From Street to Studio

May 17, 2013 3:11PM

By Bridget Moriarity

“What do you think about the auction houses selling street art?” is a question posed on the contemporary artist Banksy’s web site. He responds with a quote from Matisse: “I was very embarrassed when my canvases began to fetch high prices, I saw myself condemned to a future of painting nothing but masterpieces.” Banksy, using Matisse as his mouthpiece, captures the age-old tension that exists between the artist and commercial success. Long before street art became commodified, artists sought an affiliation with the street as a sanctuary of sorts from the fast-paced, high-stakes realm of fine art. They accomplished this association by working with non-art materials, using everyday objects as their subject matter, and distancing themselves from the traditional medium of painting, or, at the very least, from traditional painting.

Claes Oldenburg
Claes Oldenburg, the 84-year-old Pop artist, moved to New York in 1956 and received his first show, of figurative drawings and papier-mâché sculptures, at the Judson Gallery in 1959. His second exhibition, in 1960, was a found-object environment, titled The Street. The floor-to-ceiling installation consists of urban refuse, flat outlined figures, signs and sculptures made from non-art materials like cardboard, newspaper and burlap – all, in a gritty palette of black and brown. Letters and word fragments are sprinkled throughout, recalling graffiti. His follow-up toThe Street was The Store, a group of brightly painted sculpture using everything from drain-pipe-sized cigarettes to humongous slices of pie, often constructed with chicken wire draped with plaster-soaked canvas, then finished with a shiny coat of enamel paint. From the 1970s on, he focused on public commissions, taking his work outside. During this era he would also complete The Mouse Museum, a collection of ready-made objects and experiments from his studio encased in a structure shaped like the ears of Mickey Mouse. He soon added the Ray Gun Wing, featuring toys and scraps of metal and plaster. The StreetThe StoreThe Mouse Museum and The Ray Gun Wingare all on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through 5 August.

Alexander Calder
Though his father was a sculptor and his mother a painter, Alexander Calder did not originally set out to be an artist. He graduated with an engineering degree in 1919. But, soon after, he moved to New York, enrolling in the Art Students League. Those first paintings were mostly realistic cityscapes. Sculpture, though, is the medium in which he would work his wonders. By twisting wire, carved wood and cut metal shapes he created portraits and spare renderings of animals and circus figures. Often suspending his sculptures, he introduced movement to these works, earning them the nickname of “mobiles” from his fellow artist Marcel Duchamp. “To most people who look at a mobile,” Calder once said, “it’s no more than a series of flat objects that move. To a few, though, it may be poetry.” An untitled mobile from 1967 is on sale at Sotheby’s Paris in June.

Jean Dubuffet
Jean Dubuffet, one of the most important artists of post-war France, did not devote his life to painting until his 41st birthday. His ironic sense of humour was evident in his work, which often resembled naïve graffiti. Ever rebellious against the traditional values of the art world and the accepted notion of beauty, Dubuffet incorporated butterfly wings, tar, string, pebbles, glass and even mud into his textured canvases. Influenced by his travels to the Sahara desert, he made Paysage Couleur de Viande Cuite, 1949, to be offered at Sotheby’s Paris in June. Dubuffet’s scribbling with a ballpoint pen while talking on the phone inspired him to create “l’Hourloupe,” a series of paintings and sculptures of the 1960s and early 1970s. The paintings resemble jig-saw puzzles and sometimes depict such everyday objects as scissors, a typewriter or a wheelbarrow. Les Riches fruits de l’erreur, 1963, also for sale in June at Sotheby’s Paris, is painted in the style of “l’Hourloupe.”

Andy Warhol
“A Coke is a Coke, and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking,” Warhol famously remarked. Coca- Cola bottles and Campbell’s soup cans are among the supermarket items Warhol elevated to fine-art status as the subjects of his work. It started when he moved to New York City in the 1950s to pursue a career as a commercial artist, but by the end of the decade he was committed to painting, and he debuted his Pop canvases based on comics and ads in 1961. By 1964, he held his first exhibition of sculptures – replicas of product boxes that showcased everything from Brillo pads to Heinz ketchup. He called his studio at the time “The Factory,” and he distanced himself from painting, instead choosing to make several underground films. He also produced silk screen prints of celebrities like Jimmy Carter and Marilyn Monroe. The modern-day street artist Banksy appropriated this technique in his own portrait of supermodel Kate Moss – a gesture that Warhol would likely have appreciated, as he mentored and befriended young artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat before his own premature death in 1987, at age 58.

Keith Haring
In Keith Haring’s 1990 New York Times obituary, Andrew L. Yarrow wrote, “During his brief but meteoric career, Mr Haring invented a cartoonish universe inhabited by crawling children, barking dogs and dancing figures, all set in motion by staccato-like lines.” Indeed, Haring took that visual vocabulary to the New York City subway in 1980, where he started to make white chalk drawings on unused advertising panels that were covered in matte black paper. Inspired by the graffiti around him, he produced hundreds of these sketches over the next five years. “It was this chalk-white fragile thing in the middle of all this power and tension and violence that the subway was,” he said. After achieving a great deal of success in the 1980s – working on a range of projects from an advertising campaign for Absolut vodka to an acclaimed one-man show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in Soho – Haring opened Pop Shop, a retail store selling T-shirts, toys, posters and buttons emblazoned with his images. He wanted to give people access to his work, and, throughout his career, he remained close to the street culture that inspired him. In one of a series of untitled 1984 works he collaborated with the graffiti-writer, L.A. 2, and bedecked a sculptural male torso with Day-Glo paint and then covered it with their tags. “I only wish Michelangelo could see them, but then again maybe he will,” said the artist of the pieces.

Jean-Michel Basquiat
The Brooklyn-born artist Jean-Michel Basquiat received no formal arts education. At age 15, he ran away from home to live in New York’s Washington Square Park, where he would begin his career as a graffiti artist using the tag “SAMO,” which stood for “Same Old Shit.” Basquiat moved on to make T-shirts, postcards and collages in the late 1970s, focusing on current events and pop culture-phenomena for inspiration. Works on paper and canvas came later as he could afford them, a range of which are on view at Sotheby’s New York in a selling exhibition show called “Man Made.” A 1982 painting titled Crown Hotel (Mona Lisa Black Background) is selling at Sotheby’s Paris in June. A crudely depicted nude sits roughly in the centre of the work, with the words “Mona Lisa” scrawled above her and “Olympia” beside her – two nods to historic masterpieces. Other words are crossed out; there are drips of black and white paint; and a collection of cartoonish heads collects in one corner. There is also profanity written on the composition and a reference to money, “Six American Dollars,” that effectively cheapens the moment. It is a monumental piece painted six years before the artist’s death from a drug overdose in 1988.

Bridget Moriarity is based in New York. She writes on art and culture.