“Don’t work.” “A dog tag from a war that has yet to come.” “Avant garde mixed with blood.”
These are just a few of the phrases that appear on T-shirts based on works by Daniel Joseph Martinez, sold by Uniqlo as a part of its new SPRZ NY clothing line.
Martinez’s 12 T-Shirts and two tank tops join the other garments that debuted in SPRZ NY’s line-up earlier this spring. These include short-sleeve tees covered in Pollock drip-era paint splatters, bright red Warhol Campbell’s Soup Can bandanas, thin Basquiat shorts patterned with his scrawled designs, pastel-colored Lawrence Weiner V-necks with his poetical maxims, short-sleeve Ryan McGinness tees of his extravagantly colorful organic forms, and tanks by Sarah Morris, who curiously remains the only female artist in Uniqlo’s line-up. (What kind of example does that set for the kids?)
Also newly available this week are shirts and tank tops featuring work by Matthew Brannon, known for his screenprints mixing the esthetic of ’50s and ’60s advertisements with humorous text. One Brannon T-shirt, for example, comes in mustard yellow or black and puts an image of a fearsome feline together with the phrase “PRE-AUTEUR CINEMA” (below) written in a spindly light blue font.
The Martinez shirts, each based on a print in MoMA’s collection meant initially for a public project as part of the San Juan Triennial in Puerto Rico, stick out because they are so politically fused.
The Los Angeles-born artist, currently a professor at the University of California Irvine, has long used his work to address class struggle, ethnic identity, and violence. Though he shows at the L.A. gallery Roberts & Tilton, he is best known for his polarizing contribution to the 1993 Whitney Biennial—museum admission tags that spelled out the phrase “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white,” which were the high or low point of the multicultural-art era, depending on who was looking. (Last year, when the tags appeared in the New Museum’s “NYC 1993” show, New York Times critic Holland Cotter cited them as a model of art that could “light fires.” That said, he recalled, the artist had originally proposed inscribing a window with the phrase “In the rich man’s house the only place to spit is in his face,” but the museum rejected the idea.)
In 2008, Martinez returned to the Whitney Biennial with Divine Violence, an installation that covered gallery walls with yellow wooden panels that addressed the conflict in Iraq with such phrases as “Generation of Arab fury.”
The items in Martinez’s SPRZ NY line are as confrontational and nihilistic as any of the work he has made for art venues. A beige cotton short-sleeve T-shirt with a yellow pocket square has “Freedom without love” written in a black, bold, condensed sans-serif font, brutally cutting straight to the point in just three words.
In a phone conversation with ARTnews, Martinez said he took on the project with excitement when Uniqlo and MoMA approached him, intrigued by the possibilities in translating his subversive ideas into casual clothing items. “A different type of work can oscillate on different frequencies and still have different types of life to it,” he says.
Indeed, the SPRZ NY garments, available online and in some of the company’s global network of stores, will transform wearers around the world into walking billboards for such Martinez catchphrases as “Sometimes I can’t breathe,” “Clothes with the perfume of the absent lie in random,” and “I may be your lover but I spit on your millennium.”
Lost in translation? Call it streetwear with an artistic and political purpose. Or, the essence of radical chic.