By J. SCOTT ORR October 23, 2023
One day last summer, Al Diaz was at the First Street Green in Manhattan’s Lower East Side shaking a can of white spray paint with the authority of someone whose status as one of graffiti art’s first-generation pioneers is beyond question. Squatting, he began to write: SAMO©,,, WITH OR WITHOUT YOUR APPROVAL. It was the latest public pronouncement from the surviving founding partner of SAMO@, the revolutionary graffiti writing duo the teenage Diaz formed in the 1970s with classmate and pal Jean-Michel Basquiat. And, like all the original SAMO© writings and much of what Diaz has written since, this particular piece is now gone, the ephemera of another day.
SAMO© is often seen as of historical moment only as the springboard it provided for Basquiat, whose neo-expressionist painting launched him into the art world’s stratosphere in a few intense and otherworldly-productive years. Basquiat died at 27 of a heroin overdose in 1988 at his East Village studio not far from the First Street Green. Yes, SAMO©, did help to launch Basquiat’s career, but the partnership’s historically significant contribution to the evolution of graffiti art should not be overlooked. SAMO©, after all, was instrumental in taking the art of the tag from a self-identifying teenage plea for street legitimacy to a more thoughtful medium for philosophic expression.
SAMO©,,, AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD
SAMO©,,, 4 THE SO-CALLED AVANT-GARDE
SAMO©,,, AS AN ALTERNATIVE 2 ‘PLAYING ART’ WITH THE ‘RADICAL CHIC’ SECTION OF DADDY’$ FUNDS
These and other statements expressing the isolation and anger felt by the young Diaz and Basquiat captivated those who were watching the walls of lower Manhattan in the late 1970s. Diaz’s latest public rumination about approval is of a piece with that earlier work and confirms anew that his role in SAMO© was hardly as Basquiat’s sidekick. His expanding oeuvre since the breakup of SAMO© makes this even more clear.
Diaz’s latest solo show Words, Objects, Notions which opened Oct. 20 at Van Der Plas Gallery, 156 Orchard, features a selection of his latest work that continues to build on the SAMO© legacy and on his latter-day art through an enhanced reliance on collage and geometry as critical components of the mix. Diaz is paired at Van Der Plas with Danny Cortes, the emerging king of hyperrealistic urban grit sculpture, whose show Disappearing Urban World captures bits of New York City’s soul by recreating in miniature buildings and iconic everyday street items.
In recent years, Diaz has emerged from the dense shadow of his late partner with an extensive series of works that feature fonts used for signage across New York City’s massive subway network. These works have typically carried messages that are humorous, witty, sarcastic, poignant and timely just like those sprayed on Manhattan walls by SAMO© 45 years ago. Several of the works on show at Van Der Plas have Diaz applying his distinctive red, black and white letters to geometric shapes to create 3-D sculpture.
One particularly interesting piece brings Diaz’s subway alphabet to a three-dimensional square frame, opening up a range of non-traditional surfaces. Concepts, Whims, Ideas, Intentions, Suspicions, Ruminations, Clues, Schemes, Words, Objections, Notions, all come at the viewer from various planes giving them an air of novelty and unpredictability, while at the same time lending the words heft and authority.
A similar piece consisting of a circular frame, suggests motion, futility, and ceaseless repetition through its inscription: LIKE A DOG OR CAT RUNNING AFTER ITS OWN TAIL. A triangle frame, meanwhile, points optimistically skyward with the words BLOOD, SWEAT, TEARS, WORDS, OBJECTS, MAGIC.
Another noteworthy piece is a SAMO© bio-collage in which Diaz surrounded one of the few existing photographs of himself and Basquiat in clippings from the controversial Village Voice article SAMO© Graffiti: BOOSH-WAH or CIA? by Philip Faflick that first unmasked the duo behind SAMO© in 1978. The collage also features pieces of a subway map, suggestions of stitching and magnifying glasses and a blood red border. It’s inscribed SAMO©,,,AS YET ANOTHER BRAND YOU’VE COME 2 KNOW & TRUST,,, and SAMO©,,,BECAUSE ALL THE RULES, REGULATIONS, LAWS, CODES, COMMANDMENTS, EDICTS & DIRECTIVES WERE ALL MADE 2-B- DISREGARDED.
The creation of SAMO©, and its place in the history of graffiti art, has much more to do with Diaz’s broad, early involvement in the graffiti world than it does with Basquiat’s immense, but at the time unrealized, talent. When the two first met at City-as-School High School in 1976, Diaz’s tag Bomb 1 was so entrenched in the graffiti world that it had already been included in Norman Mailer’s seminal piece The Faith of Graffiti in 1974. These facts often go unrecognized by those who prefer the simpler narrative that SAMO© was Basquiat’s solo breakthrough. Diaz doesn’t like to make a big deal of it, but he does wish that others would get the story straight.
“If you’re gonna make a big deal of it, get it right. I was 18 when we met and I was already well established in the graffiti community. He had nothing to do with graffiti; no connection to it at all. He wasn’t a graffiti writer, nor did he identify as one,” Diaz said in an interview.
“I’m sure he would have come in through another side door if he hadn’t gotten involved with graffiti through me. Jean-Michel was very talented and maybe even more so than that he was extremely driven. You can’t do shit without drive. I believe Jean-Michel would have had success no matter what; he was just driven for it,” Diaz said.
Since the two parted ways, Diaz’s career and his life have had their ups and downs, but he never stopped evolving. Today, he says, he’s turning yet another corner.
“These new works are a culmination of my interest in language, science and what is referred to as The Sacred Geometry: playing with triangles, circles and squares and accompanying text; using collage on paper, paintings and sculptures to spotlight, explore and celebrate each of these geometric forms,” he said.
At the same time, the show includes something from a dive into Diaz’s personal archives: a colorful and entertaining, homemade comic book project called Mr. Pants. Diaz said the work’s hero is “part player, part superhero, all badass.”
Meanwhile, Van Der Plas is also highlighting the newly burnished art underground bona fides of Cortes, whose startlingly realistic miniatures of urban scenes, building, lots, alleys and quotidian street objects like ice machines, dumpsters, and mailboxes have taken the art world by storm.
“In less than three years,” the The New York Times’ Liza Weisstuch wrote, “Mr. Cortes has emerged as a sought-after artist, his miniatures collected by hip-hop stars and professional athletes.”
A product of Bushwick, Cortes, began making the miniatures at the dawn of the COVID pandemic in 2020, He’s already had sales at Sotheby’s and that glowing write up by Weisstuch in the Times. “I love everything abandoned, everything rusty, dirty,” Cortes said in the article. “When you pass by a dumpster, most people usually don’t take time to stop, breathe, forget about your daily life in New York and the hustle and bustle. Take your time, look around. You can see beauty in a rust drip,” he added.
Diaz’s Words, Objects, Notions and Cortes’ Disappearing Urban World will be on view at at Van Der Plas Gallery, 156 Orchard Street, through Nov. 12. WM