Urban Spree Berlin’s announcement of ‘The 5 Elements’ – a big new Futura solo-exhibition – made us jump on a plane to a cold and rainy Berlin. A show with only new works, it’s no retrospective. Futura is one of the few remaining players of the early New York ‘Downtown Scene’. Lower Manhattan (or ‘Downtown’) became a melting pot of the arts at the end of the 1970’s. Birthplace of legendary artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Lee Quinones, Crash, Futura 2000 and many others.
Hotspots such as Stefan Eins’s Fashion Moda (South Bronx), Diego Cortez and the New York / New Wave (MoMA PS1, Queens), Steve Mass and his Mudd Club (TriBeCa) and Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery (East Village). This is where downtown and uptown mixed. And lets not forget the legendary Times Square Show (1980). By mixing Hip Hop culture, Graffiti, High Art, Punk and Avant-garde, highbrow and lowbrow fused to form a microcosm of its own.
Retromania is booming. The raw power, energy and creativity once associated with that New York scene is re-emerging in a lot of European capitals. Judging from the huge line of people waiting outside Urban Spree, as early as 3 hours before the opening, Futura’s work seems more popular than ever.
Creating his own universe
REDEFINING THE ELEMENTS
The 5 Elements in Urban Spree Galerie shows more than 60 new Futura paintings made during an ‘artist in residence’ organized by Art-Together in Lille, France. One of his largest solo shows to date. The ambitious concept of the show is about the ‘Creation of the Universe’. Futura confronts himself to the cosmos, the planets, the infinitely small, the Big Bang and the 4 fundamental elements. All paintings show his signature ‘free jazz’ style of can control.
“There’s a whole series on water, air, on fire… It’s all at some point color coated for each element. I think they’re like 70 pieces, in terms of that I don’t think I’ve ever done anything this extensive.” (Futura about his show on Brooklyn Streetart)
A specially made 128 pages hardcover book, featuring a ‘Blood Moon’ on the cover, gives us an exact inside in the artist’s theories. It reflects the process of creation in a scientific way. But also Greek Mythology comes into play: Zeus (Fire), Hera his wife (Air), Hades the god of Hell (Earth) and Poseidon (Water).
According to the book the 5th element is the creation of the universe. But it can also be interpreted as the creativity of the artist himself. He mastered the elements graffiti writing, high art, graphic design, streetwear design and business. At the same time it’s also a celebration of old school Hip Hop Culture. With its elements Lyricism, Turntablism, (Break)Dancing, Graffiti Art and positive Battling.
Somehow it feels Futura went full circle with his art. Returning to the theme of his all time favorite sci-fi movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and the birth of mankind. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a darkroom containing a huge art installation showing the planetary system.
Pascal Feucher, the founder of Urban Spree, granted us permission to have a private screening of the show hours before the opening. And I must say, the guy went all out for this one. Even the bookstore has been removed to show more Futura artworks. Walking through the gallery all by myself I can’t help hearing Bowman, the protagonist of Space Odyssey, whispering the words: “Oh my God – it’s full of stars!”.
Stanley Kubrick would’ve been proud.
How it all began
Leonard Hilton McGurr (born 1955), a 15-year-old adopted child, began to search for an identity of his own. Coming from a broken home he wanted to connect to a new family of street kids doing graffiti. Inspired by New York ‘style gurus’ PHASE II, STAY HIGH 149, TRACY 168, CLIFF and NOC 167 he chose the spraycan as battle weapon.
Leonard took on the moniker Futura 2000 in the early 70’s under the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s classic sci-fi movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). Also dystopian novel ‘Future Shock’ (1970) by Alvin and Heidi Toffler had a huge impact. Being a child of the ‘Space Age’ Futura’s interest in rapidly advancing technology and visions of the future would become recurring themes in his work.
FROM NAME WRITING TO ABSTRACTISM
Futura started as a basic ‘name writer’ tagging handstyles together with his partner in crime ALI. Also known as rapper/musician ‘J. Walter Negro’ (R.I.P.) and founder of the ‘Soul Artists of Zoo York’ crew. One night, when the duo took their creativity to the trains, a terrible accident happened. ALI’s neck and hands got badly burned by an exploding spraycan triggered by the high voltage of a live third rail, but he survived. Futura quit painting and joined the military from 1974 until 1978.
In 1979 ALI convinced Futura to start painting again because the New York graffiti scene was buzzing with so much creative energy. And he did big time in 1980. It was DONDI who took him to ‘his yard’ and made it possible for Futura to paint the, now legendary, abstract whole car ‘BREAK’ (1980). No longer letter-based but abstract camouflage consisting of nebulae, atoms, fine striping, stars, drops and dots resembling solar systems in the universe.
In 1980 collector and philanthropist Sam Esses (The Graffiti 1980 Studio) asked Futura and ZEPHYR to curate a group of top billin’ subway writers. They were asked to paint canvasses to make an official ‘Graffiti Art Collection’.
After watching all invited masters paint, Futura decided he could not compete in ‘letterdesign’ so he developed his own niche in style by going ‘abstract’.
The year 1980 turned out to be crucial in the development of ‘coming above ground’. Following in the footsteps of Hugo Martinez (Razor Gallery) and his pioneering collective of graffiti vandals turned gallery artists ‘United Graffiti Artists’ (UGA, 1973), Futura managed to successfully translate his streetwork to canvas.
In 1980 CRASH curated the now iconic group exhibition ‘Graffiti Art Success For America’ in Fashion Moda Gallery. Actress Patti Astor co-founded the Fun Gallery with Bill Stelling in 1981 and became an important player in the field.
In April 1981 Keith Haring invited Futura and Fab 5 Freddy to curate the exhibition ‘Beyond Words’ at the Mudd Club which also featured works by CRASH, DAZE, RAMMELLZEE, ZEPHYR, Lady PINK, LEE Quinones and Eric HAZE. What followed was a takeover of the Downtown gallery scene. This peak time hit the brakes around 1985. When the New York art world wasn’t that hyped anymore Europa was ready to take over.
Futura got picked up by British punkband The Clash in 1981. He was asked to paint live on stage during their ‘Combat Rock’ tour in London and Paris. By rebelling against the system there was a shared feeling of kindred spirits between Hip Hop and Punk Rock. Futura also did the graphic design and illustration for The Clash’s 7” single ‘Radio Clash’ and Cabaret Voltaire’s ‘Fools Game’.
In 1982 he released his own Hip Hop record, The Escapades of Futura 2000 on Celluloid Records. He did the rapping himself and Mick Jones of The Clash provided the musical background. Record sleeves turned out to be a good platform for Futura’s artwork. Nowadays these records are highly collectable.
Futura was one of the major players in spreading the graffiti virus from New York to London, Paris and the rest of Europe. By participating in group and solo shows in galleries and museums such as Gallery Yaki Kornblit, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen and Groninger Museum a younger generation got inspired to paint graffiti. Futura’s abstract style would become a key ingredient of early 80’s European graffiti.
BANDO from Paris took influences from Futura’s abstractions and combined it with elements from BEAR 167 (his mentor) and DONDI’s lettering. He created a unique style of his own. Together with MODE 2, SHOE, DELTA, ANGEL and the Crime Time Kings, BANDO laid down the blueprint for European graffiti in between the years 1985-1989.
The visuals of music
Futura’s paintings have always been closely connected to music. The art world had nicknamed him the ‘Kandinsky of Graffiti’ in the 80’s. Maybe because Kandinsky’s theories of the effect of sound and colour on the human soul also applied to Futura’s abstract worlds of rhythm and color. At that time Futura didn’t regard this comparison as a compliment. He thought they were saying he was ‘biting’ (copying) Kandinsky’s style. He, as a street kid, did not even know who the artist was. In graffiti ‘biting’ is not done. In the art world its a good thing when your work gets compared to that of giants.
Futura went off-grid for a few years in the beginning of the 90’s to provide for his family by doing all kinds of jobs. It was London based visionary player and record company boss James Lavelle who gave his career a regenerating boost. Lavelle was the founder of 90’s most hip and happening record label Mo’ Wax. A pioneer in the field of mixing experimental music with graphic design, designer toys and streetwear culture. By using Futura’s artwork for record sleeves he connected with a completely new audience.
Futura’s artwork appeared on album covers by DJ Krush, DJ Shadow and most notably on the cover of UNKLE’s 1998 debut album ‘Psyence Fiction’. A milestone of eclecticism boosting an all-star line up of high profile artists from Hip Hop, Alternative Rock and Electronic Music. Somewhat like Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Duck Rock’ album from 1983 for which DONDI and Keith Haring did the artwork.
Psyence Fiction was highly successful and in its slipstream also Futura’s work got maximum exposure. The album cover introduced Futura’s, now famous character, ‘Pointman’ to the world. An alien-like robotic figure with an elongated head.
THE ART OF DOING BUSINESS
In 1992 Futura started a streetwear imprint named GFS (Remember Phillies Blunt t-shirts?) in cooperation with graffiti writers GERB and STASH. The letters also refer to New York subway lines, influenced by PNB Nation. Through James Lavelle a hook-up was made with Japanese streetwear label A Bathing Ape (BAPE) and toy manufacturer Medicom at the end of the century. A new business was born when Pointman turned into T-shirt designs and collectible action figures (designer toys).
Eventually, years later, this lead to the establishment of his own iconic streetwear imprint Futura Laboratories (FL). He turned out to be a master in making his artwork ‘bankable’. A strategy in the same spirit as Keith Haring’s ‘Pop Shop’. Or just another way of ‘getting up’, true to the principles of graffiti bombing.
DEFUMO is the name of a multimedia art project from 2000 organized in Modena (Italy) by Sartoria Comunicazione in cooperation with the ‘three giants from the write-site’ DELTA (Amsterdam), FUTURA (New York) and MODE 2 (Berlin/Paris/London). The project was meant to save a community sports center turned into a music club named ‘A Club Called MORe’. During one week the artists painted the interior of the venue.
The process of creation was filmed and had an exhibition and a limited edition catalogue made around it. In March 2001 a six-dimensional report of the whole project was published online (including pictures, motion graphics, interactivity, action footage, voice-overs by the artists and Mo’Wax soundscapes). This truly represented a vision of the future. By interlinking different disciplines such as muralism, photography, video, animation, spoken word and music this project was a good example of Intermural Art avant la lettre.
All of the above reflects Futura’s versatility and longevity. We wish him many more years of creativity.