Like many people, Jeffrey Deitch came to Los Angeles with a dream.
Yes, the troubled Museum of Contemporary Art appointed him its director to help stave off financial ruin. And yes, Deitch had cutting-edge ideas on how to bring new audiences into the institution.
But one idea in particular had been brewing for more than a decade: a groundbreaking exhibition of street art, the most ambitious show of its kind ever mounted in the United States.
For the show’s elaborate opening act, he commissioned a young, exciting international talent to make the entire north wall of MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary his canvas. It was a bold move — and it was where the reality of street art began to collide with Deitch’s dream exhibition.
Enter the Italian muralist Blu, who created a mural of coffins draped in dollar bills in December. Unsanctioned by the museum and started in his absence, Deitch found it insensitive to the surrounding Little Tokyo neighborhood and the nearby veterans’ memorial, and ordered it painted over.
As Deitch explained in a recent interview with L.A. Weekly, “Blu’s idea when he is invited to do a wall is an opportunity to create a challenging, troublesome situation, not thinking that he’s one of 100-plus people in a joint effort — the point being to come together to make this a bigger thing for everybody, not to do something that undermines the whole project.”
Destruction of the mural brought a thunderstorm of protest from some fans of street art. Others understood that if you choose to do art paid for by an institution, you have to play nice.
This now-familiar saga was only one of many headaches Deitch endured in creating “Art in the Streets,” which opens April 17. Deitch knew the show would be revolutionary, but corralling art world agitators who have little museum experience, few records of their past projects and a general disregard for authority is a tall order for anyone.
The street artists and their fans have had their own anxieties about MOCA treading on their hallowed ground. Whenever a public institution attempts to define a cultural shift, it could very well become an instant cliché.
But when a major museum director offers to shine a light on an outsider movement that’s been waiting to take its deserved place in art history, it’s hard to reject the invitation, especially when he includes street-savvy co-curators Roger Gastman and Aaron Rose. And while the Blu controversy caused biters to question whether Deitch is fit to shepherd the country’s first major street-art and graffiti retrospective, he is the only man who could have made it happen.
Despite his accomplishments in the art world, Deitch is an outsider to museums, much like the talent featured in “Art in the Streets.” Before his controversial appointment as head of MOCA, in January 2010, the workaholic art dealer and his influential New York gallery, Deitch Projects, helped shape the futures of such contemporary art juggernauts as Barry McGee, Kehinde Wiley and Chris Johanson.
Deitch understands not only art as art but art as business. He’s a Harvard MBA who wears handmade suits yet still has the street skills to blend easily with the artists he champions. He has counted Basquiat, Haring, Scharf and Schnabel as friends.
Saturday nights on Lower Manhattan’s Wooster Street probably are quieter without his raging opening-night parties. But New York’s loss is L.A.’s gain. It’s no surprise that after he arrived in Los Angeles, Deitch wanted to stage something of a dream show that makes use of his resources and draws upon his new city’s high-caliber underground talent. To paraphrase Dr. Dre: You are about to witness the strength of street knowledge.
“One of the goals of this show is to place the best of these artists coming out of street culture into the context of contemporary art history,” Deitch explains passionately in the solitude of the MOCA reading room, where, appropriately, Warhol books are strewn about. “I don’t think that there’s some separate category — real contemporary art versus street art. ... [I want] to look at this art in a similar way as a museum looks at new abstract painting. You look for the people that are original, the innovators who have exemplary technique.”
Since the 1960s, the appeal of street art and graffiti has been the way it’s wrenched creativity away from academia and carved out a place for itself and its audience. A visual phenomenon that made its way from the subway cars of New York City to the freight yards of south Texas, this crafted conversation wasn’t judged by any existing criteria, and it appeared whether or not anyone else cared for the subject matter.
Many times, like their audience, these artists weren’t schooled in proper protocol. The work had a language of its own. It was appropriate to hang a painting over the freeway just because someone could get it there.
Later, propelled by the Internet, this young, dangerous art form became universally accessible and much more visible, to the point where England’s Banksy and Los Angeles’ own Shepard Fairey now are household names.
But the insubordination that makes street art and graffiti exciting does not make for easy curating, especially with a show of this scale.
“Museums are used to dealing with artists who behave in a museum,” Deitch says. “But here, we’re dealing with artists many of whom misbehave in a museum” — a comment that recalls Banksy’s famous 2005 trip to New York, when he covertly installed his own paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum. “It’s a handful. There are people who started this as outlaws, and still are outlaws. And some of them I tried to accommodate.”
The artists don’t disagree. In a 2007 L.A. Weekly interview, the L.A. graffiti king Revok expressed disdain for indoor exhibits. “I want to do art that you can’t avoid — not that you have to seek out,” he said. “I’m about painting walls and being out in the city, interacting with people on a daily basis.”
In a recent interview, he qualifies his earlier statement. “I hold this show in high regard,” Revok says. “My priority has always been painting in the street. And that’s graffiti in the street, not professional art in the street. But I’m honored to be included” in MOCA’s show.
Barry McGee, aka Twist, an icon from San Francisco’s Mission School, is no stranger to blue-chip art circles. “I’m glad that it’s in a museum context, at MOCA, in L.A.,” McGee says. “By bringing this stuff indoors and manicuring it to translate in a museum setting? Whew, I think by doing this you create more of an outline of the work.”
Still, the artists aren’t always used to collaboration. “Graffiti artists tend to be loners who do work for themselves,” says Lee Quinones, the New York graffiti legend and seminal Wild Style movie star. “I had to validate myself and in the eye of the public. I kept my eye on the prize as a rapid-enamelist.”
This loner quality is perhaps what instigated the Blu issue. “Here’s someone who’s basically almost never exhibited in museums, let alone galleries,” Deitch says. “He thinks in a different way. Where an artist who is in this whole art career system would be unlikely to do that.”
The Weekly was unable to reach Blu for comment.
Quinones is slated to bomb that same wall this month with “a handpicked contingency of dudes” from the “Art in the Streets” roster.
Have Blu and Deitch come to an understanding?
“I don’t know,” Deitch says. “Unfortunately, after this whole thing, we haven’t had a dialogue about it. It’s discouraging. He stayed at my house, and we had an excellent relationship. And the way we left it is, ‘Listen, we have to go back to the drawing board. This isn’t a great piece for this show, for this context,’ and I thought he understood.
“However, once this whole thing started raging, he got on the bandwagon. But it’s an example of the challenges of doing a show like this, where artists don’t understand or aren’t interested in the unspoken rules of participating in a group art exhibition.”
On a clear morning in early March, L.A. Weekly visited MOCA’s Geffen space. The gallery walls were bare with the exception of a few mural sketches, pieces started by Roa, Stelios and Chaz Bojorquez. Neckface had just begun re-constructing a version of his signature haunted house.
The Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring vintage “art cars” waited patiently in the back, wrapped in plastic. The cars are decorated with the artists’ signature characters: Haring’s Buick Special is covered in black-and-white babies, and Scharf’s psychedelic ’61 Cadillac is crawling with spacemen and 3-D toys.
The re-creation of the legendary FUN Gallery — a short-lived (1981-85) but dynamic Lower East Side street-art space that gave Jean-Michel Basquiat and Haring their first solo shows — was at this point nothing but its vivacious proprietor Patti Astor’s notes on a wall.
Co-curator Roger Gastman excitedly explains which installation goes where. Gastman started painting freight cars at age 15 in Baltimore, but has transitioned into an art-focused magazine editor, filmmaker and media consultant. This is his first turn as museum curator.
One difficulty in this exhibit, he says, was deciding who to include — an especially charged issue given the medium’s competitiveness. As Twist puts it, “Graffiti is a full-contact sport.” Many of the guys, in competition over walls and in evading the law, have endured injury, arrest, sniper fire, beat-downs and, in a few instances, death — all in the name of art. Fiercely loyal fans hold their favorite vandals close to their hearts.
“This was somebody’s glory day, like winning a sports championship, to be revered by your peers, achieve a special place in the history of your neighborhood with your talent — king of your block,” Gastman says. “It should be celebrated — the artists have earned it.”
But not every form of street art retains its impact when you remove it from its intended environment. Gastman points out that some artists, the ones who have done the most damage on the streets, are less able to translate their work to a gallery or museum setting. Much of the wow factor in street art is the prowess of placement and surprise of discovery.
Other artists — the ones with formal art educations — have spent less time working on the streets, using them as an open forum, an alternative to shopping their slides around to galleries. “From a typical curator’s perspective, it would make the most sense to pick the latter group,” Gastman says. “But for an exhibition like this, it’s extremely important to include the former group as well, so that the exhibition is an outgrowth of the streets, and reflects what is actually important outside the museum’s walls.”
“Art in the Streets” could serve to unify the old-school split between street art and graffiti. Up to now there has been a hard line between street artists who choose materials like stickers or wheat paste (slopping posters onto walls using liquid glue) and the graffiti crews who use aerosol paint to do throw-ups that highlight their tags.
“The street art that’s celebrated isn’t graffiti, it’s usually more mass-appeal stuff without its own language,” Revok says. “For purist graffiti guys, rewards aren’t commonplace, but Retna and Saber work hard to be artists, and this is long overdue.”
Quinones says he is “excited to see both entities, street art and graffiti, co-exist. One was born from the other under the same lights and cocktails. I believe complications should be left to the United Nations, not art.”
Bojorquez started his esteemed career tagging the neighborhoods on L.A.’s Eastside in 1969. A graffiti legend who’s also an art show veteran, he’s glad that the innovators of the movement are being recognized by MOCA. “This show acknowledges the old school. I didn’t think they were going to do that. All of street art is illegal and I like that. But graffiti is still its own beast.”
Still, MOCA invited only those artists who have a certain finesse. If you’re a die-hard devotee searching for a ’90s tagbanger from Portland, Ore., you may be disappointed.
“What people need to understand is that this is not a graffiti nerd show,” Deitch says. “It’s not one piece from everybody who ever worked. Some people are bound to come out and say, ‘You got the story wrong,’ or, ‘You didn’t include this person.’ Well, maybe, but this is unlike when somebody is doing a pop art show 30 years after it happened. There you’re dealing with a whole body of exhibition records and books and artists’ archives. We don’t have that here. Things come from different directions — people with good memories or fanatics with pictures, not one central place.”
Some artists who were invited, among them self-described “graffiti nerds,” were hesitant to get involved. “The common misconception here is that this show is a complete history or an L.A. graf show,” Gastman says. “It’s neither of those things. It’s 30 to 40 artists who raised the profile of an entire movement with high artistic merit. ... The participating artists were very supportive once they understood this intent. ... There is a reason and thought behind every one of the pieces included.”
While there have been comprehensive street-art shows in the recent past — the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s “Viva La Revolución: A Dialogue With the Urban Landscape,” in 2010, and the Tate Modern’s “Street Art,” in 2008 — both these shows focused on what’s happening now. “Art in the Streets,” by contrast, strives to be more of a retrospective.
Many galleries have hosted smaller street-art exhibits over the years. Aaron Rose, Deitch’s other co-curator for “Art in the Streets,” used to run New York’s Alleged gallery, an influential 300-square-foot hangout in an East Village storefront, where he gave current art superstars Fairey, Thomas Campbell and Ed Templeton early shows in the ’90s. Rose continued the party-as-art-show tradition started by Astor’s FUN Gallery in the ’80s, initially representing his friends from the skateboarding scene and helping to make art accessible to a young, detached audience.
In 2006, Rose staged a street-art museum showcase of his own called “Beautiful Losers,” a visual spectacular that included many of the artists chosen for the upcoming MOCA show. The touring exhibit hosted sold-out opening nights around the world and spawned a collectible coffee-table book and a noteworthy documentary of the same name.
Although it had some of the same talent as “Art in the Streets,” the “Beautiful Losers” show was on a much smaller scale, didn’t include graffiti and sacrificed historical perspective. “‘Beautiful Losers’ was an important exhibition at the time, and it marked a very fertile period in those artists’ lives, but everything has grown tenfold since then,” Rose says. “Street art was really still pretty underground at that time. It’s hard to say that about it now. Plus the artists have matured quite a bit since then.”
“Beautiful Losers” looked at street culture in a global, commercial sense, incorporating painting, sculpture, photography, graphics and toys. But now that street-art visuals have been incorporated into the mainstream via images in advertising, “Art in the Streets” can stick to discoveries within the form. “We’ve decided to keep the ‘street’ element defined pretty literally for MOCA, which makes sense and perhaps creates a more focused exhibition,” Rose says.
A bigger art show at a bigger art venue requires more money, of course. Even the basics need to be paid for: paint, framing, security and, in this case, possibly fines, Mean Streak markers and bail.
Typically, a museum exhibit has corporate sponsorships that underwrite its costs. Deitch acknowledges that he had difficulty presenting this idea of sponsorships to these artists as many of them, like Banksy and JR, refuse to work with corporations.
“We had dialogues to explain what we were doing with the artists, and made the sponsors also understand that they are not sponsoring the artists — they’re simply helping the museum to make this happen,” Deitch says.
Nike’s donation isn’t technically for the artwork — it’s paying for a skate ramp and bringing in skate teams. Levi’s is running an interactive film production workshop for attendees. “It’s not a logo pasted everywhere — they’re actually creating something to add to the experience,” Deitch says.
“We are working with brands that are already a huge part of this world,” Rose adds. “It is a very organic fit. They are companies who have invested heavily in street culture for years.”
Another stumbling block in a street-art exhibit is the medium’s impermanence. Many of these works were never meant to last and, consequently, the historic pieces are lost to the ages. This is an urban culture with a mostly oral history, tales of elaborate masterpieces created in unconventional places in the middle of the night only to be removed at daybreak. The stories and occasional photos are passed down through friends and crews.
As a contrary example, Deitch cites Jeff Koons, one of the world’s most visible living pop artists. He “understands what building an art career is about,” Deitch says. “He kept everything. He kept all his drawings, his old photographs, his old work. Very meticulous about when he sold things, he kept records of where they went. So if you wanted to do a book or an exhibition with Jeff Koons, you could walk into his studio and go through the archives.”
Deitch recalls the struggle of getting a record of the work from other artists. “Futura, who’s a great artist: ‘Do you have photos of your old work?’ ‘Ah, no. But we found that some other people had the photos.’ ‘Did you keep some of your old works?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you know where the early works went?’ ‘No, I never did that.’ ”
Fortunately, there are a few diligent documentarians who kept track of the history, like Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper, Gusmano Cesaretti, Steve Grody and C.R. Stecyk III. Consequently, the show gives vintage photography a fair amount of real estate.
Futura, a giant of the early New York graf scene, admits he resists career calculation on the level of Koons. He is a man of many talents, beginning with his textural, abstract style of subway train painting and branching out to early musical collaborations with The Clash. His new paint-splattered shoe designs for Clarks’ Wallabee line are hipster collectibles and his limited-edition vinyl toys are eBay gold mines.
“The new kids know about me because I designed a sneaker, a toy, whatever,” Futura concedes. “But I abandon the art world for the most part, because I just wanted to be me. It wasn’t about money, I was not going to be manipulated or defined by someone else. I want to feel something.
“I had a family, worked other jobs, but I never forgot how to paint. One part of me is like, ‘Now, really, you want to give me my shine?’ I don’t need approval. But I’m grateful. This show will put in people’s minds who did what, and it’s amazing — even if it did take 30 years for our country to embrace it.”
Deitch acknowledges MOCA may not be completely prepared for what it’s in for with an exhibit like “Art in the Streets. “This is going to be a challenge to the museum to administer, and I expect issues to come up, and we want to be sensitive to the way we deal with them,” he says.
But nothing good is easy, and despite all the challenges, “Art in the Streets” will be beautiful: Mr. Cartoon’s stunning, candy-colored ice cream truck; the reinvention of Twist, Reas and Espo’s hand-lettered sign explosion called “Street Market”; the towering Os Gemeos murals; Revok’s heaven; the reconstruction of the late, great Margaret Kilgallen’s final installation; and new collaborative murals — all in one spot. It’s visually exhausting just to imagine it.
One surprise that even the curators are looking forward to is the fabrication of hip-hop eccentric Rammellzee’s fabled Tribeca loft, an art studio he named the “Battle Zone.” For the last 20 years of his life, only close associates had access to this artistic treasure trove. Fans of his far-out costumes, mathematical sketches and futuristic sculpture are hoping for insight into the reclusive genius’ inspiration.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” Deitch says. “If you ask me the single most exceptional thing about the show, that’s it. Because this has been hidden. ... He’s right up there with Basquiat and Haring. Hardly anyone ever got into the studio to see what he was doing. He was a very difficult guy.”
While “Art in the Streets” is headed to the Brooklyn Museum after its Los Angeles debut, the curators have rightly concentrated on L.A. as a particular artistic force within the street-art movement — something that won’t change as the show moves East. It’s no mistake that the 30-foot mural that greets you immediately as you enter the exhibit is by the legendary Bojorquez, a representative of the iconic West Coast cholo hand style of graffiti.
“Estevan, Gusmano, Retna, we all come from the same mother, different fathers: L.A.,” Bojorquez says. “This is just bringing everything into focus and starting the dialogue that the city and the world really needs.”
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This week, the street-art world will be focused on Los Angeles, a city whose sprawling billboard culture has made it an ideal canvas for renegade artists trying to brand themselves. Where else but the city whose artistic keystone is a collection of DIY towers down in Watts, or one with its own giant tag — “Hollywood” — permanently affixed to a hillside?
“I’m not surprised that ‘Art in the Streets,’ the first show of its kind, is happening in L.A. and not N.Y.,” Quinones says, giving props. “It took fresh eyes and minds to make it happen.”
Of course, one of those minds and two of those bespectacled eyes belong to a transplanted New Yorker. “I would have figured out a way to do it even if I wasn’t here at MOCA,” Deitch says. Yet the opportunity only came about after Deitch packed his bags and headed West, like so many dreamers before him.
“This is a show that I’ve always wanted to do,” he adds. “It was a show that needed to be done. And this is not the only show. This is only the beginning.”