The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver has unveiled three interconnected exhibitions that survey the gritty street life of America in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Curator Nora Burnett Abrams notes that this is the first time she’s overseen a set of thematically-related shows that fill all of the galleries in the three-story museum. And while these photo-heavy displays were not conceived as part of Denver’s Month of Photography, they represent “a happy coincidence,” she says.
The shows are installed so that you can see them chronologically, starting at the lower level and working up to the top. Since visitors enter the museum on the main floor, which is right in the middle, there was a logistical challenge. The MCA dealt with it imaginatively, teasing the downstairs exhibit, Wall Writers: Graffiti in Its Innocence, on the entry level by bringing in Chris Pape, a famous graffiti writer known as Freedom and renowned for his work in New York’s notorious Freedom Tunnel, to cover the walls lining the staircase that heads down to the lower level. A wash was applied to dingy-up the formerly white walls, and then Freedom spent days covering them with a dense, all-over arrangement of tags done in a range of colors and using different methods. It looks as though hundreds of individuals created the display over a long period of time; as you descend the stairs, it’s like going into a subway station in an iffy area.
The main body of Wall Writers is much more polite, with documentary material that lays out the early history of the modern graffiti movement and its transition from being viewed as vandalism to its current status as art and/or vandalism. Though Abrams selected Wall Writers to be part of the MCA threesome, she did not curate it. That job fell to Roger Gastman, who based the exhibit on his documentary and book detailing the birth of graffiti in New York and Philadelphia in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The result is extremely interesting, a virtual exercise in urban archaeology, filled with photos and clippings that show the modest style of the first graffiti artists, which comprised little more than a word and sometimes a small symbol.
A similar, quasi-scientific approach is seen in the show on the main level, the widely heralded Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979-1980. For about a year straddling 1979 and 1980, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was soon to be mega-famous, shared an apartment with his friend and paramour, Alexis Adler. For whatever reason, Adler, who kept the apartment, preserved everything that Basquiat left behind when he split; for decades, most of it was in a safety-deposit box. In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy flooded parts of New York City and came within blocks of the bank where Adler’s Basquiat hoard was stored. Adler decided to retrieve it, and in 2014 she consigned the stash, along with pieces still in the apartment, to Christie’s Auction House. The sale was canceled after the Basquiat estate objected, though a few pieces still changed hands: a painting called “Olive Oyl” that was cut off a wall of the apartment, and a painted door that was taken off its hinges.
The MCA show, curated by Abrams from Adler’s collection, begins with enlargements of photos of the apartment’s hallway covered in graffiti, including examples of Basquiat’s “SAMO” (same old shit) tagging; Basquiat’s first known mark in the East Village was the “SAMO” tag. At the front of the room, a monitor plays programs from Glenn O’Brien’s arty public-access television show, on which Basquiat repeatedly appeared. The pairing of the graffiti and the television appearance marks the beginning of the artist’s emergence from a down-and-out wannabe to a recognized talent.
Beyond that, the display has two components: actual pieces by Basquiat and photos of Basquiat and lost pieces he’d created, all taken by Adler. Among the former are sheets from notebooks, some with nothing more than text in his no-frills printing style, which have a poetic, literary quality. The small sketches and drawings feature certain devices, notably the zigzag, that would show up in his signature style of just a year or so later; the quartet of hand-painted T-shirts and sweatshirts likewise anticipate Basquiat’s soon-to-be-famous approach. There’s even a broken Pepto-Bismol bottle he painted on, which was once part of a sculpture-cum-costume. The photos by Adler reveal a teenage Basquiat — he was only nineteen when they lived together. Some show him performing for the camera by shaving half of his head, or putting Silly Putty on his nose; others are beautiful shots taken when he may not have known he was being photographed.
Soon after Basquiat moved out of the apartment he shared with Adler, he began to break into the big time. In 1980, he was part of the famous Times Square Show and taken on by the Annina Nosei Gallery — and the rest is art history. It’s easy to see the stylistic tics that Basquiat brought to fruition in his later paintings by comparing these early, tentative works to those neo-expressionist masterpieces. To help with the comparison, Abrams has included a choice example of Basquiat’s full-blown expression, “Untitled (Cadmium),” from 1984. In it, Basquiat places the amorphous shadow of a figure off to the left, on a heavily worked red field, and offsets it in the top right with a couple of renditions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the heart with the cross on top. In 1988, like a rock star, Basquiat died of a drug overdose
The last of the three MCA shows, Ryan McGinley: The Kids Were Alright, catches up with another generation of young people doing wild and crazy and self-destructive things about a decade after Basquiat blasted off one last time. McGinley was part of a scene in lower Manhattan that was apparently all about sex, drugs, sex, graffiti, sex and post-punk rock, followed by some sex; he recorded it in color photographs taken between 1998 and 2003. In the process, McGinley created his first major body of work.
This show, too, was curated by Abrams. Stepping off the elevator, you encounter a remarkable installation: An acrylic band of panels running around two-thirds of the top floor is covered with 1,500 Polaroids that McGinley took of his friends in posed portraits. The lineup is heavy on shirtless beefcake shots of his young pals among a broader assortment of people from the scene. Many focus on a close friend, Dash Snow, who was a photographer and collage artist. These photos, which once adorned the walls of McGinley’s apartment, have never been publicly exhibited, and that’s also the case with many of the large-format color prints, also typically posed portraits of members of his crowd
McGinley’s style represents a reinvigorated documentary photography approach, and he is unflinching in his depictions that capture kids doing drugs, drinking, pissing, even mid-blow job. Though many of the photos are almost two decades old, the unerring compositions, combined with the sometimes shocking content, guarantee that they still carry a punch.
Taken together, these three exhibits focusing on twenty-somethings from the recent past should be eye-opening for the twenty-somethings who frequent the MCA today.
Wall Writers and Basquiat Before Basquiat through May 7; Ryan McGinley through August 20 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, 1485 Delgany Street, 303-298-7554, mcadenver.org.
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