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    I Lost It at the Auction
by Alan Moore
 
     
 
Bronx Museum of Art's 1999 exhibition of Fashion Moda
 
30-foot collaborative mural by UGA artists
(detail)
 
Crash's paintings sold
 
This work by the late master Dondi sold for $6,000
 
Who can say if these Keith Harings are real?
 
Cel by Zephyr from cult movie's title animation
 
Work by "fellow traveler" Ronnie Cutrone
 
The spray can lot excited the crowd
 
Mear One's homage to Mumia
 
Kenny Scharf's aerosol banners passed
 
The top lot,
a $22,000 door
 
Sculpture by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres, with painting by Crash
 
It was a slaughter on Lafayette Street, the first night of Guernsey's two-part graffiti art auction on June 14, as some three-quarters of the lots "passed" with no bids. This great, gangling attempt to strike while the market iron is hot on behalf of a neglected criminal art movement seemed to have come to naught.

The event began with good spirit, banner ads on Artnet.com, a color catalogue, a feature in the New York Times and many important lots up for sale. But right from the top there were signs of strain. A second piece in the Times was contextually sarcastic, contrasting the extravagant estimates in the Guernsey's auction with the auction prices for Old Master works. The catalogue was riddled with typos, misspelled names, and puffy hype rather than history. Ominously, the provenance of the works consigned to the auction was not included.

A reception the night before the auction was ostensibly a benefit for the Bronx Museum of Art. Located in the borough that gave birth to hip-hop culture, the BMA is one of the few United States institutions that has recently acknowledged graffiti art. But the cheese-chunk hors d'oeuvres, red grapes with seeds and mixed drinks with no ice were not the stuff of a $50 benefit party, and the tawdry fare seemed like a vote of no confidence by the host.

The party of course was mobbed by generations of graffiti artists (called "writers"), all of them turning their catalogue into instant collectibles by tagging each others' copies. For these artists, the auction was an occasion to make art in a kind of unconscious "institutional critique."

But few collectors were in evidence.

As an exhibition of graffiti art, however, the Guernsey's viewing was extraordinary. This style and mode of art practice has been around for 30 years, and a lot has gone on within it. This large exhibition of the style was the only one New York has never had, sad to say, and it included the sublime and the pathetic, the thoughtful and the lame in equal measure.

Regardless of how the auction might go, said Charlie Ahearn, graffiti's importance was self-evident. The director of the first independent hip-hop movie Wild Style (1982) said this was "a folk art movement which swept the entire planet. It's something kids around the world can be a part of."

Hundreds of meetings took place that night, and much remembering. Steve Hager, who wrote two important books on the art and culture of the 1980s, Hip Hop and Art After Midnight, told me that his experience with hip hop "made me want to reconnect with my own culture," that is, the counter-culture. So Hager went from a tie-wearing reporter for the Daily News to editor of High Times.

Besides, Hager said, the violence in hip-hop culture scared him, and kept him from making the scene "his thing." Someone who didn't like what you wrote was liable to pull a gun on you.

Although intended as a sales promotion, the reception was basically an artists' event. Nerves fluttered and rumors swirled. Dark allusions flew to arguments, squabbles and works stolen and wrongfully consigned -- "But I'm afraid to complain or they'll come after me." Intimidation in the masculine world of graffiti is sometimes part of the program.

I was told Futura and Lee were boycotting, and that Ramelzee strode in, insulted some white people and left.

As the auction opened, it was clear from the outset that it was not going well. "Good!" said Hugo Martinez, as the United Graffiti Artists' mural of 1974, an 8 by 30 foot behemoth with early tags by several famous masters failed to make a $30,000 opening bid. Martinez formed the UGA, and his Chelsea gallery promoting the movement only recently closed.

Crash (aka Johnny Matos) finally saw some action, but the prices were low for an established artist, -- $2,000 plus. The first lot was bought by a young man in shirtsleeves standing in the aisle. Glaring video camera lights honed in on the bidders as they raised their paddles.

This weird, noncommercial intrusion made a spectacle of the auction, which, as post-modern theorist Baudrillard observed, is already a "tournament of value." The second night the big cameras were gone.

After a long stretch of "passed" works, a loud outraged voice cried, "Garage sale!" The handlers, young men in black t-shirts and jeans, stood stolidly, occasionally semaphoring to the auctioneer -- "Bid!" -- out in the sea of faces.

Numerous Keith Haring subway chalk drawings did not sell. Art lovers ripped these pieces out of the subway advertising mounts, and most of them look the worse for it. Although, as curator Franklin Sirmans remarked, "The lines are there," the Haring Estate will not authenticate these pieces, which Guernsey's noted in an addendum to the catalogue.

As the disaster wore on, people waxed philosophical. Coco, one of the early UGA writers, said he was glad to meet people and to reconnect. Real graffiti was done on the trains, and "that energy could never be duplicated on a legal surface." Iz the Wiz, another writer, reportedly said that the real crime was for graffiti to be in the market in the first place.

Hugo Martinez said Guernsey's didn't promote the auction to the art world. But the real problem was that the sale took place "in advance of the critical reception. The historical sequence has to be established" so people know who did what, when, and what mattered.

Early on, I forgot I was poor and signed up for a paddle. But as the room went dead, I found myself paralyzed, unable to bid. I would've had to sit up front, block out that crowd of the poor and indifferent, and concentrate on what was right in front of me on the block to do any real buying.

This'll just be a footnote, John Ahearn said. It's historically unimportant, since it's only success that matters.

The second night of the auction I threw away my notebook and sat down with a bidding paddle. From that moment on, I ceased to be a reporter, and became just another un-monied partisan seeking a bargain. I found mine among the cells Zephyr made for the title animation in Wild Style. I bought Break (advanced) violet for $300 ("breaking" letters, get it? like the '80s hip-hop dance style that partnered graffiti in the birth of hip-hop).

Mine was the only bid, and it was half the estimate.

Paul Tschinkel, producer of the long-time video series Art New York, sat next to me. "Paul," I said, "You have a job, you can really bid." He bought two works by Ronnie Cutrone for $300 each using my paddle.

Zephyr and Cutrone made their mark in the '80s, and we knew them. Still, artist after artist, some represented with work that spanned 20 or 30 years, passed without a bid.

A flurry of action arose over a case of vintage Krylon spray paint cans ca. 1975-82, "all colors discontinued or renamed." This peculiar lot rose to some four times its estimate of $400-$600. This crowd of mostly artists was moved not by the product but by the process. These were nostalgic relics from "back in the day" when teenaged artists stole these cans from hardware stores to make their murals on the trains.

The romance of graffiti is explicitly evoked in Mear One's large canvases of figures in a drug-edged dream world, and four of these sold for $1,000 each, a third of estimate. One work, showing a guru-like Mumia Abu-Jamal dissolving his death row cell door, sold for slightly more.

Work by the Bronx group Tats Cru passed, Kenny Scharf's large early '80s canvases passed, Kaws' altered billboards passed and only one work by Lady Pink sold. She is almost alone among women in the graffiti movement.

Two drawings by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold very low, below estimate, leaving one consignor to grouse, "I could have gotten more from a dealer."

The top lot in the auction was the door to the apartment above the 51X Gallery in the East Village (1979-1983). A cloud of artists' tags with two on the margins by Haring, and one in the center by Basquiat, the door reached $22,000. The market for tagged doors is clearly provisional -- others have sold in past auctions -- but this one is obviously a museum-quality piece, an artifact of an important moment in the convergence of art worlds.

A group of earlier lots, collective murals by the United Graffiti Artists from 1974, did not return for sale, as had been promised. But another early lot, a collaborative work by Crash (Johnny Matos), John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres did come back and failed to get a bid. I bought it for the reserve.

Those who have ideological objections to the commodification of graffiti may well have cause to rejoice.

Arlan Ettinger, Guernsey's top exec, described the sale as "disappointing," but, he said, "I'm proud we tried it. We went out on a limb, since there's never been an auction of graffiti before." With so many consignors, the auction was difficult to produce. Although many works were consigned without reserves, those lots were passed rather than being given away. "I'd like to think that Guernsey's did the right thing from start to finish."

Was it the timing of this auction so late in spring? A failure in the promotion? The thrown-together nature of the sale?

It's unlikely that many graffiti artists accepted this sale as a final judgement of the market upon their efforts, and then burned their oeuvres over the weekend. Twenty years on from the boom years of the '80s, the "mid-career" artists in this movement are barely middle-aged, and new artists sign on the train daily. The graf look is an established part of commercial design.

While art money decided to pass, graffiti will not go away.

After decades of working for the billion dollar graffiti eradication efforts of law enforcement, academics are starting to turn to the esthetics of the movement. As always, it will be artists' continuous involvement in that movement which will sustain it. While he exhibits in museums as well as tagging on the street, San Francisco based artist Barry McGee's (aka Twist) show at Deitch Projects last year sold out, for a sum that would be enough to buy everything sold in this auction. While adventurous patrons are now in short supply, graffiti's time will come.


ALAN MOORE is an art historian who lives in New York.

 
 
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