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Preview: City as Canvas – Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection

February 4, 2014
4 min read
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Preview: City as Canvas - Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection in New York City. 1

Artist and visionary Martin Wong moved to New York in 1978, right when graffiti was in its hey-day and the downtown art scene was evolving into a movement. When he began working at art supply store Pearl Paint on Canal St., he befriended many of the graffiti writers that were responsible for painting trains, tagging buildings, and leaving their mark on any reachable surface during the epic era. 

While the ‘here today gone tomorrow’ nature of graffiti made it a complicated art form to preserve, Wong’s fascination with the comic book characters and pop culture figures found in his friends’ pieces led him to encourage them to paint on canvas.  Soon he began to collect their work either by purchasing pieces or trading his own artwork for theirs. He was a ceramicist. From 1982 -1992 Wong acquired approximately 300 pieces ranging from black books, to canvases, to other types of media by New York graffiti artist friends.  
In 1994, he donated his collection to the Museum of the City of New York. Shortly after, he passed away in 1999 after losing a battle with AIDS. Now 20 years later the Museum has organized a show, curated by Sean Corcoran, that features 150 works of art from Wong’s collection. Artists on display include CEY, DAZE, DONDI, FUTURA 2000, Keith Haring, LADY PINK, LEE, RAMMELLZEE, SHARP, TRACY 168, ZEPHYR, and many more.  In addition, there is a selection of photography by Jack Stewart, Jon Naar, Martha Cooper, and Henry Chalfant, that documents subway cars covered in iconic tags and captures the evolution of the writers’ artistic styles.

Canvas by Martin Wong featuring SHARP (left).
Black Books. 
Photograph by Martha Cooper

Reflecting on Wong’s influence on the graffiti movement in New York City, some of the featured artists had these thoughts to share during the show’s preview:

“He was intrigued by the realism of the street and how the figuration of the world we live in translated onto canvas.” -Charlie Ahearn, director of Wild Style
“Martin was passionate about collecting the work and being a friend of the artist.” -Chris “Daze” Ellis, prolific subway turned studio artist.  

“Voices carry and Martin saw that from the beginning,” – Lee Quiñones, graffiti / studio artist best known for his handball court murals around New York City.  

Canvas by Lee Quiñones. 
“This exhibition commits us as a vital part of New York’s history and includes us in the world of fine art.” – Lady Pink, pioneering woman graff writer and recipient of the Martin Wong Foundation grant.
Lady Pink in front of a canvas she painted at 18 yrs old. 
“Energy and creativity that sprawled from train painting is integral to the creativity today.” -SHARP, a constructionist of alphabets and letters, one of Wong’s closest friends. 
The graffiti world is not only indebted to Martin Wong for his foresight to collect promising work from young urban artists, but also for his overall contribution to the now international street art movement.
A full program of events, including screenings of Wild Style, Stations of the Elevated, and Style Wars, will take place throughout the entirety of the exhibition. 
“City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection” opens Tuesday & runs February 4th to August 24, 2014. Museum of the City of New York, 1220 5th Ave, New York, NY 10029
Various artists. 
Vulcan’s sketch.
80s Fashion and Graffiti collide. 

All pictures by Alexandra Henry

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