka Crash, Chris Ellis aka Daze, Augustine Kofie, Espo (Stephen Powers), Margaret Kilgallen, King Saladeen, Caledonia Curry/Swoon, Lady Pink, Faile, Risk, Mister Cartoon, Torrick Ablack aka Toxic, Al Diaz, Eklips and Krush.

Art by Faile

It also featured the photography of Martha Cooper, Cheryl Dunn, Gusmano Cesaretti and Steve Grody.  Beside each photograph, curator Arnoeld Lehman put up captions explaining their significance in documenting graffiti history. There were so many outstanding works of arts I couldn’t pick one to highlight. Have a look at the extensive photo gallery to get a view of the art.

Art by Crash

To my great fortune as a journalist for UP Magazine and the author of several books on street culture, I had the opportunity to interview the curator Arnold Lehman about the exhibition.  Below is a condensed version of the hour long interview.

UP: What does the word graffiti mean to you?

Lehman: I think of graffiti as a loose definition.  In our show I pointed out the difference between what I see between graffiti and street art.  Graffiti most of it is about the anti-authoritarian view expressing issues, attitudes, concerns that comes from economic bases that is struggling.  With street art I always believe it’s more provocative and aims to do something specific. But think that both – some people incorporate street art under graffiti other people incorporate graffiti under street art.  I think it doesn’t matter.  As long as we all get a chance to see it.

UP: Why do you consider graffiti a contemporary art form?

Lehman: I think it’s an art movement.  Many graffiti artists used the word movement.  And I think the issue there is that it expresses a time and a place and a kinda approach to art which was a very public approach different than abstract expressionists or pop artists or minimalist artists. In a way, it’s closer to performance art.  But I think performance art is perhaps the closest relationship that another art movement might have during this past century.  And of course, performance art continues.  And in its own way graffiti continues today, it continues more as internal expression on canvases, on panels that can be shown in galleries and museums and auction houses, but I think all these artists who many are self-taught but others who went to art school and most have a deep appreciation of the variety of art movements.  That has come up from the 1950’s to present day. And so while others may choose to denigrate graffiti, I think they have to look twice or maybe even three times to see that there’s great value in what many of these artists have done. We’re lucky that at least the photographs of so much of this survive and tell the history of this movement.  And now of course since 1980’s until today, we have the canvases, drawings, the black book sketches that also reveal this history.  So, with that much going on I don’t see how you wouldn’t define this as movement in its own right.

UP: What do you hope visitors and collectors take away from the exhibition?

Lehman: Primarily a better understanding what graffiti is, where it came from and how it evolved over the past 50 years.  That is a group of works of art and artists that should be valued in our society.  That’s what I hope they’re thinking about a year from now evne after the exhibit is over. All collectors need to do is look on their living room walls or walls in their apartment or their home and look at the works that they bought from the exhibition.  They don’t have to think about it.  They can look at it on their own walls.

Cover image is by Julius “TKid” Cavero.