I remember the first Tags (where is Taki?), Breaking (where you spin on your head), Rapping (where I first heard it). I know the names, but are the names important? Where is Taki? Perhaps because I have seen graffiti, then seen something else, thrown myself on the dance floor, then gone on to dance another way, I say that the reason for abandoning so much during the '70s was that each fad became an institution. What we can finally see from the '70s buried among the revivals and now surfacing (Tagging, Breaking, Rapping) was at least one academy without program. Distinct to the '70s, graffiti, in particular, was the institutionalization of the idiosyncratic that has led to the need for individuation within this anonymous vernacular. This is why the individuals (Crazy Legs) must distinguish themselves.
Artists have a responsibility to their work to raise it above the vernacular. Perhaps it is the critic's job to sort out from the melee of popular style the individuals who define the style, who perhaps inaugurated it (where is Taki) and to bring them to public attention. The communal exhibitions of the last year and a half or so, from the Times Square Show, the Mudd Club shows, the Monumental Show, to the New York/New Wave Show at P.S. 1, have made us accustomed to looking at art in a group, so much so that an exhibit of an individual's work seems almost antisocial. Colab, Fashion Moda, etc., have created a definite populist ambience, and like all such organizations, from the dawn of modern, have dug a base to launch new work. These are vast communal enterprises as amazing that they got off the ground as the space shuttle and even more, fly-by-night, that they landed on solid ground.
[Above: Page 35: All works by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Clockwise from top left: Famous Negro Athlete 47, 1981, mixed media on paper, approx. 11 x 17". Gringo Pilot, 1981, mixed media on seamless paper, 81 x 103" at widest point. World Crown, 1981, mixed media on canvas, approx. 60 x 72 "] [Above: Page 36: Top to bottom: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Respo Mundial, 1981, charcoal and marker on rag paper, 50 X 67". Aaron Siskind, ..:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Chicago, 1952, silver print, 15 1/4 x 19 3/8". Who was "10"? ] [Above: Page 37: Judy Rifka, Outro, 1981, magic marker on acetate, 72 x 24"]
The most accessible and immediately contagious productions in these shows were those of the graffiti stylists. The graffiti style, so much a part of this town, New York, is in our blood now. It's amazing that something so old can be made so new. There is an instant appeal in the way spray paint looks, ditto markers. Any Tag by any teenager on any train on any line is fairly heartbreaking. In these autographs is the inherent pathos of the archaeological site, the cry down the vast endless track of time that "I am somebody," on a wall in Pompeii, on a rock at Piraeus, in the subway graveyard at some future archaeological dig, we ask, "Who was Taki?"
Graffiti refutes the idea of anonymous art where we know everything about a work except who made it: who made it is the whole Tag. Blade, Lady Pink, Pray, Sex, Taki, Cliff 159, Futura 2000, Dondi, Zephyr, Izzy, Haze, Daze, Fred, Kool, Stan 153, SAMO, Crash. (Crash is still bombing.) But trains get buffed (the damnatio memoriae of the Transit Authority), and with the need for identity comes the artist's need for identification with the work, and to support oneself by the work is the absolute distinction between the amateur and the pro. Therefore, the obvious was to raise oneself by the supreme effort of will from the block, from the subway, to the Mudd, to the relative safety and hygiene of the gallery. Because an artist is somebody. Say what you will about group shows and collaborative enterprise: Das Kapital was written by one man. This is no graffito, this is no train, this is a Jean-Michel Basquiat. This is a Keith Haring.
Both these artists are a success in the street where the most critical evaluation of a graffito takes place. Jean-Michel is proud of his large SAMO Tag in a schoolyard, surrounded by other Tags on top of Tags, yet not marked over. This demonstrates respect for the artist as not just a graffitist but as an individual, the worth of whose Tag is recognized. There's prestige in not being bombed over. There are also fake SAMOS and Harings as well as a counter-Haring graffitist who goes around erasing him. The ubiquity of Jean-Michel's SAMO and Haring's baby Tags has the same effect as advertising; so famous now is that baby button that Haring was mugged by four 13-year-olds for the buttons he was carrying (as well as for his Sony Walkman.) The Radiant Child on the button is Haring's Tag. It is a slick Madison Avenue colophon. It looks as if it's always been there. The greatest thing is to come up with something so good it seems as if it's always been there, like a proverb. Opposite the factory-fresh Keith Haring is Jean-Michel's abandoned cityscape. His prototype, the spontaneous collage of peeling posters, has been there for everyone's ripping off. His earlier paintings were the logical extension of what you could do with a city wall. (For the moment he's stopped the collage.) His is a literal case of bringing something in off the street but with the element of chance removed. I'm always amazed at how people come up with things. Like Jean-Michel. How did he come up with the words he puts all over everything, his way of making a point without overstating the case, using one or two words he reveals a political acuity, gets the viewer going in the direction he wants, the illusion of the bombed-over wall. One or two words containing a full body. One or two words on a Jean-Michel contain the entire history of graffiti. What he incorporates into his pictures, whether found or made, is specific and selective. He has a perfect idea of what he's getting across, using everything that collates to his vision.
Where is Taki. When writing or just thinking about say a movement or a style, we automatically attach progenitors of common appearance, attributes of an individual or stylistic precursor to the object of contemplation. I bought an assortment of Wild Style and Plain Style (Daze Rocks, etc.) Tags done in marker on a piece of newsprint at the Mudd Club graffiti show because it looked like a late 18th century Chinese literati-type thing, no, maybe more Japanese, yes Japanese. Even the names of the different scripts are like Japanese calligraphic distinctions. (The underlying discipline is getting a character down so good you can repeat it exactly.) This of course leads one into the Zen calligraphic renovations of, say, Mark Tobey, Bradley Walker Tomlin, and just about everybody in the late '40s, early '50s. And you have no choice but to look at things this way because . . . "Does His Voice Sound Some Echo in your Heart." (Source available.) This is the double-headed monster of erudition, half seeing too much and half of it blind.
I asked Jean-Michel where he got the crown. "Everybody does crowns." Yet the crown sits securely on the head of Jean-Michel's repertory so that it is of no importance where he got it bought it stole it; it's his. He won that crown. In one painting there is even a © copyright sign with a date in impossible Roman numerals directly under the crown. We can now say he copyrighted the crown. He is also addicted to the copyright sign itself. Double copyright. So the invention isn't important; it's the patent, the transition from the public sector into the private, the monopolizing personal usurpation of a public utility, of prior art; no matter who owned it before, you own it now. After all, Judy Rifka did not invent the artist's dilemma. I think it's hers for the time being, however.
[Above: Page 38: John Ahearn, life-size painted plaster casts, 1981. From left: Mimmie, Anthony ] [Above: Page 39: Clockwise from left: John Ahearn, life-size painted plaster casts, 1981. From left: Norma and Mario, Luis, with bite in forehead, Ephram. Alain Jacquet, Bathroom Graffiti, 1971, ball bearings on Masonite, 18 x 32". Francesco Clemente, Titire, 1980, oil on canvas, 24 x 36"]
But influence, when we reach the peak and look down at what we've come from, see mists and clouds under mist, not the base of the mountain. As much as one would like to escape the idea of generation and decade in favor of something better, this provides an easy common way to track development. Where is Taki? Graffiti has been around in the way we recognize it now for about ten years and whether one considers this a long or a short amount of time (the entire High Renaissance from the painting of the Mona Lisa to the Sistine ceiling covered exactly ten years) it is already in its second generation. The transition, however, was neither sudden nor unexpected because in the past ten years we see the full exchange of graffiti from trainstyle to museum candidate. What's unusual is that the gallery bid was not made by the innovators but by the second generation. Graffiti has had a dyslexic development in that the second generation is capitalizing on territory pioneered by its lost innovators. More interesting and more possible to scan than the movement leading up to the picture is, rather, the picture's life after it leaves the artist. The picture must be protected. (I'm not interested in the prestige of discovery. Part of the artist's job is to get the work where I will see it. I have to be aware of it before I can hype it. I consider myself the metaphor of the public. I'm a public eye. And I only hype the sureshot. The possibility of life without galleries? But how much time, when you really get going, can you spend crating, carrying on correspondences, hiring secretaries, negotiating your appearances in European museums, in fine all the little labors that galleries are supposed to do and that keep you away from your work? There is a place for responsible representation. This is an enormously important season in New York and to make a false step could have severe repercussions for years. In a city comprised of individuals it is important at some point to form the right connections; for your own protection you have to trust someone. Someone else has to have a personal commitment to your work so that it isn't shopped like merchandise. It's cute to be 20 and be pursued when hundreds of young artists are dropping their slides off at these same galleries, but the crass fast-turnover speculators' market can have a deleterious effect on an artist's future career if you don't have protection. We are no longer collecting art we are buying individuals. This is no piece by SAMO. This is a piece of SAMO. When the work tops a certain mark and the collectors begin their wholesale unloading of your old work in direct competition with your new work you're in trouble with no protection. Every time one of your old paintings is bought one of your new paintings isn't. Plus, old more famous pictures always cost more and you don't get a cut off the resale. Of course a record price always helps an artist, but what if the artist has radically changed styles? In any event, it's clear that a good dealer is very careful about where the things land. If there's no personal commitment the chances are that the dealer-as-buyer will unload the stuff anywhere for the money, why not, without thought to possible repercussions it could have in the long run. Whereas if the dealer has a stake in your development they will, for example, save the best picture for a possible museum sale rather than just anywhere the cash is flowing. Besides, when anything goes wrong you can blame it on your gallery.)
"What's with art anyway, that / We give it such precedence?" (Source available.) Most basic is the common respect, the popular respect for living off one's vision. My experience has shown me that the artist is a person much respected by the poor because they have circumvented the need to exert the body, even of time, to live off what appears to be the simplest bodily act. This is an honest way to rise out of the slum, using one's sheer self as the medium, the money earned rather a proof pure and simple of the value of that individual, The Artist. This is a basic class distinction in the perception of art where a picture your son did in jail hangs on your wall as a proof that beauty is possible even in the most wretched; that someone who can make a beautiful thing can't be all bad; and that beauty has an ability to lift people as a Vermeer copy done in a tenement is surely the same as the greatest mural by some MFA. An object of art is an honest way of making a living, and this is much a different idea from the fancier notion that art is a scam and a ripoff. The bourgeoisie have, after all, made it a scam. But you could never explain to someone who uses God's gift to enslave that you have used God's gift to be free.
What is it that makes something look like art? I can't answer that. I asked someone once why he liked Jean-Michel's work and why it was being singled out for acclaim and he said, "because it looks like art." But then again art doesn't always look like art at first. The way the space shuttle that lifts off doesn't much resemble the space shuttle as it lands.
My favorite Francesco Clemente, for instance, looks just like something in a junk store. It's even painted on one of those premade stretched canvases that are the stock in trade of amateurs. The direct and artless oil paint here, however it looks like a 13-year-old painted it, is very much about being 13. I remember still green ponds like that where I'd go . . . and the anomalous sexuality of the frog, that, no matter what sex it is, a frog's crotch, belly, and thighs, when viewed together, look like a woman. It was brought to my attention that the very thing that freezes this picture compositionally, the flashbulblike shadow of the arm, is what keeps it from being the work of a child; children don't depict cast shadows. Clemente has frozen an instant here, and the sex object of the painting, the frog's crotch, is already underwater. This preservation of a lost moment from childhood, perfectly seen and remembered in a flash, sets this picture apart as art, yet it looks like something in a junk store. Everybody wants to get on the Van Gogh Boat. There is no trip so horrible that someone won't take it. Nobody wants to miss the Van Gogh Boat. The idea of the unrecognized genius slaving away in a garret is a deliciously foolish one. We must credit the life of Vincent van Gogh for really sending that myth into orbit. How many pictures did he sell. One. He couldn't give them away. Almost no one could bear his work, even among the most modern of his colleagues. In the movie Lust For Life there is a scene of Kirk Douglas (as van Gogh) in front of La Grande Jatte being treated rudely by Georges Seurat. When I went to the Art Institute of Chicago to see the Grande Jatte, it was having a hard time competing with the white walls of the gallery. This habit of putting old pictures up against the white walls is deadly, the walls reflecting more light than the picture, but van Gogh's Bedroom at Arles was on the opposite wall and it was screaming at my back and I turned around and I listened. He has to be the most modern artist, still. Van Gogh's don't crack. But everybody hated them. We're so ashamed of his life that the rest of art history will be retribution for van Gogh's neglect. No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another van Gogh. And yet looking at art history we see that these other guys were pros. They started when they were kids. They sold their work. They worked on commission. There is no great artist in all art history who was as ignored as van Gogh, yet people are still afraid of missing the Van Gogh Boat. One of the obvious and more interesting developments that insure a nongallery look is the ready-made support, standardized stretchers, artist's panels: the vocabulary of the amateur. The throwaway is the handle absolute of junk, and in using the throwaway one is relieved of the responsibility of constructing one's own outside proportions. Pieces of foam rubber, doors, subway cars, toilet walls make one's considerations, size of image, stroke, etc., purely inner ones. It is impracticable to enter a gallery carting the F train. In the Mudd Club "Beyond Words" show, the most impressive work was either in documentation (photos of bombed trains) or actual junk sprayed over, not the specially-constructed-for-exhibition pieces that looked, frankly, headshop, and it seemed clear to me that whoever was going to get out of the subway was going to have to figure out a way of sophisticating their work into scale, to avoid the cloying naiveté and preciousness that inspire more condescension and "isn't that charming" than, say, awe in the viewer. I don't mean that they have to go big. The sense of scale is innate and relying on found size isn't good enough. When you cut up a roll of canvas you've made your biggest decision. Making something out of nothing is the prime artistic act and I don't mean, "Come to my studio I've got ten refrigerator doors finished."
[Above: Page 40: Judy Rifka, Close-ups from Vickie's Dance, 1981, oil on linen, 24 x 30" each] [Above: Page 41: From left: SAMO © is Dead, 1979 an important graffito where the artist refutes his SAMO © tag in order to become Jean-Michel Basquiat. See article on Deborah Harry's hair color change. Photo: Charles Hagen. Fake "SAMO" crown on wall. Photo: Mary Bachmann] So what defines the art look? When people say Jean-Michel looks like art, the occult significance of the comment is that it looks like our expectation of art; there is observable history in his work. His touch has spontaneous erudition that comforts one as the expected does. In the first gallery piece I saw by Jean-Michel (as distinct from his Tag SAMO) the observable relationship of his drawing to past art alienated me as immediately as it gratified. The superbombers in the same show, with their egregious lack of art history, had the repellent appeal that commands self-analysis in the viewer (me). I didn't want to miss the boat. When you first see a new picture you are very careful because you may be staring at van Gogh's ear. Then I stopped caring about what the pictures should (and might later) look like; regardless of what Jean-Michels look like now, they are transmitting signals that I can receive, that are useful, and finally the graffiti bomb style looks like what it's about and what it's about is packaging. Bomb style packages itself. At its purest, it's a Tag, a perfect auto-logo, not the artists' names but their trademarks. Designer jeans? You are buying the label proper: the essential iconic self-representation. In any event, the bombers in the show clearly defined a vernacular and made me wonder how long this would take to get off the ground in a big way. Here was, as much as it was predicated on commercial art of the past, the commercial art of the future. Here was the look of the times, this is what packaging should look like: kids would buy it. These guys should get themselves design jobs, before they get ripped off. Several have already worked their way into the applied arts, where they belong: on record covers, doing the art direction for movies, slides behind Rappers, backdrops for Breakers. Sitting by yourself on a wall is different.
An artist's attitude toward the work is telling. It's all hype, sure, but there can be quality in hype and I've caught some sleazy acts. A guy came to my house to deliver a small picture. With a friend. No picture. Broke. "Give me the money I'll come back later with the picture." "OK." While he was there he told me that he was entertaining the idea of giving Andy Warhol a picture. Well, Andy is everyone's culture parent, it's true, but I'm just a poor poet and Andy's turnover must be thousands and thousands a week in prints alone, and it hurt my feelings that I had to pay 50 clams and Andy would get it for free. I could see, though, that this boy's climb was on. This was my advice: don't give him the picture. Kids do that. Trade. That's what real artists do with each other. Since Andy's a press junkie, and I see you're getting the taste, call up page six of the Post and get a photographer to the Factory on the "Graffiti goes legit/street kid trades Tag for Soup Can" angle. You both get your picture in the paper, Andy comes off looking like friend of youth, you get a press clipping, and it's gravy for all parties. Easily $50 worth of advice. So he left with the money, and, like copping drugs in the street, beat me for the picture. A month or so later, after some friends put on a little muscle, I finally got the doodad, and promptly gave it away. Foolish way to hype yourself. When you're climbing a ladder, don't kick out the rungs.
As much as undervaluation can kill, so can a false sense of the value of your work. Jean-Michel was advised to stop giving it away. But if your friends can't have it, why live? Overprotection is deadly; the stuff has to get out there to be seen. Making money is something between artists and their stomachs. To turn one's work into fetish that is almost indistinct from oneself, to overpersonalize and covet one's own work, is professional suicide. Fear of rip-off is paralysis. One is always ripped off. Keeping work a secret is the psychology of the applied artist, not the fine artist who must live in a dialogue.
Is innovation important? When one compares Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures with Fellini's Satyricon we see that Fellini manages with pasty millions a bad reproduction of what Jack Smith achieved with a sequin. The trick is to make it appear that the innovator ripped it off from you. A good example of this principle is the case of Judy Rifka's work at the debut of the '70s. Her single shapes on plywood are among the most important paintings of the decade. Every painter who saw them at the time recognized their influence. She could then be called a painter's painter if feeding ideas to others is what painters' painters do. I suspect that it would be a heartbreaking thing to watch others get credit for your invention. Her researches into Constructivist theory were groundbreaking, but a pioneer is never at a loss for uncharted territory. At the first group show at the Mudd Club I was arrested by a gray painting with a little red blob in it and some drawing on it of Patti Astor from her starring role as Vickie in the movie Underground USA. The application of the ground and the way that little red spot was laid on was obviously the work of an extremely sophisticated handler of paint. Although I'd never seen a Judy Rifka of this type the outline of the red left me in no doubt as to its author. There was no visible label and on inquiry I saw I was right. Hers is the poetry of New York. The joy in her new work, the reveling in these characters she creates superimposed on her earlier work, demonstrates that her concerns have dovetailed my own temporary ones: that a picture is only as interesting as its storyline. The Patti Astor iconography is supreme. One must become the iconic representation of oneself in this town. One is at the mercy of the recognition factor and one's public appearance is absolute. (The iconic representation of the artist, in manifestations from sublime to tedious, sublime in Manzoni and Warhol through the tedium of Byars and Beuys, authorship as object, is the precedent for the legitimacy of the Tag. This is the individual as archetype, where we order a "Bud," where every bleach blonde is called "Blondie," the Tag name for the individual Deborah Harry. If Andy Warhol can't be used as an object lesson in how to become iconic then his life has been a waste. We become our name. I have spent my life becoming my name so that it would somehow protect the radiant child it has been created to arm.) Judy's perception of this is accurate. Her multiple-panel pictures are like movies. She has spent the last few years evolving a recognizable cast of characters to people her work. She is the eponymous lead. This is about her life in art, the frustrations and momentary ecstasies of painting a picture; the sub-mafia of artist's assistants; the domestication of pet boys refined into their specific types that become at once the original and the archetype.
Where is Taki? We can't escape the etymology or genealogy of art. It's not coincidental that the time that saw the gestation of graffiti was the period of gallery-referential art that flourished (wrong word) in the early '70s. During the era of the white wall, what would have the greater effect on us now was being produced by guerrilla artists bombing trains during their mechanical slumber in Queens. Those teenage prophets are lost in the mists of their own maturity, reminiscent of the way the origin of the blues is lost, the simple expression of the individual followed much later by full-scale commercial exploitation. Contrary to the rules of modern art that hallow the innovator, here is the second generation capitalizing on the innovations of the first. The commercial exploitation of innovation is, conversely, the primary logic of commercial art.
Even as I write, the Transit Authority has unleashed police dogs around the Corona yard, so perhaps there is still hope. Bombing will continue even with the dogs. When it stops you'll know it's played out. If it's still alive the autopsy will kill it. What would happen if subway graffiti were recognized as the native art it is? Would they find Taki and declare him a National Living Treasure as the Japanese do their keepers of the flame of native craft? Or if the TA legitimizes it, i.e. encourages it with NEA funding? What happens when the revolution is televised? It bombs out. Train painting has already been severely formalized almost to decadence. It has become historically self-conscious, the progression from expression to Pop; there is a Campbell's Soup can train; sophistication to boredom.
Looking through the Mailer book on graffiti from 1974, was it photographer's optical bias, editorial selectivity, or was the classic period of graffiti as "abstract expressionist," '50s, as the book makes it look when compared to the Pop psychedelic '60s of the train I was on today? It looks so much more severe in the book, metallic style, less balloon style: tougher, muy switchblade, mas barrio. But who remembers what it looked like? I remember that it was very sexy, the feeling; I don't remember the look. Eidetic overlays can't be trusted. What did it look like?
Jean-Michels don't look like the others. His don't have that superbomb panache that is the first turn-on of the pop graffitist. Nor does his marker have that tai-chi touch. He doesn't use spray but he's got the dope, and right now what we need is information; I want to know what is going on in people's minds and these pictures are useful. This article is about work that is information, not work that is about information. No matter what the envelope looks like to get it there, the dope's inside. Let the Parisians copy the athletic togs le look américain jeune Puma sneakaires le graffiti mignon, style is spin-off; what the pictures are internally about is what matters. If you're going to stand up there with the big kids you've got to be heavy, got to sit on a wall next to Anselm Kiefer next to Jonathan Borofsky next to Julian Schnabel and these guys are tough they can make you look real sissy. There's only one place for a mindless cutie and it ain't the wall, Jack.
[Above: Page 42: From left: Ronnie Cutrone, R & B Ants, 1981, acrylic on raw canvas, 60 X 80". An incident from human life entomorphosed. Joe Zucker, Round 14, 1981, acrylic, Rhoplex, cotton, on canvas, 72 1/2 x 72 1/2"] [Above: Page 43: Top left: Izhar Patkin, Collage, 1981, chrome-coated paper, spray paint and photograph, 40 x 52". Bottom right: Keith Haring, 1981, button] Judy Rifka and Jean-Michel Basquiat have both evolved a vocabulary, and so in his way has Keith Haring. In his gray eminence entrepreneurial capacity as director of the Mudd Club shows he was of particular importance in the general dissemination of work by other young artists, and not secondarily his own. His work is faux graphic and looks ready-made, like international road signs. This immediacy is his trump card. It is the already-existing quality of his characters that deceives one into accepting them as already there without the intervention of an individual will. But he did make them up. In their impersonal code they are transmitting a personal narrative. The code is here to be cracked. These poor little characters wigging out from the radioactive communications they are bombarded with are superslick icons of turmoil and confusion. They are without will, without protection from impulses of mysterious source. We can laugh at their involuntary couplings and tiny horrified runnings around because we see them as we cannot see, as the fish cannot see the water, ourselves.
Of course what artists see us as can tell us more about themselves than about us. The second-generation Pop artists who've been popping up behind their more innovative contemporaries show more interest in the(ir) poor victims of cocktail dresses, in the trials and tribulations of dressing up and going out, enchained by our fashion slavery, in Society, than in society. Chief of the Clubbists is Robert Longo who in his own way is concerned with our contemporary solipsism. As an undercover agent of the Fashion Police I am reluctantly placing him under arrest partly for being two years behind the times but really for forgetting that fashion imitates art, and that art that imitates fashion is two removes from the source. Art Deco comes after Cubism. On the subject of Troy Brauntuch, and the use of pictures, his work seems to have been anticipated by an Edwardian novelist: "'That habit of putting glass over an oil painting,' she murmured, 'makes always such a good reflection particularly when the picture's dark. Many's the time I've run into the National Gallery on my way to the Savoy and tidied myself before the Virgin of the Rocks . . .'" (source available). We need to see ourselves now but not this literally. For some reason we need recognizable evidence of our existence. Something has happened and we need, if not advice, at least a demonstration of the situation and many of our fears are in the words contained in Jean-Michel's pictures—Tar, Oil, Old Tin, Gold—we don't need a lexicon to know what these mean. These morphemes are self-evident. Phaedrus: Whom do you mean and what is his origin? Socrates: I mean an intelligent word graven on the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and who knows when to speak and when to be silent. Phaedrus: You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which the written word is no more than an image? Socrates: Yes, of course that is what I mean. —source available.
I'm always amazed by how people come up with things. Like Jean-Michel. How did he come up with those words he puts all over everything? Their aggressively handmade look fits his peculiarly political sensibility. He seems to have become the gutter and his world view very much that of the downtrodden and dispossessed. Here the possession of almost anything of even marginal value becomes a token of corrupt materialism. This is the bum coveting a pair of Guston's shoes. When Jean-Michel writes in almost subliterate scrawl "Safe plush he think" it is not on a Park Avenue facade that would be totally outside the beggar's venue but on a rusted-out door in a godforsaken neighborhood. Plush to whom safe from what? His is also the elegance of the clochard who lights up a megot with his pinkie raised. If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption, it would be Jean-Michel. The elegance of Twombly is there but from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet. Except the politics of Dubuffet needed a lecture to show, needed a separate text, whereas in Jean-Michel they are integrated by the picture's necessity. I'd rather have a Jean-Michel than a Cy Twombly. I do not live in the classical city. My neighborhood is unsafe. Also, I want my home to look like a pile of junk to burglars.
Politics can come up by inference in a work, without pointing, without overt dialectic, by the simplest depiction (as in the case of John Ahearn) of an individual. When one looks at Ahearn's pieces , the sensibility is so specific and acute that we feel we would get the same feeling even if it looked entirely different. And his people are about feelings. I don't know how anyone who could afford them would put them in their homes. "Why would the boss want to be reminded at home of the people who keep asking him for a raise?" (source available). They are objects of devotion, of love and its ennobling ability, and are among the rarest and most moving in the history of art. They will command and dominate wherever they are hung and make all art that is anterior to it or that bears a resemblance seem like it was just leading up to Ahearn. They wipe out Segal. They make Duane Hanson seem like a snob and an insensitive jerk. When we look at Hanson's lumpen proles and their dazed stupefaction we feel superior. Ahearns, like most physically dominant art, don't reproduce well. The actual confrontation with the work is overwhelming. They are made to be seen from quite specific angles. Ahearn's work is hung high, and these people up against the white wall of a gallery are looking down at the viewer with dignity, sobriety, querulousness, perfectly precise and specific expressions, fleeting and miraculously caught. The man seems to be looking into the future with intense responsibility as the woman, with her arms around his neck, trusts his ability to confront the world. I am that woman. Ahearn works in the South Bronx the way Caravaggio probably would. He gives his models the first cast. They're poor and they're owed the grace of their image. This is no exploitation and yet I have heard him referred to (by an artist) as a racist, exploiter of his sitters. If going into the ghetto and commemorating its inhabitants is racist, then what do you call people who segregate themselves and plot genocide?
To Whites every Black holds a potential knife behind the back, and to every Black the White is concealing a whip. We were born into this dialogue and to deny it is fatuous. Our responsibility is to overcome the sins and fears of our ancestors and drop the whip, drop the knife. In Izhar Patkin's parable of racial cannibalism we see that when a man with a .45 meets a man with a shotgun I guess the man with the pistol is a dead man. Where is Taki? I think now about Anya Phillips who so briefly illuminated this fleeting world. I think about clothes worn by people so recently and yet how long ago it all seems that Anya would show up in those cocktail dresses and of all things, a Chinese girl in a blonde wig. And now all the girls in their cocktail dresses who never heard of Anya and how quickly each generation catches the look of its creators and forgets the moral underneath. I think about how one must become the iconic representation of oneself if one is to outlast the vague definite indifference of the world. I think about how every bleach blonde is called Blondie in the street and Deborah Harry's refutation of her iconic responsibility to reify her name as a brunette. We are that radiant child and have spent our lives defending that little baby, constructing an adult around it to protect it from the unlisted signals of forces we have no control over. We are that little baby, the radiant child, and our name, what we are to become, is outside us and we must become "Judy Rifka" or "Jean-Michel" the way I became "Rene Ricard."
Originally published in Artforum magazine, December 1981