By Rex Roberts
Linus Coraggio bolts his sculptures onto signposts; the street, he says, is the proper place for art. “I want to make the political and social comments I feel prohibited from expressing inside the galleries.” Kevin Larmee glues his paintings to the sides of buildings, he hopes they’ll catch the eyes of passing cognoscenti. “Instead of going crazy, who not put your stuff up in the street? At least people see it.” Eva Cockeroft heads a co-op of muralists that has transformed an empty lot into an art park. “We want to bring art to the community, to people, where it relates to their lives.”
Some like to be called street artists and some prefer to be known as artists who work in the streets – a knife-edged nuance that cuts deep – but there are enough of them prowling ante-meridiem New York to constitute a subculture within Manhattan’s thriving art world. They risk arrest, and the unpredictable moods of the city streets, to express their aesthetics and their politics, to gain entree into gallery society, or to play. “I love drinking, and I carry a hammer and chisel,” says sculptor Ken Hiratsuka, who carves into the pavements in front of nightclubs “When I feel good, I go for it.”
Street artists work all over New York, but some concentrate their efforts in lower Manhattan, particularly in Soho and the East Village. Hip artists have taken over the Alphabet City, Anenues A to D between 14th Street and Houston, lured by cheap rents, chic clubs, and the apocalyptic setting of burned-out tenements what suits their sensibility. Since Fun Gallery hit it off with a show of graffiti artists in 1981, more than sixty storefront galleries have clustered around Tompkins Square Park. Even the New York Times proclaimed the East Village scene a “howling success.”
The East Village owes some howls to artists like Keith Haring and Richard Hambleton, whose street work seduced the art world and the popular media. Haring started out doodling in the subway; now he sells paintings for $10,000. Hambleton’s menacing silhouettes, splashed on the sides of buildings or crouched in entryways, were so successful in New York he repeated the series in twenty-one European cities. “He’s very market-minded, and he’s marketed himself very well,” says Elizabeth McDonald ‘81BC and co-owner with Doug Milford ‘81C of Piezo Electric, an East Village gallery that sells Hambletons (see box).
The market savvy of street artists, as well as their technical training, and sense of art history, distinguishes them from graffiti writers, but street art, like graffiti, has spread like urban kudzu. Martin Hason, owner of Avenue Gallery, which sponsored a show of street art last year, believes street artists are reacting to the specialization that stifles industrial societies, “Artists do art the same way plumbers do plumbing.” He says. “They do a job that translates into money, as opposed to primitive cultures where art is integrated into the lives of all people.” Jacek Tylicki, another East Village gallery owner, suggests the opposite. “New York is a jungle, jungle is nature, human beings are part of nature. That’s why people feel so good here.”
Tylicki is the consummate New York street artist, running Now Gallery by day, reaching for pure expression by night. A native of Poland and self-proclaimed world traveler, he lived eight years in Sweden where he formed the Natural Art Group and conceived “symbolic performances,” living in a tree for two weeks, or tossing water-color paper onto dank earth to create natural paintings. “I used to do conceptual art,” he says, “but I completely changed when I came to New York.”
From the moment he arrived in the city, Tylicki experienced instinctual and unrelating urges to creat “explosions,” a series of some eighty works he callys “Art Wars.” His technique: a bottle of paint heaved against a wall. “The technique is a war technique, the same used by Polish partisans fighting against the Germans with bottles filled with gasoline,” he says “I’m doing war in art.”
In fact street artists wage war with one another. So many work the streets that they paint over each other’s images, vying for the best locations. “I do claim spots and hold onto them,” says Robin VanArsdol, whose childlike drawings of airplains, cars, and boats adorn Soho facades. “I never paint over other work with any malice, but I like graffiti and I like to interact with it.”
A former sculptor and college professor, “R.V.” claims to be the most academic, and possibly the most prolific, of street artists. He creates two thousand street works a year, working as many as five nights a week, plus early Sunday mornings. “There’s a kind of taboo about working in the street, as if you’re degrading yourself,” he says. To R.V.’s way of thinking, the more art people see, the better they’ll appreciate it. Says friend Tylicki, “Street artists are conscious of what they are doing, and they were working in the studios long before they took to the streets.”
R.V. describes his street work as “social symbolism about emotions and human characteristics.” He speaks
Photo: Personal expression; Artist Kevin Larmee pastes his paintings onto downtown walls. “The juxtaposition of fine art in the street gives them a certain power,” he says.