PARIS — If graffiti is popular now, it shouldn't come as a surprise: The art form as we know it (aerosol spray paint on urban wall) began in another economically depressed time and place. In the 1970s, New York couldn't afford to pay police to defend against the guerrilla art form emerging from disenfranchised neighborhoods.
A spectacular exhibition at Paris' Fondation Cartier focuses on the moment when what had begun as a nuisance began attracting the interest of galleries and finally turned into something resembling fine art. A competing exhibition at the Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton takes a broader look at what happens when writing becomes detached from the words it is supposed to represent.
The Cartier exhibition, "Born in the Streets," is beautiful, revolutionary and extraordinarily honest. There is no attempt to overlook just how much many people hated graffiti in its heyday, especially when spray paint from down-and-out teenagers covered nearly every inch of New York City's subway cars. But the Cartier show also succeeds in taking the spectator to a deeper level in order to see how raw street art captured a deep sense of urban energy that establishment art seemed to be missing. In a forward to the show's catalog, which is now selling in just about every bookstore in Paris at $60 a copy, Richard Goldstein, the former editor of the Village Voice, describes grafitti's impact on the "culture-consuming classes," who were appalled by what they saw. Goldstein recalls seeing a Wall Street stockbroker shrink into his suit when confronted with a mural stretching the length of a subway car. "This broker did not think of art as he cowered before the canopy of color around him," Goldstein writes. "He thought of escaping from New York."
In a society flooded with images and manipulative commercial messages concocted by Madison Avenue advertising agencies, graffiti gave parts of the city bypassed by the establishment a way to express themselves. While much of it may have qualified as an irritating nuisance, it also offered important insights into lives in America unrepresented in popular culture.
The economic boom of the 1990s, combined with New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani's emphasis on penalizing minor infractions, largely suppressed raw street art, just as some of its graffiti stars were beginning to discover that they might have careers as genuine artists.
As New York gradually drifted away from the contemporary art scene, the movement began flowering elsewhere. "What is fascinating," said Floreal Roig, a French artist who worked on the exhibition, "is the different directions that it has taken. It has evolved enormously in terms of style and techniques, and the colors that you see."
Some of the most intense expression now seems to be coming from Sao Paulo, Brazil, where the "pixacao" movement has led to "pixadores" competing with each other to tag the most inaccessible spaces on the city's imposing skyscrapers.
In "Pixo," a film, by Joao Wainer and Roberto T. Oliveira, which was commissioned by the Fondation Cartier, a pixadore notes that "[t]he pixacao's writing follows the architectural lines of the city, as if the buildings of Sao Paulo were a giant sketch pad." The art form, he continues, "is charged with all the energy of the city, egotism, perversity, the desire of the unattainable, to be the best." Another pixadore concludes: "If it was allowed, no one would do it."
In contrast to the Cartier exhibition, "Silent Writing" at the Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton, just off the Champs-Elysees, is based on three tablets, written in the Rongorongo language, and discovered on Easter Island in 1869 by Christian missionaries. By then the island's inhabitants could no longer read the writing. The tablets are covered with signs that are astonishingly clear, but whose meaning has become obscure, and therein lies the fascination. Louis Vuitton commissioned 10 artists to create works based on the theme of the visible and the legible.
The tablets, on loan from the Vatican, are the most spectacular objects in the show, but the more contemporary works are also interesting. Chinese artist Ni Haifeng created "Xeno-writings," a stack of books glued together. At first there seems to be nothing noteworthy about the sculpture, but when you look at the back, you see that the books serve as a screen. The image of a hand projected on the books continuously traces mysterious signs.
Charles Sandison's "Cryptozoology" is a computerized projection of letters forming meaningless words. As you walk into the semi-darkened room, the shadow of your body is enlarged against the wall, while images of tiny letters splash like luminous bacteria against your skin. You are briefly caught in a contest between a world dominated by your shadow self, and assimilation into an infinite, quasi-uncontrollable energy. Moving full circle, the French artist Sun7, whose Paris-based career was inspired by the New York graffiti movement, offers a dazzling portrait of an African girl appearing from a mass of tightly concentrated graffiti against a red metallic backdrop. Sun7 gave up on graffiti long ago and moved into the gallery world, but still clings stylistically to his roots.
Both the Cartier Foundation and Louis Vuitton were alert to keep visitors from snapping any photos of the exhibitions — proof if any that what began as rebellious street art by the disenfranchised has finally been recognized as a commercially saleable commodity by the establishment.
If you can't get to Paris, virtual tours of both exhibitions can be viewed online. While the Louis Vuitton exhibition closes Aug. 23, the Fondation Cartier exhibit can be viewed in person until Nov. 29.