Graffiti legend Futura comes to Wex 38 years after OSU painted it

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As early as 1984, the Ohio State University Gallery invited three New York graffiti artists – Zephyr, ERO and Futura2000 – to exhibit their paintings. But instead of working in New York and taking the pieces to Columbus, the artists painted at Ohio State galleries while spectators, separated by a temporary plastic wall to protect against spray paint fumes, watched the large-scale graffiti works take shape .

Back in 1984, Futura2000, aka Leonard McGurr, also known as Futura, was an elder statesman of the graffiti world. By the time he was 28, he had already sold many pieces and was painting live on tour with The Clash. Now looking back on the OSU show Writing on the Wall: Works by New York City Graffiti Artists, Futura recalls the odd feeling painting behind plastic for viewers that felt like doing a live performance host in a goldfish bowl. In the end, he saw the huge painting, spanning 36 feet, as a demonstration piece rather than a masterpiece.

While graffiti is often viewed as a temporary art form, the Futura2000 painting has stood the test of time. The State of Ohio acquired the work for its collection, and now, nearly 40 years after its creation, the piece is on display at the Wexner Center as part of the retrospective exhibition To Begin, Again: A Prehistory of the Wex, 1968-89. ” At Wednesday, March 2 at 4:00 p.m. Futura will join Zephyr and presenter Carlo McCormick for a free talk “Diversities in Practice” in the film/video theater of the cultural center.

The 36 foot painting created by Futura2000 in 1984 and now on display at the Wexner Center for the exhibition

“I’ve never been like the other guys. … If you look at my work, you know it’s Futura’s work. It’s not your average graffiti block kid,” Futura2000 told a TV reporter in 1984, and the claim is true. While much graffiti work of the era (and today) focuses on lettering, Futura2000’s abstract, sophisticated painting overlays precise, molecular-looking shapes over vibrant, amorphous clouds of color.

Futura began developing his unique style in 1970 at the age of 15, which was still older than his graffiti contemporaries on the New York subway. “Most of the kids were 10, 11, 12. … When you’re 15 and they’re 12, there’s a big difference,” Futura said over the phone recently. “I think in a way that’s always helped me because my approach to everything wasn’t that youthful. I was a little smarter. And I grew up as an only child and I always hung out with older people. … It was always me punching above my weight.”

In the early 1980s, after four years in the Navy, Futura2000 began exhibiting his work at Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery, a short-lived but influential Manhattan art gallery that also featured work by street artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. When Futura2000 exhibited his work in the state of Ohio in 1984, he began seeing the writing on the wall.

“I could see the beginning of the end of what we were doing back then. The movement fell, I would say, around ’86. What was cool five years ago had run its course,” Futura said, noting that despite the downturn, the late ’70s and early ’80s movement helped spread graffiti culture around the world and created a new generation of street artists inspired. “Everything we created was exported. All of the exposure – the books, the films, the photos – has been given to all these kids picking up aerosol cans in the new millennium.”

In the 90s Futura diversified and adapted. Instead of making paintings, he collaborated with clothing companies on streetwear designs for t-shirts and other fashion items. “I wasn’t married to the art world,” he said. “I operated outside of that.” Futura also quickly embraced digital art, building his own hundreds of pages website in 1996. “It was like writing graffiti for me, because here is this space that nobody had entered before. It was like a blank wall,” he said.

Over time, graffiti began to invade the online world. “Graffiti eventually became a kind of photo sharing on a site like art crime or any other photographic database that shares graffiti images from around the world,” Futura said.

In recent years, Futura has continued its art practice alongside collaborating with brands such as bmw, hennessy and Uniqlo (often through his company, Futura Laboratories). And while society’s relationship with graffiti is often strained, the concept of public art has evolved since the early days of Futura. “There are so many opportunities to do public art right now and I think that’s just cool because when we came up there weren’t any,” he said. “There will always be children on the lower level. But from that first practice ground, there are people who think beyond destruction and vandalism: ‘Hey, I’m trying to make something nice here instead of this gray facade.’”

At 66, Futura is still actively making art, but he’s also started thinking about his legacy. “I’ve realized how fortunate I am to be coming from New York on a limited budget and going through this subway school, if you will,” he said. “Now I’m the recipient of the last 20 years of all these other people out there who created what is now the global phenomenon of street culture that extends beyond art. It’s streetwear. It’s sneaker culture. They’re skateboards. All of it. And I’m connected to all of that. … My connection to the modern world is very strong, but only because of the foundations we laid.”

“I don’t want to give this much credit,” he continued, “but I was there. There’s no denying that. I knew Jean Michel [Basquiat]. I knew Keith [Haring]. I knew Andy [Warhol]. I’ve had real life experiences with these people and really great memories supported by the food around the table, the weed someone was smoking, the music being played – all those things are super rich and powerful for me. … But at the end of the day, I’m still a real guy. I haven’t let any of this stuff get to me in any over the top way where I think I’m above anyone. I don’t believe any of that either.”

True to its name, it is not past achievements that inspire the artist. “I’m still Futura,” he said. “I’m fine tomorrow. I’m not because of yesterday.”

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