New York

“Post-Graffiti”

Sidney Janis Gallery

A seductive neologism, this show’s title soon palled, deluding the viewer. Whatever it might have meant of a rupture in stance or sensibility was negated, for “Post-Graffiti,” to judge from the catalogue blurb, denoted a simple shift from subway to canvas, from impermanence to permanence, from the milieu of the street to that of the museum or gallery. It signaled, then, a change in material ground, serving to legally and artistically legitimize what was once “outsider” art. Not that the emergence of graffiti in this spatial and cultural situation is unprecedented, as Keith Haring’s and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s careers and the profusion of group shows attest. But the marketing of this transition as a movement, authenticated by milieu, by support, by catalogue and historical sources —to say nothing of Sidney Janis’ elegant holiday card designed by Crash—smacked of something new. Unhappily, if not unexpectedly, the show fell flat on its back.

I confess to finding graffiti less an urban blight than a city bliss, and to viewing the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority’s white Bauhausization of trains as intruding on my daily pleasures. Similarly, some of the work here had a cultural impetus and a verve that survived the trip up the street. But this amalgam of work by 17 artists suggested-a self-consciousness accompanying the market transition. What had had raw vitality, a rugged vibrancy in its native locale, acquired a forced immediacy and studied nonchalance; the translation onto unstretched or often stretched canvas neutralized it into a sequence of effects. We saw only the whoosh! of shapes jostling in etiolated space, zapped with razzle-dazzle hues and cut through by calligraphic line. The number of homages to the graffitor, figuring the maestro armed with spray can, reflected precisely that sense of pose. I suspect that some of the problem lay in the change of scale, in the transition from the groundscape of the subway surface to the marked confines of the canvas. The shift in composition, and in structural focus, made the urban scrawl seem mismatched to its frame. But I also suspect that much of this work has little to say, or little that is articulate beyond its context. A-One trafficks in complex illusionistic effects, in dizzying signs of motion and eye-popping, jumbled hues, but what does Train Art, 1983, really mean outside the subway? Crash is an inspired cartoonist, a sort of Roy Lichtenstein slumming in the bowels of the earth, but his work became a weak Pop parody in the gallery’s domesticated confines. These works testified to the apotheosis of a look: they backfired in their bombast, like a spray can exploding in your face.

“Post-Graffiti” transformed the original issue of language into lingo. The urban script that would absorb and translate the surge in indigenous culture, encompassing street violence and the break dancer’s rhythm, urban decay and sci-fi fantasy, became a composite of stereotypical signs; it doubled back on itself into a sequence of codes. Similarly the graphic tag, once condemned to mortality, was metamorphosed into the signature, an enduring auratic presence. With estheticization entered artistic allusions. Noc 167’s bodies evoke classical nudes, while Rammellzee’s Counter Launch, 1983, appears a Mark Tobey intermeshed with Larry Poons. And ever-insinuant was the urge to historicize, to intercalate this work within the fabric of “tradition.” The word, indeed, was the hallucination of the show. The artists repeat it in their catalogue statements and in their arty references, while Sidney Janis sees graffiti as continuing the “tradition of Pop Art.” Such painting, he says, “no longer transitory or ephemeral,” now “joins the tradition of contemporary art,” insuring its easy lodging in the museum. Collector Dolores Neumann, doyenne of the show, speaks of it as evolving from “youthful folk-art graffiti.” And Marc Brasz sees his work as linking up with everything, from the now obligatory references (“TV, magazines, the comics and films”) to “Pop Art and Photo-realism,” but fundamentally to “the South Bronx Graffiti tradition.” What you got from his work was that it didn’t belong in the show at all, being a kind of pedestrian realism void of the graffitist’s calligraphic wit.

Kate Linker