Calligraffiti: 1984/2013 at Leila Heller Gallery
September 5 to October 5, 2013
568 West 25th Street at 11th Avenue
New York City, 212-249-7695
In old master art and sometimes also in early modernism, words often are the sources for visual images. This, after all, is why there is an academic journal called Word & Image – and a book by Norman Bryson titled Word and Image. Once you have identified the key text, then you are prepared to interpret a painting. This exhibition demonstrates how in Islamic calligraphy, in New York graffiti, and in some American and European gestural painting the relationship between word and image is totally different. In Tunisian/French artist eL Seed’s acrylic painting, This is just a phrase in Arabic (2013), in the present exhibition, words form a magnificent black-on-red image. Mehdi Qotbi’s lithographs, analogously, are playful decorations using words. And Rob Wynne’s Appear! (2013) is poured paint spelling “Appear!” These artists transform Arabic or English-language words into visual compositions. Graffiti artists do something different—they invent languages. Keith Haring is represented here by large chalk on paper drawings; Rammellzee’s spray collage, Decision of Sigma War (1984) is a four-panel composition; and LA2 (Angel Ortiz)’s Fire 911 (2013) has oil markings on a fireman’s alarm. And the Abstract Expressionists and their French peers adopt yet another procedure—they make completely abstract calligraphic paintings. Franz Kline’s Untitled (1953) is in exhibition along with Bill Jensen’s Raised Bristles III (2010-11) and Pat Steir’s Untitled (2004); so too are Pierre Soulages’s Untitled (1956) and Hans Hartung’s T1971-R24 (1971).
In 1984 Jeffrey Deitch argued that the calligraphic tradition is a crucial component of modernism. He proposed that Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly be set alongside New York graffiti artists and the Persian masters of calligraphy. The new graffiti, Deitch noted, “was everywhere except the art world itself.” Then two years later the title and cover image of Frank Stella’s manifesto Working Space were derived from graffiti. Stella built upon tradition—for a long time museum art has gained energy from street life. We find this happening already, I believe in Camille Pissarro’s paintings, the product of his anarchism, as Joachim Pissarro has written, “a radical aesthetic whereby art would be stripped of all its canons and literary ambitions.” And yet, even now the art world mostly maintains a distinction in kind between graffiti and gestural painting, between street art and art in the museum.
In his A. W. Mellon lectures of 1989 Oleg Grabar, the doyen of Islamic art historians, noted how in that culture: “Writing is a specific moment in a series of closed processes of interpreting the world, a set of formulas through which life or the surrounding worlds are expressed . . . Writing contains a potentially technical perfection that can only be explained by comparing it to horses, nature, or love.”
For Muslims, he notes, “God has sent His message through writing and yet no writing will ever express the plenitude of the divine message.” You don’t need to be a believer or take this claim literally to admire the calligraphic art, sacred and secular, assembled in this revelatory exhibition. Many Chelsea shows effectively present upscale contemporary art. This one does something more difficult and rare- it offers a visually convincing sketch of a revisionist art history.
Sources: Joachim Pissarro, Camille Pissarro (New York, 1993), 161; Oleg Grabar, The Mediation of Ornament (Princeton, 1992), 85, 64.