Well, really, the headline here isn’t entirely accurate. The artist and collector Martin Wong saved the seeds of a culture, and then donated his collection the Museum of the City of New York. And then the museum mostly kept those seeds hidden away for about twenty years. But now the museum, with the help of curator Sean Corcoran and others, has brought those seeds back into the spotlight for a new generation to learn from. Of course, I’m talking about City as Canvas, the new show at the Museum of the City of New York, and the seeds I’m talking about are the seeds of modern graffiti.
The back story behind City as Canvas is pretty great. Wong, a painter who lived in NYC’s East Village in the 80’s, was noticing graffiti and as he met some of the men and women behind it, he began supporting the young writers by buying their work. Eventually, that turned into a major collection of work by New York train writers like Sharp, Daze, Lee, Futura and many more. Wong even tried to open his own “Museum of American Graffiti” in 1989, but it didn’t work out. Still, Wong had amassed something special and unique that captured a very important time period for graffiti as artists transitioned from trains to canvases and teenagers to adults, and as graffiti itself spread from New York City to the rest of the world. Eventually, he donated his collection to the Museum of the City of New York. Those are the basics, but really, the story of Wong’s collection has already been told very well and in more detail in the New York Times, so do check out that article.
One of the greatest early supporters of graffiti artists was Martin Wong, a painter who lived in New York City during the city’s Golden Age of graffiti. Wong collected the work of young artists working outdoors like Lee Quinones, Rammellzee and Keith Haring. Wong’s collection is perhaps the best existing set of artworks that together give a sense of modern graffiti’s early days in the city where it (effectively) began. In the mid-90’s, Wong donated the whole thing to the Museum of the City of New York. It’s a collection that early writers often tell me about with a sense of wonder, and they always suggest that I have a look at the collection because I could learn a thing or two from it. Now, works from the are about to be exhibited publicly at the Museum of the City of New York for the first time.
City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection opens next Tuesday the 4th at the Museum of the City of New York. I’m excited to see so much early work (nearly 150 pieces) in person, and to hopefully get a sense of how Wong saw the early graffiti scene. In addition to some early canvas work by artists like Lady Pink and Daze, the collection includes a subset of work that should be particularly interesting for those of us interested in the history of graffiti: perhaps the only collection of blackbook sketches in a museum possession. The show also includes a new short film by Charlie Ahearn and photographs by Ahearn, Martha Cooper, Jack Stewart and Jon Naar. In case it’s not already obvious, let me just state that this sounds like it will be a must-see exhibition for graffiti geeks.