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(Photo: Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York)

Last year, Artnet Magazine’s Charlie Finch predicted that the High Line would lead to rising rents, sounding the death knell for the Chelsea gallery scene. While this has not yet happened, the well-liked aerial greenway is arguably having an antiseptic effect on the arts neighborhood, with Exhibit A being the recent destruction of a storied graffiti mural on West 23rd Street, in keeping with a city program to spiff up the buildings around the successful park. The prominent “REVS/COST” mural, featuring the names of the two graffiti artists in enormous white letters, was removed with chemicals over the weekend, according to the Vanishing New York blog (which has photos).

While the giant white letters may not have much significance to those who are not graffiti fans, they hold an important place in the history of New York street art, arising out of the retrenching of that scene after mayor Rudolf Giuliani’s crackdown in the early ‘90s. The exploits of Revs have been featured on This American Life, and profiled in the New York Times, with Randy Kennedy saying in 2005 that his work “upended many traditional notions of graffiti and helped inspire a new generation of so-called street artists.”

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Cy Twombly

Is there such a thing as a genteel graffiti artist? If there is, Cy Twombly must be the nearest thing to it. The American artist, who turned 80 a few days ago, is described by many as an artist best known for his large scale, “freely-scribbled graffiti paintings”.

He doesn’t paint on walls or dustbins by night, wearing a ski-mask, like Banksy reputedly does. He is classically trained, and paints by daylight in his studio on large canvases, often referring to classical mythology in his work.

If you want to sample his work, you can see his iconic large-scale ”The Four Seasons”, a set of paintings charting the seasonal cycles, at the Tate Modern, from 19 June, among other works. The two sets of four enormous canvases have been brought together for the first time since they left his studio.

The Four Seasons “evoke the natural rhythms of death and rebirth often found in classical culture”, according to Tate, with a philosophical daubing scrawled in pencil on one canvas that poses the reflective thought: “Ah it goes, is lost.”

Critics have described his style of graffiti as “the most literate and gentlemanly kind, steeped in the classics.”

Graffiti steeped in the classics does not exactly sound very rock and roll. And genteel graffiti sounds like a contradiction in terms. Isn’t graffiti impolite by its very nature, all about violation and vandalism?
The whole concept of a graffiti style being adopted by such a classical abstract painter makes me wonder about the definition of graffiti, and its many historical purposes.

I have always assumed it is a rude, un-genteel art-form; from its historical beginnings as inscriptions on the walls of ancient ruins and catacombs of Rome to Basquiat’s scrawls on the disused walls of Manhattan as a teenager, and the work of anonymous graffiti artists in New York or Paris, daubing their underground systems with images influenced by the hip-hop culture.

Looking at the Twombly’s works, it does look angry at times, and naive, and scribbled. The main difference is that it’s not scribbled on caves or the back of bus shelters. I wonder what Roman graffiti artists would have made of it all……

Arifa Akbar
The Independent Indyblogs

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