Unrivaled 1980s Street Art And Graffiti Collection Celebrating Singular Loisaida Scene Featured At Christie’s

A map of the world blankets a sleeping man as a hulking comic book villain-type hovers over his bed and stares down the barrel of a revolver aimed directly at the viewer. Both men are rendered in heavy black lines, the form of the would-be assailant imposed on the backdrop where the map projected onto the sleeper is obscured by a frenzy of imagery. A green-fleshed alien stumbles after being impaled by a bullet to the skull, while a Doric column collapses and crushes an ancient equestrian statue. Imagery of U.S. currency, bureaucracy, and possibly chemical warfare are layered over the map.

The frenetic scene amplifies the precarity of the sleeping man, under threat by multiple government-controlled nightmarish forces.

History Keeps Me Awake at Night (for Rilo Chmielorz), a deeply symbolic and haunting acrylic, spray paint, and printed paper collage on panel by David Wojnarowicz, is the visceral highlight of the unrivaled Loisaida: 1980s Graffiti And Street Art From The John P. Axelrod Collection. The top lot of 31 rare and masterful works spanning a wide range of techniques and styles classified as graffiti and street art is expected to fetch between $800,000 and $1.2 million when it is auctioned at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art Day Sale on November 18. The collection goes on public view Saturday at Christie’s Rockefeller Center flagship.

“This painting in particular captures all of the motifs. This picture is dealing with violence and dealing with histories dealing with America,” Michael Baptist, Specialist and Head of First Open in Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Department, said in a Zoom interview. “It’s coming at a time when he’s kind of really hit his stride technically, and he’s making super complex mixed media works. He developed this technique in a really short amount of time and was at a pinnacle … when he made this picture (in) 1986.”

Wojnarowicz in the mid-1980s started to incorporate his array of signs and symbols into intricate compositions that serve as metaphors for a society that undermines the value of marginalized people. Some 26 years after his death from AIDS, the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2018 celebrated the career of the painter, photographer, writer, filmmaker, performance artist, musician, and AIDS activist who fought tirelessly for folks living on the periphery, giving a voice to others. Naming the Whitney exhibition History Keeps Me Awake at Night underscored the enduring impact of Wojnarowicz’s work as we continue to grapple with violence and oppression by systems of power and control. We’ve overcome the AIDS crisis, but we’re far from fostering a safe and egalitarian society outside of the heteronormative narrative.

Axelrod’s visionary collection amplifies the impact and significance on art history of the trailblazing ferocity of artists working on New York’s Loisaida, a term derived from the Nuyorican pronunciation of Lower East Side, between roughly 1980 and 1985. Now-bluechip darlings Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring are represented alongside Futura, Rammelzee, CRASH, DAZE, Dondi, Lee Quinones, Lady Pink, A-One, and other artists who comprise an art scene that forever transformed the landscape of downtown Manhattan and the global art world.

The downtown Manhattan art scene in the early 1980s signaled a seismic shift that continues to re-inform our collective understanding of contemporary art and culture. Some four decades later, the still-gritty Lower East Side is thriving as a home to contemporary art galleries on nearly every block.

“I think John’s vision is about collecting, and through collection, telling a story that hasn’t been told before,” said Baptist. “When I looked at the collection as a whole, I truly felt that it represented those five years in the Lower East Side, and that’s a rare thing to achieve through a collection. … I think that John, at some point, recognized that something special happened at that time, that place, with these artists, and he saw an opportunity to build a collection around that and the story.”

Exhibited only once in the year it was created, Untitled (1980) showcases FUTURA 2000’s abstract approach to graffiti. Now known simply as Futura, the artist born Leonard Hilton McGurr in 1955, showed in the early 1980s with Patti Astor at the Fun Gallery, along with Haring, Basquiat, Richard Hambleton, and Kenny Scharf, and his work remains more relevant than ever. The seminal, rare monumental spray enamel on plywood painting, which has only been owned by Axelrod, is expected to sell for between $70,000 and $100,000.

“The takeaways about this piece are its size (48 by 96 inches), its date, 1980, being very early for it, and Futura being kind of one of the bigger names in the scene,” said Baptist. “From an auction perspective, (he has) the most international collector base. I know that there are going to be a lot of people in Europe, particularly in France, where he has a great collecting community, who are going to be interested in this and that’s why we put it as the first lot in the collection.”

Emphasizing the gravity of community in the early 1980s LES and East Village art scene, George Condo’s Def Jammy (1984) holds special value as it was gifted to his dear friend Haring.

“All the fun and amazingly inspirational times spent together with Keith will always remain deep in my heart. He was at all times truly my best friend. ‘Def Jammy’ was the way the graffiti artists referred to a great painting back then and so I made that piece to commemorate that expression as used by Toxic, A-One, and Rammellzee,” Condo said.

A Polaroid shot by Scott Schedivy and kept in the Keith Haring Foundation Archives shows the beloved work hung on Haring’s studio wall. Def Jammy, which is imbued with immeasurable personal and emotional value, is expected to sell for between $80,000 and $120,000.

“Keith had it hanging in his Broadway studio forever! All through the years we have given each other artworks for free out of friendship and occasionally Keith would even buy one to help me out. Keith came in early 1989 to Paris when he was finishing up some works and we were out having dinner every night,” Condo said. “I begged him not to go back to New York because I was afraid I’d never see him again. And it was the last time I ever did. We always laughed even when he was very sick and spoke often about art and mortality.”

One of two Basquiats in the collection, Untitled (1982), which was exhibited only once in 2014, draws us back to the intensity of Wojnarowicz. Craggy red, black, and burnt ochre lines depicting recurring motifs (sacred heart, crown) amplify Basquiat’s textual impetus and subversion of racist language. The oilstick on paper depicting “TAR TOWN”, “POLLO FRITO”, and “NEW SOAP,” is expected to fetch between $800,000 and $1.2 million. A recurring theme for Basquiat, he used various references to tar to counter the racial injustices of the art world and culture in general. The Spanish term for fried chicken is an attack on stereotypes that Black people enjoy deep fried junk food, and a linguistic nod to his Puerto Rican ancestry and the LES. “New soap” carries numerous connotations, including efforts to whitewash or erase Black culture.

There’s a simplicity to this work, with Basquiat using multiple motifs and text rather than figures to convey racial and social injustice. The complexity erupts from the mix of self-referential motifs and text mingling with symbols and themes that continue to provoke viewers and perform as timeless social critique.

“Some people have even pointed to (the broken glass) referring to Kristallnacht. I don’t know if that’s a stretch or not, but any history aside, broken glass is something that we encounter on the street all the time, and it’s part of city life,” said Baptist. “I think that he’s not always, when composing works like this, setting out to make a definite statement but rather putting a number of motifs together to make a picture that other artists would perhaps paint with figures. But in this case, he uses text and symbols.”

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