Progression of Art
Irony of the Negro Policeman
This painting features a stylized rendition of a black policeman, with asymmetrical proportions and threatening features, including sharp teeth and talons. The rendering of the figure is reminiscent of graffiti, its flat and varied panes of color augmented by scribbles and handwritten text. Like many other East Village artists, Basquiat began as a graffiti artist, creating his art illegally in the city streets and subways, before moving into galleries as they were established in the East Village. Like this image, much of his work blends the graffiti aesthetic with Neo-Expressionism, a style that also blossomed in the East Village in the 1980s. Basquiat suggested that he wanted "to make paintings that look as if they were made by a child." Inspiration for his artworks also comes from his Caribbean (Haitian and Puerto Rican) heritage, as well as African and Aztec visual vocabularies (he often used the West African "griot" figure, for example, as well as skulls, bones, and arrows), while also addressing contemporary social and urban issues.
Many of the figures in Basquiat's paintings were Black people he considered "heroes" or "saints" (like musician Charlie Parker, and boxer Joe Louis), whom he honored with a crown painted upon their heads. The Black policeman in this work, however, is not honored with a crown. Here Basquiat instead presents a critique of the police system, which then, as now, overwhelmingly subjects Black individuals to oppression by usually white officers. With this work, Basquiat accuses the 'Negro Policeman' of the title of participating in that system, thereby enslaving his fellow African Americans. The way in which the policeman is rendered (cartoon-like, with an unnatural scribbled face and grotesquely asymmetrical body), serves as a form of mockery. The intersecting lines in the figure's hat and face invoke the image of a cage, at once symbolizing the way in which the policeman imprisons his fellow African Americans, as well as the negro policeman's own imprisonment within a racist police system (reinforced by the inclusion of the word "PAWN" at the lower right side of the image, as well as the placement of the black figure against a stark white background).
Further allusion to racial tension is created by the way in which the colors in the painting appear to fight for dominance, and the concept of hypocrisy is underscored by the mask-like quality of the figure's face. Although the piece is presented primarily as a critique of Black policemen, some scholars have also read it as a self-portrait of Basquiat himself, as an artist of color vying for recognition, acceptance, and success in a predominantly White art world while simultaneously trying to stay true to his racial and cultural roots.
Acrylic and crayon on canvas - Private collection
Keith Haring was a central figure in the East Village Art scene of the 1980s, along with his close friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat. His art is now emblematic of the movement, both in terms of its style and the artist's origins. Haring began as a graffiti artist and continued with the aesthetic he developed in public spaces even after he started to show in galleries, whilst exploring subject matter that promoted hope for the future and brotherly love amongst all people regardless of race, sexuality or identity. In this image, two dark figures without distinguishing features casually embrace, with both the background and the radiating lines around them rendered in bright, luminous colour.
Haring's works are all characterized by simple forms, heavy lines, and bold colors. Many of his works feature androgynous figures, dogs, and the "radiant baby", which he adopted as his tag and called it "the purest and most positive experience of human existence." The lines radiating outward from the radiant baby, and from other figures in his pieces (such as the two embracing figures seen in this image), were meant to represent "spiritual light glowing from within, as though the [figure] were a holy figure from a religious painting, only the glow is rendered in the visual vocabulary of a cartoon." However, these radiating lines have also been understood as the "aura" of radioactivity. This is most commonly read into Haring's work which features the radiant baby atop a mushroom cloud, surrounded by three angels, an image created for an antinuclear rally in New York. In it Haring links the death and destruction of thermonuclear warfare with the biblical concept of the apocalypse.
The two embracing figures in this image are likely meant to also promote and celebrate acceptance of homosexual relationships. This was a key message throughout much of Haring's work, as he wished to challenge the traditional views of the Catholic and fundamentalist churches toward homosexuality (having himself been an active member of the Jesus People throughout his teen years). By including lines radiating outward from the figures (a common motif in religious artworks, such as in representations of the Virgin Mary), Haring borrowed religious iconography in order to suggest the figures' spiritual redemption through their love for one another.
Art critic and curator Bruce D. Kurtz notes that "most of Haring's figures are without gender, race, age (except the Radiant Child), or even facial features. They represent humankind, not men or women, not whites or blacks, Hispanics, Asians, or Native Americans, not adults, the elderly, or children, but everyone." The accessibility of Haring's works were also enhanced by their frequent placement in public spaces, like city streets and subway signs, inviting people of all cultures, classes, and educational backgrounds to engage with the work, an egalitarian and evangelistic attitude at odds with the elitism of the established art world of the 1980s. Like other artists of the East Village scene, Haring was keen to make his work accessible, engaging and fun.
In 1986 in SoHo, Haring opened the Pop Shop, which he referred to as an "antigallery", where visitors could purchase posters, T-shirts, and other objects designed by Haring for low prices. Visual Studies professor Natalie E. Phillips asserts that through the Pop Shop, Haring "made his work available to a much broader range of people, and countered the notion that true art is a rare and precious thing appreciated by only a select few".
Vinyl ink on vinyl tarpaulin - Keith Haring Foundation, New York
You are Trapped on the Earth so You Will Explode
This work is one of many joint projects between two female artists who created several interventions in public spaces together. The two artists are Lady Pink, a graffiti artist who worked with spray paint, and Jenny Holzer, who, at that time, frequently worked with wheat paste posters and is known for incorporating text into her works, commenting on war, politics, violence, human behaviour, consumer society, and the divide between social classes. Collaborations like these frequently occurred amongst the East Village artists, and was encouraged by curators like Patti Astor, founder of the FUN Gallery.
In the mid 1980s, Holzer invited Lady Pink to come to her studio on the Lower East Side, where the two collaborated on several works on canvas. Lady Pink would paint an image, on top of which Holzer would superimpose phrases from her Survival Series (1983). Other works in the series featured phrases like "DON'T SHOOT CIVILIANS", "TRUST VISIONS THAT DON'T FEATURE BUCKETS OF BLOOD", "IF YOU ARE CONSIDERED USELESS NO ONE WILL FEED YOU ANYMORE", and "MEN DON'T PROTECT YOU ANYMORE".
The work pictured here indicates the pervasive fear of nuclear threat during the 1980s. The fiery red figures, one of whom has their black skeleton visible, mouth open and head thrown back as if howling in pain, appear as if depicted at the moment of being struck by a nuclear blast. This image suggests through Holzer's text the inability of escape as all humans share a world, a simple statement juxtaposed against the horror of violence on an unremarkable city street. Several other East Village artists, such as Keith Haring, also explored the idea of nuclear threat in their works. Artist Kenny Scharf explained that "in the 1980s, everyone was afraid of the bomb. In New York City, we thought we should have as much fun as possible now because soon we will all blow up! Let's party hard! Let's party harder than anyone has ever partied!"
The placement of art into public spaces was an important activity for many East Village artists, hence Holzer's collaboration with Lady Pink. As art writer and critic Grace Glueck explains, these artists wanted art to "abandon its traditional distance from life and make closer contact with a larger public". Holzer once explained that "My legacy from growing up in the 60's is that I want to make art that's understandable, has some relevance and importance to almost anyone. And once I've made the stuff, the idea is get it out to the people. I want them to encounter it in different ways, find it on the street, in electric signs and so forth."
Spray enamel on canvas - Private collection
For Neo-Geo artist Peter Halley, geometric abstraction reflects the modern state of the urban and digital landscapes. His art was influenced by artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Josef Albers, Barnett Newman, Donald Judd, Piet Mondrian and Ad Reinhardt as well as French Post-Structuralist theorists like Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard.
Halley described the East Village Art scene of the 1980s as "an extraordinary moment in my life because, for the first time, I was meeting people who basically saw society and culture and issues to do with art as I did. I was becoming part of a stimulating and confirming intellectual community for the first time." After moving to New York City in 1980, Halley became fascinated with the geometric layout of the metropolis. He thus translated geometric forms, like squares, into "architectural icons" that he termed "prisons" and "cells", and connected them with straight lines he called "conduits". Curator Amy Brandt writes that "Halley wished to incite public awareness of the confining, underlying structures of industrialized society and commodity capitalism."
Halley says, "By the time I had codified that system of imagery - of cells and conduits - I began to feel that I had come up a kind of paradigm, or model, or representation of a very basic kind of space, and spatial experience in our society. And the fact that it was so hidden made it seem all the more interesting to me. I felt I was onto something." For Halley, Neo-Geo was a "conscious alternative to Neo-Expressionism". He says about his earlier work "I wanted to say that geometry was something in the real environment. This idea of the idealist square could be seen as a paradigmatic, diagrammatic architectural entity. By putting bars on the square, I wanted to say that geometry was a prison. Structure and geometry were prisonlike and not ideal as in Malevich or Mondrian". These ideas can be seen to be explored in Day-Glo Prison, the extraordinarily vibrant and clashing colours creating optical effects on the eyes of the viewer, with the green bars of the prison cell window the only fixed point of the image. It is almost hallucinogenic, and almost uncomfortable to look at for an extended period of time.
Halley often utilized bold, sometimes clashing colors, in what he refers to as "transgressive" configurations, aiming to "[push] the envelope of what can be done coloristically in a painting". Here he opted to use fluorescent Day-Glo paint, which had a glowing effect reminiscent of the artificial lights frequently used in postmodern society, and of the neon lights found in signs all over urban centres. He explains that, by using Day-Glo, he "was trying to emphasize technologically derived materials and I also liked Day-Glo's connection to Pop and Psychedelia, in a nostalgic sense. The quality of the glow that it produced seemed very artificial, unnatural and eerie to me. In a quite traditional way, I have always been interested in light in painting." Halley also used a textural additive (commonly used in building surfaces in suburban homes and motels) called Roll-a-Tex, that lends a tactile, architectural quality to his prisons and cells. Halley explains that "It is a totally fake. extra-terrestrial, science-fictional material". Brandt asserts that this mixture of harsh colors and textures at once "seduce[s] and repel[s] viewers with assaults on their senses of sight and touch."
Fluorescent acrylic and Roll-a-Tex on canvas
Encased - Four Rows
Jeff Koons, the most renowned Neo-Geo artist (also heavily influenced by Pop, Neo-Pop and Andy Warhol), spent his early career in the East Village Art community. He played a significant role in establishing sculpture within the Neo-Geo movement. Gallerist Donald Young says that "From early on Jeff saw himself as carrying a torch in terms of his importance within his generation and within the hierarchy of the history of contemporary art."
In the 1980s, Koons centered his works upon consumer items (like vacuum cleaners and sports equipment), transforming them into art objects by placing them in a gallery setting. In this way, he created art that served as a reflection or extension of everyday reality, and as a critique of consumer culture, blurring the line between commodity and art. In his Encased series, of which this is a part, he placed Spalding and Wilson basketballs in neat rows inside of Plexiglass cases, highlighting the geometric (spherical) qualities of the balls, as well as the original (rectangular) cardboard packaging which had not been removed. The Encased works were exhibited in the Equilibrium exhibition of 1985, alongside a similar series that placed basketballs suspended in water inside of glass tanks, as well as Nike advertisements featuring famous basketball players, and cast bronze aqualungs and snorkels. This also encourages the viewer to appreciate the unique qualities of the objects that are mass-produced and around us every day, the uncanny nature of these readymades referring back to the work of Marcel Duchamp, the Dadaists, the Surrealists, and others.
Koons explained that for him the central idea amongst all of the works in the Encased series was mortality, and the opportunities for upward social movement for African Americans, stating "The Nike posters were the Sirens - the great deceivers, saying 'Go for it! I have achieved it. You can achieve it too!' And the bronzes, of course, were the tools for Equilibrium that would kill you if you used them. So the underlying theme, really, was that death is the ultimate state of being [...] what was paralleling this message was that white middle-class kids have been using art the same way that other ethnic groups have been using basketball- for social mobility". The notion of achieving 'social mobility' through art proved to be controversial amongst the East Village, with several accusations of 'selling out' levelled at artists like Koons who became extremely wealthy through the canny marketing of their work.
Glass, steel, plastic and basketballs - Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
Kenny Scharf at Fun Gallery
This poster, created by Kenny Scharf for a 1984 exhibition at the FUN Gallery, perfectly captures the atmosphere that gallery founder Patti Astor and the other FUN Gallery artists aimed to create: vibrancy, playfulness, and humor. Two sharp and angular figures, perhaps supposed to represent aliens or hallucinations dance on a bright and vividly drawn background. One of Scharf's earliest inspirations was the idea of space travel (he was born in 1958, the same year that Sputnik, the first satellite, was sent into space). He recalls "In school, when they told us that by 1984 we would be able to get on our own rocket and fly to the moon, I believed it".
There are suggestion of genitals in many of the shapes created by the angles of the figures limbs and the plants along the bottom of the frame. A bright colour palette has been used throughout the image, creating a riotous and attention-catching image which perfectly serves its advertising purpose. It, like almost all of Scharf's works, appears to be inspired by Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, and features fantastical and cartoon-like characters.
Like many of his fellow East Village artists, Scharf believed it important to bring art to the streets to be seen for free by all, rather than housed inside galleries with prohibitive price tags. He once stated "I never professed to be a graffiti artist, nor a street artist either. I just found that hitting the street was the best way to get out there. Especially living in New York City, where all these art people weren't interested in looking at my work or accepting me in a gallery. I wanted to confront them, I wanted them to have no choice but to see me."
According to Astor, it was from the other artists at the FUN Gallery that Scharf learned about graffiti and spray painting. Scharf is perhaps best-known today for his large-scale graffiti murals, indicating the significant and long-lasting impact of the collaborative nature of the FUN Gallery and the East Village Art scene in general.
Untitled [Hujar Dead]
David Wojnarowicz was the East Village artist who perhaps best embodied the sense of outrage towards established loci of power that characterized much of the local art community at the time. Throughout his formative years, he experienced abuse, neglect, rape, homelessness, and poverty, which included selling sex as a young teenager. As a gay man he was marginalised by mainstream society, a truth brought into stark relief by the AIDS crisis, which began to ravage the East Village and other metropolitan areas in the mid-1980s with seemingly little action or concern on the part of the US government. Wojnarowicz was diagnosed as HIV+ in 1988, and died of AIDS-related illness in 1992.
In 1981, Wojnarowicz had met photographer Peter Hujar (who had also suffered a traumatic upbringing), and the two briefly became lovers before settling as extremely close friends, confidantes and artistic partners. Wojnarowicz once stated "everything I made, I made for Peter." Untitled [Hujar Dead] was one of several that Wojnarowicz created shortly after Hujar's death in 1987, which not only sought to memorialize Hujar, but also to critique the public and political response to the AIDS crisis, serving as a form of activist art.
The black and white photographs in the background of the piece were taken by Wojnarowicz of Hujar's face, hands, and feet, just moments after he passed away. The text overlaid upon the photographs is an adaptation of Wojnarowicz's spoken word performance "If I had a dollar...", which presents his intense rage about the media portrayal of, and political inaction toward the AIDS crisis.
By layering the text over the photographs, Wojnarowicz forces the reader to become more focused and attentive. Bordering the image are fragments of Supermarket posters (representing moral, mental, psychic and physical consumption), reproductions of U.S. currency (representing capitalism and the corruption of the United States health-care system), and images of sperm which have been cut out from maps.
In her biography of Wojnarowicz, cultural critic Cynthia Carr writes that "[Untitled (Hujar Dead)] would change [Wojnarowicz's] life. He set out to address the epidemic and the emotions it stirred in him... the apocalypse was personal. His community faced ruin. His best friend was dead. His own death seemed imminent. The authorities who could have helped had instead turned their backs." Artist Dennis Cooper writes that Wojnarowicz's "fierce, politicized, multidisciplinary art was the embodiment of East Village art's grandest ideals, and, in retrospect, an almost single-handed justification of its hype."
Wojnarowicz's wider body of work included painting, installation, collage, film, music, performance,and prose, and he frequently collaborated with AIDS activist organizations and artist collectives like AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Gran Fury. The aggressive enmity evident in most of his art was directed not only at the political callousness and prejudicial attitude towards the AIDS crisis, but also at the elitism of the art world, at social repression, at the exclusion of women and minority groups in the art world and society more broadly, and at (artistic) censorship. He faced a court case with the American Family Association in 1990 which was a pivotal event in the "culture wars" of the 1990s.
Wojnaorwicz's relationship with East Village Art was characteristic of many of the movement's leading lights. Early on it provided an important context and freedom for his development, with the lack of rules and independence of institutions allowing young artists to experiment amongst their peer group. The work of the movement reflects the playfulness, rebellion and spirit. Once the movement began to wane, several artists moved on to significant positions within the art market, although taking many of these aesthetic sensibilities with them.
Black-and-white photograph, acrylic, text and collage on masonite - Estate of David Wojnarowicz