By Christian Viveros-Fauné
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Street art, like most cultural institutions of purely American origin, is better appreciated in Europe. Manhattan's Doyle Auction House plans to help change that with what it's billing as the first street-art auction in the U.S., to be held Tuesday, October 16.
Between summer 2006 and fall '08, street art became increasingly popular with the overseas establishment—retrospectives were held at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, the Tate Modern (both U.K.), and the Museum Het Domein in the Netherlands. But in NYC, graffiti's traditional home, only a handful of galleries regularly exhibit the genre, something that has changed little since the mid '80s. Jeffrey Deitch, a consistent champion of street art, left his gallery in Soho to take a post as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, where in 2011 he curated "Art in the Streets," the first major retrospective of street art in the U.S. It was scheduled to show at the Brooklyn Museum this spring but was canceled, the institution citing lack of funds.
"My theory is this," says Lois Stavsky, author and street-art documentarian, explaining the continents' differing attitudes, "in New York City, street art, and especially graffiti, is still associated with its roots in poverty. Whereas in Europe, they don't associate it with disorder, chaos, and a fear of minorities. To the art world, untaught artists are also a lower class of artists, and their ascendance becomes a threat to every institution across the board."
"I wanted to tell the history of street art through this auction," says Angelo Madrigale, Doyle's curator for the show, who, in an attempt to show that street art is being accepted by the establishment, has chosen 46 works by the genre's top names, including Dalek, media darling Banksy, and Margaret Kilgallen (who died in 2001 at the age of 33).
For nearly 40 years, street art has grown from the inside with little curatorial input from that establishment. When talking to many street artists active today, accusations of "sellout" seem closely aligned with discussion of curation. At the 5Pointz Aerosol Art Center in Long Island City, a wall directly across the street from MOMA's P.S.1 recently read: "Dear Artworld: When we inherit the earth . . . you aren't invited. Love, My Generation."
"Ideally, street art belongs on the street," continues Stavsky, who thinks that the lots in Doyle's auction are undervalued by at least 50 percent. "That way, it becomes accessible to the most people, especially people who don't regularly go to museums and galleries. But I understand that these artists also have to make a living."
Notable works in the auction include canvases by Bronx-born wild-style pioneers Duster, T-Kid 170, and Seen. Futura 2000 and Richard Hambleton, both of whom worked with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, are also featured, cementing a link to two of graffiti's first crossover art celebrities. Cope2's Untitled (Til the End) (2009) lands somewhere between de Kooning's most colorful '50s canvases and the bathroom wall of your favorite punk dive bar, while Chris Yormick's three mixed-media works reimagine Hockney's early pop-art pieces, the loneliness replaced by a kind of inner transcendence at being on the outside looking in. The artist Bast offers Untitled (Marilyn) (2005), swapping Monroe's former place in pop art as tabloid queen for a seat at the table of punk rock's s&m patois.
Perhaps the auction's most baroque offering (and its most museum-ready piece) is Shepard Fairey's Untitled (2004), a Vespa ET2 scooter bombed in the artist's decaying-poster style, stenciled over with the faces of counterculture heroes like David Bowie, Sid Vicious, and (as ever) André the Giant. The scooter works as a kind of decorative sculpture, declaring street art's cult of self with nonchalance. Fairey was recently sentenced to two years' probation and a $25,000 fine by the Justice Department for destroying evidence in the case against his use of an AP photo for the artist's most famous work, the 2008 Obama "Hope" poster. Fairey, more than any other artist within the genre, straddles the fence between leftist propaganda, anarchic radicalism, and overt consumerism.
"I consider myself a populist artist, and street art is a bureaucracy-free way of reaching people," Fairey says.
The auction's most expensive estimate ($20,000) is for a print (Life Is Beautiful, 2008) by Mr. Brainwash (né Thierry Guetta), the videographer who interviewed many of the artists in the Banksy-directed documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. What makes the piece potentially valuable is not only that it was featured in the film, but also that Mr. Brainwash's art might not be the work of Guetta at all, but a large-scale collaborative prank on the part of Banksy and Fairey.
"The thing with Mr. Brainwash is such a paradox," concludes Madrigale, clearly enjoying the ambiguity these artists embody. "He's so divisive and infuriating to the genre, yet he may be the only true overnight success in street-art history."