Vittorio Parisi's "Graffiti Writing as Painting: The Word of Futura 2000"
Some decades have already passed since New York graffti writing crossed the threshold between its original condition as a marginal practice and the institutional art world. Tags have progressively transitioned from walls and trains to canvases during the Seventies, while the Eighties saw American and European art galleries – like Sidney Janis in New York, Willem Speerstra in Monaco, or Agnes b. in Paris – growing a genuine interest towards the graffti phenomenon. The same can be said for museum shows, and one can think of 1981 legendary New York/New Wave at MoMA PS1, Graffti at the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam in 1983, or Arte di Frontiera at the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Bologna in 1984. Such events gave a fundamental boost to graffiti’s historicization: a process that is still ongoing, as evidenced by the number of retrospective exhibitions that have been organized worldwide throughout the last decade, from Paris (Né dans la rue at the Fondation Cartier in 2009; Le Pressionnisme at the Pinacothèque in 2015) to New York (City As Canvas at the Museum of the City of New York, 2014), from Los Angeles (Art in the Street at the MOCA, 2010) to Venice (The Bridges of Gra ti at the 56th Biennale, 2015).
Despite the history of New York graffiti has been widely documented and told, it looks like a proper recognition by the institutional art world has not been fully accomplished, or at least that museums, researchers and critics are still too centered on gra ti’s ethnographic, social and political aspects (its origins in the suburbs, its function as a tool of space reappropriation, its ambiguous relationship to the white cube among others) rather than on its formal and aesthetic values.
Yet the latter do exist and should not be left unexplored, for they are worth being situated within a wider narrative: the history of painting in the late Twentieth Century. In order to explore such values and to properly relocate gra ti writing in history, it is necessary to retrace the production of some of its protagonists and greatest innovators. FUTURA 2000 is undoubtedly one of those.
Grown up in the Upper West Side, FUTURA 2000 has often claimed himself stylistically indebted to graffiti pioneers such as STAY HIGH 149 and PHASE II, who were already active in 1971 when the former made the discovery of tags along the subway line IRT1. Both the artists were leading figures of a first, pivotal transformation occurred in those early years: being born as a sort of competitive game, mostly consisting in compulsively signing walls and trains with pseudonyms, gra ti evolved quickly thanks to them into an actual expressive practice, grounded on the search for an original and inimitable graphic style. At the increase of the spray can’s mastery, the letters that composed tags began to gain volume and shades of color, they developed flourishes, arabesques and other ornamental motifs like sparks, drops, arrows or characters borrowed from the world of comics and cartoons. By the end of the Eighties, tagging had reached its highest level of complexity, the so-called wildstyle, of which PHASE II was one of the first and greatest interpreters ever. We owe to FUTURA 2000 a di erent kind of transformation, actually a paradigm shift: gra ti writing moved from being essentially an “art of the signature” and became a true form of painting. But let us put some order in such a process and focus for one moment on the relationship existing between art and signatures.
As recalled by André Chastel in his 1974 essay Signature et signe, from the Renaissance to the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, signature had become a constant element in paintings. Nevertheless, it has almost always played an accessory and rather standardized role in the composition of the work: signatures were born to affirm and certify the painter’s individuality and authoriality, and they usually add nothing to the artwork’s subject, nor to its aesthetic balance, although in some cases they ended up becoming iconic – think of artists like Monet, the Futurists or Duchamp, among others. In such sense, the emergence of gra ti writing represents a curious short-circuit in the history of art, for it innovated the function of the signature in the economy of the artwork: no longer an accessory element to the content, signature became the actual subject of the work. In other words: signature is the work. Accidentally introduced by gra ti writing, such an identity between signature and artwork is as curious as unprecedented. During his first years as a writer, FUTURA 2000 was no exception to this strict rule, and from 1971 to 1974, right before joining the Navy, he essentially produced “signature works”: tags, throws, street pieces on walls and trains. But how can we define a signature? Despite being a daily act among the most ordinary, the apparent banality of signing is worth a philosophical investigation. In his theory of documentality, the Italian philosopher Maurizio Ferraris attributes to the signature a certain amount of qualities. He says, for instance, that: “Much more than names, signatures attest a continuity with authors, and it seems like they give us a part of them”, and that “We can enjoy the e ect of signing even by partially or totally ignoring, the name”. In signatures, he adds, “names are purely accidental”. Effectively, when we write down our name, we do it alphabetically, while when signing, we do it graphically: in the first case, our recipient will have to read letters, but what they will have to decode in our signature is mainly our style. We all do the same when we are in front of a tag, or a throw-up, or a street piece: we do not really need to read a name, we need to decode a style. It may appear self- evident that, despite being composed of letters, a tag works less as a literal-alphabetical phenomenon than as a purely visual phenomenon. “In many signatures, names are absolutely unreadable”, says again Ferraris, and the same is true when speaking about gra ti writing, particularly in the case of wildstyle, where lettering becomes so unreadable that the artwork moves towards abstraction.
Once back from his military experience, FUTURA 2000 resumed his activity and by the early Eighties he put into practice the transformation we were talking about: not a transition to wildstyle, as it was usual at the time, but a transition to abstract painting, in which signature shrinks, steps aside and comes back to its former, accessory role. This process is evidenced by two examples in particular. One is a piece made on a wall in Amsterdam, in which the work still coincides with a semblance of signature, yet the latter appears as “disintegrated”, broken into many, scattered fragments and crossed by lines, spots, and flashes: all of these are constitutional elements in FUTURA 2000’s style. The second example is unanimously considered as the real turning point in the production of the artist: a whole car piece known as Break and executed on a train then photographed by Martha Cooper. Here, signature has left the main place in favor all those stylistic elements that make the hand of FUTURA 2000 recognizable: a unique metamorphosis of chromatic halos, interrupted by the only one figurative element – a sort of wall crack in the middle of the car, which gives the artwork its name.
Quoted by Ivor Miller, FUTURA 2000 commented on that specific work: “I don’t need to see FUTURA here, now I want to see just color. I want to see a couple of design elements that people would put into their pieces, and see what does that hold for us. Is that interesting? And it was, it was almost a painting”.
The visual metamorphosis that took place on that wagon can be symbolically read as a more important one: a metamorphosis that concerns the whole graffiti world, sanctioning its consecration as a pictorial practice in all respects. In fact, in the short but significant history of New York graffti, Break represents a point where, for the very first time, writing gives up its alphabetic nature in the name of pure style, thus entering a much wider history: the history of pictorial avant-gardes where – as observed by Arthur C. Danto – from Manet onwards art becomes more and more self-referential and starts reflecting on itself and on its own technical and expressive possibilities. Be it on walls or canvases, FUTURA 2000’s greatest contribution to such a history is that he has “ennobled” spray paint and given it the same dignity of the paintbrush, thus allowing graffiti writing to explore and exceed its own limits. Indeed, he emphasized and took advantage of a power that is peculiar to the spray can and out of the brush’s reach: the pulverization of color, which allows the writer- painter to play with transparencies, to superimpose perfectly sharp lines to rarefied backgrounds, in an ethereal balance where flou pictorial elements and ornamental elements alternate each other with luminous voids and smoky areas.
Many critics in the past have approached FUTURA 2000’s name and style to that of prestigious artists and their styles: above all to Wassily Kandinsky’s abstractionism, or to abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock. Richard Goldstein and Joe Lewis have particularly insisted on the comparison with the Russian painter, both from an aesthetic and conceptual point of view: Lewis emphasized the role played by music – Schönberg’s for Kandinsky, The Clash’s for FUTURA 2000 – in the creative and pictorial process; on the other hand, from the columns of the Village Voice in 1980, Goldstein argued that the “clusters of circles” in FUTURA 2000’s works “clearly suggest Kandinsky perhaps because that’s where Futura first encountered these shapes”. Yet the artist himself has stated, as Margo Thompson reports, that he first saw a painting by Kandinsky only several years later.
Such comparisons are actually misleading and sound more like clumsy attempts to“dignify” graffiti writing by using categories that are completely unrelated to it. Both the cultivated, early Twentieth-century paintings produced by Kandinsky and the jazzy, white cube pieces by Jackson Pollock do not have anything comparable with the art produced by FUTURA 2000, simply because the latter comes from a completely different world. FUTURA 2000’s abstractionism is, in fact, the product of an urban and post-industrial society: a society – as observed by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre – which has generated segregative and dysfunctional ways of living, and where graffiti writing was born to a rm the right to public space in an unprecedented, playful and creative way. FUTURA 2000’s abstractionism comes from non-places and non-surfaces, from sparks and puddles, from cracks on walls and fumes rising from departing trains; it comes from the mechanical and metallic noises that resonate from the contact between rails and wagons; it comes from the comics and the cartoons which nourished the young writers’ imagination, from the science-fiction mythologies derived by the conquest of space as well as from new dystopias generated by the nuclear threat. We have already seen it: be it in the street or on canvas, FUTURA 2000’s abstractionism undergoes the interference of several ornamental elements that help us deciphering the artist’s origins and situate them in this very world and in this very imagery.
Such elements can take the form of masts or crane boomsA , of gears and circular saw bladesB, of atomsC and spacecraftD, of spray cansE and aliens (the so-called “Pointman”) : although coming from urban everyday life and from the imaginary of comics and cartoons, they should not mislead us to ascribe FUTURA 2000’s art – and the whole graffiti movement with it – to pop art. The latter was born in fact with a precise conceptual agenda, aimed at turning commonplace – be it a supermarket product or a comic character – into a subject worthy of aesthetic appreciation. In graffiti writing, and more than everywhere else in FUTURA 2000’s urban abstractionism, that same commonplace plays a completely different role: not simply contents, nor statement in some kind of artistic manifesto, but the true “matter” from which – as Heidegger puts it in the quote that introduces this text – the work of art draws on and succeeds in “opening up a region” and in “setting up a world”. When acting as original, constitutive elements of a work of art, mundane things like those we have enumerated cease to exist as commonplace, and start revealing what, in truth, the world they come from is a post-industrial urban world and the non-places it has generated.
Heidegger called such a process“unconcealment”, and it concerns FUTURA 2000’s art as well, for it gives us the opportunity to transcend the categories through which we usually consider graffiti. In other words, it allows us to look through graffiti’s ethnographic, social and political aspects, and to see the formal and the aesthetic values hiding behind them. For revealing such a world like few others did, and for having re- invented graffiti writing as painting, FUTURA 2000 is one of those artists that today’s institutions – museums, research centers and criticism above all – should reconsider as the turning point in a new comprehension of the history of graffiti writing.