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Paris' take on New York graffiti

Two exhibitions in Paris explore modern graffiti and the meaning of writing.

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.”