Never-Before-Seen Work by Top Graffiti Artists Published in New Book

By Dana Varinsky on October 23, 2013 12:28pm 

MANHATTAN — A new book offers a glimpse into New York City's early graffiti scene, with never-before-seen pieces by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Lee Quiñones and more.

"City as Canvas," which was just published by the Museum of the City of New York, showcases studies, sketches, drawings and paintings by major players in the city's street art world in the 1970s and '80s.

"There's much more to it than art history," said Sean Corcoran, the museum's curator of prints and photographs, adding that the collection shows how New York City evolved over time. "There’s economics and all kinds of other things, so it becomes a story about New York at large."

Some of the photographs, essays and posters in the $45 book will be featured in an exhibit slated to open at the museum in February. The exhibit also marks the first time many of the pieces are displayed publicly.

The collection was assembled by Martin Wong, a Lower East Side artist who was one of the earliest collectors of graffiti-style pieces. Wong encouraged gifted graffiti artists he met and also collected work from them, including sketchbooks and drawings. One of the most noteworthy pieces in the collection is a grid of artists' signatures from the 1970s, compiled by an artist named Wicked Gary.

Wong donated his personal archive of more than 300 pieces to the Museum of the City of New York in 1994, before moving to San Francisco for AIDS treatment. He died five years later. 

Corcoran said Wong strongly believed the pieces in his collection should stay in New York.

"This is a form that really came into its own in New York City, and in terms of art is something that is really identified with New York City," he said. 

Corcoran hopes the exhibit will spark new interest in New York's graffiti history, which he said laid the foundations for current artists, including Banksy.

"People are so interested in street art today. This is an effort to make people aware of where all that came from, that it didn’t just happen," he said. "There were these young kids, some of them were barely teenagers, that were being creative and doing this work, and the whole story should be known."

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