“City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection” (Feb. 4-Aug 24) will feature work from the 1970s and ’80s by graffiti artists such as Daze (Chris Ellis), Futura 2000 (Leonard McGurr), Keith Haring, Lady Pink (Sandra Fabara) and Rammellzee. It is the first exhibition of a group of about 150 objects that the Chinese-American Wong, a devotee of graffiti art since his days working at New York art supplies store Pearl Paint, donated to the City Museum in 1994. Wong died from AIDS in 1999.
Organized by Sean Corcoran, the museum’s curator of prints and photographs, the exhibition also features Wong’s own paintings, which were inspired by graffiti artists and street culture. Sharp Paints a Picture (1997-98) shows the graffiti artist Sharp at work, while C76, Junior (1988) depicts the same man in jail at Riker’s Island. “He could have sold off the collection piecemeal, and there were interested European buyers,” Corcoran said, “but he felt strongly that the collection should remain in New York, and he donated it wholesale to the museum.”
“Wong was interested in far more than collecting the artists’ works, since he became a mentor to several of them,” Corcoran told A.i.A. by phone. “He often traded work with them, sometimes selling one of his own paintings and turning around and spending all the money buying work from graffiti artists. For a short time he even operated a museum of graffiti art on the top floor of a row house on Bond Street.”
It’s not the first time Wong’s collections have gone on view in a New York museum. The exhibition follows by about a year “I M U U R 2” (Mar. 15-May 27, 3013), Danh Vo’s Hugo Boss Prize exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, which also featured objects stockpiled by the artist. That trove of objects included tchotchkes, paintings, scrolls, books, a novelty lamp in the shape of a hamburger, salt-and-pepper shakers and ceramic figurines.
“City as Canvas” also comes just months after the November whitewashing of 5Pointz, an extensive outdoor venue for graffiti in Queens, New York. The owners of the building whose walls hosted 5Pointz plan to erect luxury apartment buildings on the site.
Graffiti and street art were the subject of the controversial but popular Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition “Art in the Streets” in 2011.
Accompanying the show will be a new documentary short by Charlie Ahearn, director of the 1983 film Wild Style, which documented New York’s graffiti artists. The 13-minute Graf Obsession: The Martin Wong Collection at The Museum of The City of New York (2014), Corcoran said, contains rare footage of Wong at home in New York with his paintings and his graffiti collection.
Also featured will be photographs that showcase the spray paint-strewn subways and building walls of the times by photographers such as Charlie Ahearn, Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper.
“For us, this show is partly about how graffiti originated in New York and became a global phenomenon,” Corcoran said. “Thanks to photographers like Martha Cooper and filmmakers like Charlie Ahearn, it was disseminated worldwide. The materials in the show say a lot about what New York looked like in the 1970s and 80s.”