New York (Old) School


They say art knows no boundaries, and that it can transcend the coarse materialism of class and caste. What better way to test this thesis than to tour the Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art with one of Pollock’s
unacknowledged heirs? Not talking here about the masters of the Chelsea gallery universe. When it comes
to the strategies of
action painting— not to mention the persona of the American artist as a self-creating individual— the real carriers of Pollock’s legacy are the hiphop legions of graffiti.

Why are the
connections between these two New York schools so hard for the cognoscenti to see? The answer was plain from the moment my willing subject, Case 2, entered the temple of modern art on West 53rd Street, dressed in his graf ensemble of fleece sweatshirt, sideways cap, and wide-legged jeans. Case was, as he noted softly, the only black man in the place. All around us, smiling white folks glided up escalators and paused pensively before paintings that carried the pedigree of Western modernism. Finally, Case saw a
familiar face: It was the homey handing out headsets.

At 39, Case is, as he puts it, “a legend in my own time in graf
fiti.” Modesty is not part of the graf world’s etiquette (is it anywhere in New York?), but Case is merely being accurate. His fiercely rendered action painting is unique even in a milieu where one’s tag is the emblem of selfhood. In the 25 years since he started “bombing” trains, Case has perfected an intensity of line and color that not only fulfills the demands of Old School graffiti (as rigid, in its way, as mambo or blues), but pushes these conventions to the point where they touch African American colorism, not to mention whiteboy masters like Thomas Hart Benton and Arthur Dove.

Of course, Case has never heard of these artists— his inspiration runs more to Riff 170, Cos 170, and especially Butch 2. (“He was the basic nastiest to me.”) Nor is Case familiar with the man he calls Jason Polack. But his first response to the sight of Pollock’s celebrated canvases is instructive: “It look like a modern ancient tag.”

“The Zorro splat” is how Case describes Pollock’s technique, making a parrying motion with his hand: “Crisscross and splish-splash.” If there’s an edge of disdain in his voice, it’s not just the usual reflex of an artist with turf to protect. To Case, this work seems not just archaic but useless. It’s not just the lack of pictorial content, but the swooping, vertiginous feeling that is Pollock’s signature. “That would mess up the 3-D,” Case explains. What’s more, “you don’t want splat in your letters.” His palette, too, is as far from Pollock’s bebop tweeds as spray-paint colors like federal-safety purple, schoolbus yellow, and popsicle orange can be.

After all, Case has to compete not only with the sea of tags that adorn talismanic New York spaces unknown to the art world (such as the “Hall of Fame” in a schoolyard on Madison Avenue and East 106th Street), but also with the all-consuming culture of advertising and animation. These are the things Case notices on a cab ride through Midtown, but once inside the museum, a hooded skepticism comes over his face. ” ‘Untitled,’ ” Case snorts at the name of an early Pollock canvas. “So why is it also called ‘Seascape by Night‘ ?”

Yet as we saunter through the crowded halls, the power of Pollock’s paintings hits Case where he lives. “He wants them to see how he’s moving his hand,” Case observes, staring at a classic linescape. “Free-form is definitely what that is.” Soon, he’s fascinated by the way the artist concentrates energy toward the center of these vast canvases. Case stares at the pattern, riffing on the calligraphic possibilities. Finally, he announces: “It’s like a hieroglyphic of his own soul.”

Later Case elaborates on the relationship between Pollock’s work and his own, not in terms of gesture (which you’d think would appeal to a graffiti writer), but of aura: “I felt I seen a person from another time doing something that he cherishly love, and that’s how I am. When I do my paintings, I cherishly love it, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. When you paint, you have to come up with something that give people an eye-opening feeling. I want them to see advancement. I want them to see techniques. I want them to see something they can find within themselves. Everybody has they own dimensional way of looking at things. Me, I’m so far gone in a dimension from another nebula that I’m amazed at what I see.”

Growing up in the Bronx, Case was an athletic, rambunctious kid, whose favorite game was to break into the railroad yards and play acrobat. One day, at the age of 10, he decided to do the monkey swing from some electric wires that happened to be live. Next thing he knew, he was lying on the ground unable to move his left arm and right leg. “I was saved through the behalf of Allah,” he says, showing the small scar on his head where the current passed out of his body. It took 11 months in the hospital to make his leg work again, but the doctors had to amputate his arm at the shoulder. It was the sort of life-shattering event that can turn a boy permanently enraged— or numb. Case fought his way through both, in no small part bedause graffiti gave him another way to put himself across, body and soul. It’s a struggle he intuits in Pollock’s work as well.

“In my opinion, he probably grew up in a place where he didn’t have too many friends to give him ideas. He was more of a subtle dude, who worked in isolation from all the cowboy stuff around him.” In fact, unbeknownst to Case, Pollock was born in Wyoming and grew up in a farming family, poor and belligerent— a real problem child. His older brother Charles, who had his own artistic ambitions, provided the impetus for Pollock to leave home for New York at the age of 18, determined to become an artist. For Case, the root inspiration was more indirect: “My father was an artist before I was born. My moms told me he used to draw real good. I have his blood, his emotions, his feelings. Last time I ever really seen him, I was seven or eight. I’ll always love him, though.”

Art certainly can communicate across boundaries— and even through life and death. It’s society that cuts off the connections before they can threaten perceptual and commercial order. Back in Pollock’s time, a powerful cadre of artists and critics fought the power of formal and social demarcations— they called themselves the New York School. Of course, the bad boys of action painting, bebop, Beat poetry, and the like never felt the need to bomb a train. If they had, perhaps fewer of them would have died young, their rage turned inward, their energy bound and ultimately commodified. If Pollack had been a Bronx-bred kid like Case, perhaps hitting the IRT would have been his gesture— if not his salvation.

When I ask whether he thinks these paintings are worth the millions they now cost, Case doesn’t hesitate to say yes. “They’re famous,” he explains, “because it’s a person’s inner soul.” Where is the critic who can see Case the way he sees Jason Polack?