By MIKE MAIZELS December 4, 2023
"The more deeply jazz penetrates society, the more reactionary elements it takes on, the more completely it is beholden to banality and the less it will be able to tolerate freedom and the eruption of phantasy”
—Theodor Adorno, 1936
Opening last week at Deitch is a sprawling retrospective on the work and impact of Wild Style, a cult classic movie that captured the birth of street art and hip hop in the prism of early 1980s New York. By definition, the prism refracted numerous other changes on the cusp of their transformation. While the film hints rather than points, one can see offscreen the contemporaneous boom on Wall Street starting to form momentum. That exuberance fed into many of the “beginnings” of that decade that now feel the like the start of now—hip hop and street art no less than ESPN, the experience economy, modern income inequality and the personal computer. But we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves just yet.
As an exhibition, the show succeeds as a kind of updatable time capsule. While some of the best scenes in the film are impossible to capture—such as the tour de force DJ set from early Grand Master Flash—the gallery presents an effective mix of old and new material. Old school greats like Crash and Dondi are represented both in documentary photographs as well as vintage works on canvas; the latter’s Master Cylinder (1984) makes great impact loosely reinterpreting the format of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1485). The works are inch-for-inch nearly the same size, with blue oceans and mythical attendants giving birth to sand and shell. Other historical icons present newly completed works. Futura’s The Dixie Club (2023) shares with Rammellzee a captivating, Kandinsky-esque style of abstraction executed in spraypaint and acrylic. KAWS, impossible to look away from, especially as his characters hide their faces, contributed a recent 7 foot bronze finished in flawless, tennis ball yellow lacquer. And yet, the sculptural star of the show was undoubtedly Rammellzee’s Gasholear (1984), a 200lb wearable suit of armor representing the pinnacle of the artist’s pantheon of Garbage Gods. Even for neon KAWS, its tough to compete with a mile-deep allegorical program armed with a working flamethrower.
As the second anniversary marker mounted by Deitch—the current shows builds on a previous 25 year look-back—the exhibition draws its energy from its status as a window onto a time vanished beneath our fingers. Everything is so recognizable, and yet feels so antiquated. These moments of estrangement are punctuated in the film by the characters’ grand debates about art and culture: can graffiti exist on canvas? What is the role of the established institutions in promoting or safeguarding this new work? One of the juiciest scenes in the movie comes as the two protagonists arrive at an upscale penthouse reception with fantasies of renown and riches in the art world dancing through their minds. Phade, played by Fab 5 Freddy, ambles up the stuffed suit curator of the “Whitley” Museum, whose squishy discomfort with the whole idiom of street art slips easily into laughable superstition. As I have written elsewhere, the art world often mistakes its ability to accelerate changes it likes with an authority to prevent changes it doesn’t. Thomas Hess fought the Readymade; Hilton Kramer protested Warhol and Benjamin Buchloh insists on critique in the Frankfurt sense. None made much progress, and all look increasingly silly as the non-history of the postmodern piles decade on decade.
But what is often framed as simple animus or incompatibility between the worlds of Uptown and Downtown belies a much more complicated history, one in which these worlds seek to legitimate themselves through embrace of their Other. Fab 5 Freddy reprises Warhol’s soup cans on the outside of subway cars, and thus as he comes to seek fame and fortune among the collector set, he aims for a return as much as new acceptance. And soon, he and his allies hit their mark—the "Whitley", the MoMA and nearly every other major contemporary museum would be soon obliged to shed their modernist aspersions and follow suit in their embrace of Street Art. The pressing creative zeitgeist, no less than the genuine demand for admission tickets, makes itself impossible to ignore. And for all the hand-wringing about “purity” on both sides of the fence, the film and the show both do an admirable job of emphasizing how expanded hip hop emerged from a polyglot world—collisions and encounters across class, race and gender gave rise to new forms that quickly took the world by storm. At the post-opening reception, the host DJ asked the guests to remember they were witnessing not just the birth of a movement, but of a trillion dollar global phenomenon.
The question(s) of how exactly this happened can be asked more than answered in the space of the present review. While the music and entertainment piece extends miles beyond—to the disruption of center-out media like radio and television with peer-to-peer modalities of mobile internet and social media—the second order effect within the art world is tied in with the coeval rise of speculative capital in our domain. I mean not simply new collectors looking to discover the next star, but an emergent global financial industry seeking investment allocation in the cultural sector. From new yuppies with new fortunes on Wall Street to mature corporate treasuries overseas, money came pouring in during the Roaring 80s. Overseas insurance firms like Yasuda Fire and Marine were spending tens of millions on post-Impressionism at Sotheby’s, while individual Japanese investors bankrolled Martin Wong’s short lived Museum of Graffiti Art—an interim home for many of the artists presented at Wild Style. According to an undated announcement card, the Museum would showcase and preserve the work of graffiti’s pioneers, eventually getting “absorbed by a larger institution.” The founding team, one could say, was already planning their exit via acquisition. Deitch’s career, which began in banking during this heady time, will doubtless be remembered for how he helped to prime these circuits. No matter what the Adornians have wished for, cultural progress has always been mixed between downtown and up—transected by capital and animated by those drawn from center to margin.
Importantly, these legacies are determined in part because they are often inseparable from the arrival of new tools. As consumer goods, spraypaints and cheap color films, turntables, portable microphones and cassette mixes refuse to stay within racial or ideological lines—and the unique combination of these affordances is most often a product of diverse communities of user and (mis)users. Which, for me, was the reason that the most crystalline moment of the show occurs in the small gallery upstairs from the main exhibition hall. Nestled among documentary photographs and sundry works on paper, one finds the hand-drawn animated cells from the film’s opening credits. Drawn by artists Zephyr and Revolt, the cells resemble a living sketchbook. The imagery—bursting with explosive energy forty years ago—feels painstaking today, with dozens of handprinted instances retreading over the minute variations needed to effect motion on film. The effort required to open a film pales in stark comparison to the video effects that must have been applied on the hundreds of videos taken at the opening, and the hundreds of millions of wild shorts now being cut by creatives the worlds over.
What young makers will do with these precedents from early hip hop—which are now as nearly old as Scott Joplin’s ragtime would have been to Grandmaster Flash—is blindingly difficult to imagine. At least there will be a well documented, updatable legacy to mine for insight and opportunity. WM
Michael Maizels, PhD is an historian and theorist whose work brings the visual arts into productive collision with a broad range of disciplinary histories and potential futures. He is the author of four books, the most recent of which analyzes the history of postwar American art through the lens of business model evolution. He has also published widely on topics ranging from musicology and tax law to the philosophy of mathematics.view all articles from this author