New York

Henry Flynt

Emily Harvey Gallery

SAMO© appeared as a cryptic message scrawled across the sides of buildings and trucks in downtown Manhattan as the ’70s drew to a close, and Henry Flynt photographed the graffiti because it must have moved him somehow. Eleven years later, after the rise and fall of the ’80s art boom and the death of SAMO©’s primary creator, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flynt’s images function as documents of a moment in recent art history.

Straight photography is quite a leap for Flynt. Based on difficult principles of mathematics and optics, the work of this early Conceptual artist is known for its stubborn obscurity. Flynt has adamantly remained an outsider, and he offered a challenge to Conceptual artists as recently as last year in the form of full-page ads in two of the major art magazines.

What made Flynt document the SAMO© graffiti must have been the recognition of an important force at work in the conceptualization of SAMO© itself. Using the guerrilla tactics of the hit-and-run graffiti artists, SAMO© sent out unsettling, funny little messages to the urban pedestrian: “SAMO . . . /AS AN ALTER-/NATIVE TO/BULLSHIT/FAKE HIPPY/WHACK/CHEER. . . .” “SAMO© . . . AS AN END/2 NINE-2-FIVE/NONSENSE . . . /WASTIN YOUR LIFE/2 MAKE ENDS/MEET . . . TO GO HOME/AT NIGHT TO YOUR/COLOR T.V. . . .”

SAMO© billed itself as a brand-name drug that provided salvation upon ingestion; it constituted a slippery alternative to predictable, everyday life in the real capitalist world. SAMO© possessed a sharp sense of sarcasm and irony, but SAMO© was also poetic. “(SAMO©) A PIN DROPS/LIKE A PUNGENT ODOR.” SAMO© was mean and cool and a little megalomaniacal: “SAMO© IS ALL,” or “SAMO© . . . AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO/THE ‘MEAT RACK’ ARTEEST ON DISPLAY . . . /‘COME HOME WITH ME TONITE’/& I’M A DIVORCEE BLUES.”

Flynt was obviously fascinated by the literary skill and signifying cool of SAMO© as a public event that had no ambitions to inscribe itself anywhere but outside and on the street. Luckily for us, Flynt documented these unsigned public inscriptions. Seeing them now, they remind us of the energy of the streets that fed Basquiat’s work throughout his short career, even as he was being swallowed whole by the art world. SAMO© provides eloquent testimony to the fact that critique can be fun, and bad, and poetic all at the same time.

This show was not only archival. It was an instance of one artist paying homage to the creative and anarchic spirit of a phenomenon that refused to acknowledge a normative, organizing concept of authorship. Other graffiti artists were to assume the SAMO© title, and Basquiat incorporated the SAMO© inscription in his paintings. It is good to see that Flynt was able to acknowledge SAMO©: it is a sign that artists do not have to submit to the tunnel vision of careerist ambition that became the dominant force fueling the ’80s art world. SAMO© saw itself as a beginning and an end. It marked a signifying moment in art production; “SAMO© AS AN/END 2 THE/NEON FANTASY/CAL LED ‘LIFE.’” SAMO© fused spirituality, blues, Dada, Prince, Mallarmé, and drugs. Thanks to Henry Flynt we can all find an affirmative alternative to the “9-TO-5, WENT 2 COLLEGE/NOT 2-NITE HONEY BLUES. . . .” This is “SAMO© 4-U.”

Catherine Liu