Last Hurrah for Street Art
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December 14, 2006
Last Hurrah for Street Art, as Canvas Goes Condo
By RANDY KENNEDY
It was as if someone had told devotees of Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon” or Matisse’s “Dance” that the Museum of Modern Art had changed hands and would soon be shut down for residential redevelopment, with all the art inside to vanish as part of the deal.
In this case the art is not hanging inside the building but is splashed all over the walls outside, in spray paint, wheat paste, rubber, plastic, metal, cardboard and various other unidentifiable substances, a story-high gallery of graffiti and street art that seems to have grown almost organically (and mostly unimpeded by the authorities) over the last two decades.
Depending on your point of view, the hulking 19th-century brick building at 11 Spring Street in NoLIta, a former stable and carriage house, was either a stunning eyesore or one of the most famous canvases and lodestars in the world for urban artists. When those of the latter view heard recently that the building had been sold and would soon be gutted and converted into condominiums, they considered it the end of an era. Bearing their cameras, they began showing up at the building over the last few weeks in a kind of mournful procession.
But inside the building over those same weeks, an unlikely tribute to 11 Spring’s history — and a brief reprieve for its artwork — was also quietly taking shape.
After buying the building several months ago, the new owner-developers, Caroline Cummings and Bill Elias, wanted to find some way to bid an appropriate farewell to its past. They admired the artwork, they said, even if there was no way it could remain on a building where buyers would soon be dropping millions of dollars on new condos.
They contacted Marc and Sara Schiller, longtime documentarians of street art whose Web site, woostercollective.com, collects thousands of pictures of such art from around the world. The group decided that the best salute would be to stage one last, thoroughly legal, art-making hurrah, inviting some of the best-known graffiti and street artists in the world, many of whose work already loomed large on the outside of the building, to take over the inside and completely cover five floors, 30,000 square feet of brick wall space, with work.
The art would then stay up only for a few days before the contractors moved in with drywall to cover up the interior works and pressure hoses to erase those on the outside. There would be no sponsors, no press releases, no payments to the artist and no artwork for sale. As much as it is still possible in today’s art world, it would be art for art’s sake, a fleeting salute to a fleeting form.
Now, after nearly two months of work by 45 artists, the show is almost ready. The building’s doors will be unlocked tomorrow for an open house that will continue through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. On Monday work will begin that will eventually seal most of the interior artwork behind pipes, wires and drywall.
“In a way the art is all going to disappear, but it’s also going to be sealed up in this incredible time capsule,” said Mr. Schiller, walking through the building Tuesday afternoon as more than a dozen artists continued to work on their pieces in a haze of aerosol fumes and sawdust.
Several of the artists involved in the project are still little known outside the street art world, but others have become highly successful designers, marketers and gallery darlings. Many converged on short notice from around the world to create artwork, some flown in and housed at the developers’ expense.
Shepard Fairey, a veritable rock star in the street art world, came from Los Angeles before jetting off again for the Art Basel fair in Miami Beach. D*Face, a London artist who once proposed to his fiancée by painting the question on 11 Spring Street, flew in from north of the Arctic Circle, where he had been commissioned to create an artwork for the Icehotel in Sweden.
And Jace, who created a piece on the building’s fifth floor that includes a frighteningly large mousetrap, made of wood and metal and baited with a huge bag of fake money — a clear jab at the development that is about to transform the building — probably won the prize for longest commute. He flew in from the island of Réunion, east of Madagascar, where he lives, spent several days in the building and then returned.
“It’s like a family reunion we’ve got here,” said one artist in from Milan who calls himself Bo and works with a partner, a small woman who calls herself Microbo. “Except some of the family you’ve never met before.”
The other evening, as music blared from multiple stereos, about a dozen artists were arrayed among the floors, still at work. One known as Lady Pink, a veteran New York graffiti artist, was applying the last touches to a large, pink supine version of the Statue of Liberty that was being impaled with a cross but seeming somehow to enjoy it.
Mr. Schiller, passing by the work with Ms. Cummings, smiled. “This is probably the most political work we’ve got in here,” he said.
Lady Pink smiled back. “Oh, it gets more political than this, believe me,” she said.
Downstairs two members of a younger generation of street artists, a pair of New York-based twins who call themselves Skewville, went outside to look again at one of their favorite pieces — one that will soon become history — a very realistic-looking fake air vent that, if you look closely, spells “fake.” Early one morning a couple of years ago, they bolted it to a wall above one of the building’s doors.
Ms. Cummings went outside to look at it with them and told them that she thought it was a great work of art. One of the twins looked at it and agreed. “Basically, she bought our piece for million,” he said, “and the building was thrown in for free.”
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