‘Writing the Future’ distills the artistic origins of hip-hop culture into a coherent experience
The MFA’s latest exhibit beautifully captures the diverse voices of 1980s New York street art
Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation
Curated by Liz Munsell and Greg Tate
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
On display from Oct. 18, 2020 to May 16, 2021
1980s New York street art was about subversion. Subversion of the dominant trends on canvas, yes, but also a broader subversion of how art gets made and who gets to make it. Subversion of the police and their attempts to stifle the burgeoning hip-hop movement. Subversion of society’s supposed economic and scientific advancement, which failed to deliver progress to the most marginalized.
Writing the Future, now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, beautifully captures this anti-establishment energy in all its glorious heterogeneity. The exhibition centers on Jean-Michel Basquiat, perhaps the most well-known of the so-called “post-graffiti” artists. Basquiat’s works are most distinguished by their liberal use of text; much of his art features short phrases and rough sketches of objects and symbols littered across the canvas. It’s up to the viewer to sift through this thought-dump and find meaning, which ends up being a pretty entertaining task. Sometimes, as in Hollywood Africans, there are clear messages of social commentary, whereas a piece like Untitled (1983) offers several cryptic panels of text to mull over. I spent several minutes staring at the latter work, every few seconds finding another amusing connection between the different words and icons on the canvas.
These iconic Basquiat canvases are riveting, and the sheer number of them alone probably makes Writing the Future worth the visit. But unlike Basquiat shows before, this one stands out for all its other details. Walk down the steps leading in, and you’re met with a montage of clips from the 80s of graffiti, breakdancing, and DJ-ing. Open the door to the exhibit, and you’ll hear music playing — the likes of Kurtis Blow and Whodini, who established the roots of rap as we know it today. You can’t help but tap your foot to the beat.
Then, in that first room, instead of just a wall of solo paintings, you’re instantly greeted by unorthodox, collaborative pieces. There’s Basquiat’s leather jacket, signed by him and several of his friends, highlighting the intersection between fashion and the hip-hop movement. In the middle of the room, you’ll find the Fun Fridge, a Dada-esque refrigerator full of tags from contemporaries like Fab 5 Freddy and KooL KooR. These initial moments at the exhibition immediately set the tone for your ensuing immersion in 80s street art and all its subcultures. Thanks to the music and the chaotic structure of it all, the vibe the whole way through is casual and experiential, a welcome twist from the typical buttoned-up nature of established art galleries. In that sense, the exhibition upholds the same nonconformist ethos that guided Basquiat and his peers.
But if the post-graffiti movement truly was a democratic approach to the arts in which all had a say, shouldn’t we be celebrating more than just Jean-Michel? Admittedly, Basquiat and all his modern cachet were what convinced me to attend, but the rich diversity of creative styles made me stay. The first couple of rooms introduce Basquiat’s supporting cast as central to his work, but the rest of the exhibit forces you to recognize the prodigiousness of their work on its own. A-One and Fab 5 Freddy’s use of vibrant, clashing colors span large sections of the wall, analogous to how their graffiti might’ve looked on the metal doors of the subway. In Untitled (Yellow and Black), Keith Haring’s distinctive use of bold lines to express energy and movement is married with LA2’s rich hues and precise calligraphy.
To me though, the standouts were Rammellzee and Lady Pink, for whom the exhibit managed to convey a broader ideology beyond their artistic styles. Rammellzee was the founder of “gothic futurism,” a subculture of Afrofuturism that revolts against the English alphabet as a medium for change. On the one hand, part of his oeuvre directly subverts oppressive power structures as in Super Robber, but his other works ascend past the worldly to imagine an unbounded, interstellar future free of authoritarian control. Even within this latter category, Rammellzee manages to carve out distinctive styles: in Evolution of the World, he carefully constructs a galactic universe with precise lines and a consistent color palette, while Gothic Futurism Ratio Envelope Map-A-Matics Star Emplosion uses the soft textures of spray paint to place planetary objects onto a dynamic, atmospheric background.
Meanwhile, Lady Pink is a Latina woman whose femininity is a core tenet of her artistic identity. Instead of rejecting her femininity to fit in with her peers, she embraces it; Yellow Building uses loud yellows and pinks to depict an imprisoned woman peering into a decaying cityscape. In Tear Ducts Seem to Be a Grief Provision, Lady Pink collaborates with Jenny Holzer to grapple with death, acknowledging the emotions of loss but in a tough, resolved way. Lady Pink’s unique intersectional voice comes through in the exhibit’s selected works, but she’s still presented in a way that naturally interlaces with her contemporaries.
When walking through a gallery, I’m often wondering how the works in front of me were perceived by people who grew up with them. Basquiat is now a staple in art history curricula, but what did 80s New Yorkers on the subway think of him? Writing the Future has an answer to that, too. Next to the standard information panel, many of the works had additional quotes from artists, activists, and community leaders with relevant cultural knowledge. These voices offer key additional context, for example by speaking to what Rammellzee meant for the larger Afrofuturism movement or how Lady Pink’s work was influential to other young girls wanting to break into the scene. It’s another nice touch that gives the exhibition more of a grassroots, art-for-everyone feel.
In curating Writing the Future, Liz Munsell and Greg Tate are faced with a difficult task: distilling such a multifaceted, evolving era of culture into the narrow confines of a museum gallery. Ultimately, they’ve built an innovative, immersive space that pulls it off with grace, subverting many of the standard principles that define traditional Eurocentric art shows. The art’s been stuck in my head for days since my visit, and I’m left craving a similar vibe in the future exhibitions I’ll attend.