Village Voice 05.10.2017 : Page 33
Left: Keith Haring Painting the Houston/ Bowery Wall, Lower East Side, N.Y. (1982). Bottom: South Bronx Wasteland, Bronx, New York (1979) 35 May 10 -May 16, 2017 VILLAGE VOICE.com Photographs by Martha Cooper/Steven Kasher Gallery Moving Pictures Martha Cooper captures the transient splendor of Eighties-era New York graffiti art I BY HANNAH STAMLER later accrue art-market value — Keith n the wake of recent calls to “delete Haring’s Pop murals, for example — that Uber” — spurred in part by the app’s lowering of surge prices during a taxi wasn’t true of the majority of the looping, freeform drawings and names (or, sim-workers’ strike at JFK airport amid ply, “tags”) spread across lampposts, the January protests against Donald buildings, and train cars. Trump’s immigrant ban — the company’s Most wouldn’t even survive into the San Francisco employees launched a next month or year, let alone guerrilla PR campaign. the next decade. And, indeed, They took to the streets to visitors accustomed to the spray-paint the message Martha Cooper look of today’s subway system Steven Kasher “#undelete” on city walls, Gallery may be surprised by images pausing, of course, to snap 515 West 26th that depict MTA trains as they a photograph kneeling Street appeared over three decades before their handiwork, stevenkasher.com Through June 3 ago, covered wall-to-wall in all smiles and jocular start-thick paint that obscured win-up swagger. dows and doors. Photographs A welcome antidote to taken in Queens and the Bronx, where this image — which was posted, reposted, subways emerge above ground, show and ridiculed online — can be found in an trains spray-painted with block text in exhibition of Martha Cooper’s photogra-sunny pinks, yellows, and greens — bright phy, on view at Steven Kasher Gallery in bullets rocketing past rows of dull-brown Chelsea through June 3. The show, which apartment buildings. centers on a thoughtfully curated selec-Subway exteriors and interiors were tion of her output from the early Eighties, serves as a reminder of a time before street delectable spots for graffiti artists and, in turn, a favorite subject of Cooper’s. The art went corporate, before it even had a exhibition includes one of her most iconic marketable, and thus appropriable, genre. photographs, of Dondi, the aerosol virtu-In the late Seventies, Cooper, then in oso responsible for inducting her into the her mid-thirties and working as a photog-graffiti scene; set in a train yard, the image rapher for the New York Post , became in-presents Dondi spraying in a hero’s pose, terested in what New Yorkers, in varied straddling two subway cars, his lithe figure tones of admiration and contempt, called silhouetted against a soft and misty sky. A graffiti. In that day there was no Banksy shot from two years later, in 1982, catches or Shepard Fairey, and although some of a young boy as he runs buoyantly across the pieces Cooper photographed would parked trains. Another picture taken that same year features Lady Pink, a rare female graffitist, perched on a subway bench and smirking in front of her freshly applied tag; her hands are still clenched around a spray can, her white Keds stained by a film of sidewalk grime. Hung on the gallery’s backmost wall are highlights from Cooper’s ongoing se-ries of global, contemporary street artists at work, a complement to the older por-traits that shows how younger genera-tions — including Fairey and other bold-name graffiti artists like Space Invader and Swoon — expanded upon the form Dondi and Lady Pink helped pioneer. But these photographs, con-strained by their purpose of documenting graffiti’s past and present, prove far less memorable in composition than the images of ordinary New Yorkers merely going about their daily routines. If, as Susan Sontag wrote, “to photo-graph is to frame,” then what Cooper did throughout her early series was an act of framing squared. One of the extraordi-nary things about what we now term “street art” is its ability to envelop un-aware passersby in its narrative, and Coo-per had an incisive eye for the moments when graffiti lent particularly surreal or droll character to everyday life. Meticu-lous shots capture adults made captive and complicit in the feverish, often ado-lescent, fantasies of the city’s young art-ists. A subway conductor peers out of a car spray-painted with the video game character Luigi, turning the workday into a game of Mario Kart . At the 96th Street station, a middle-aged woman boards a train decorated with a hyper-curvy and orgasmic blonde — the sort of dirty car-toon that would send a kid to detention if doodled in the margins of a pop quiz. Cooper also recorded instances when commuting bodies interrupted or altered graffiti’s effects. A businessman buried in his newspaper, photographed through the sliver of closing doors, embodies a sense of profound calm at odds with the frenzied energy of the subway’s outer-shell mural, his focus a gently funny testament to the absorptive power of reading. At 180th Street, the outlines of people waiting in the shadows on the sub-way platform make black imprints on the multicolored train stopped on the oppo-site side of the tracks. Cooper distinguishes herself from other street-art chroniclers by operating not only as a documentarian or a photo-journalist but also as a street photogra-pher in the tradition of such New York greats as Garry Winogrand and Diane Ar-bus. This is evident in both her New York subway scenes and in a suite of black-and-white pictures shot between 1978 and 1980, among the earliest works in-cluded, which explore children using the city landscape in imaginative play: leap-ing across puddles and out of fire es-capes, or racing across the now-vanished West Side piers. Street-art diehards will cherish Cooper’s exhibition for the rich graffiti archive it comprises, but these silver-gelatin prints offer the key to a second interpretation: namely, that the show is as much about graffiti as it is about youthfulness — its creativity, its rebelliousness, its wisdom, its folly.