Monday, December 9, 2013

The End of 5 Pointz

The 5 Pointz was one of the very last true artists' communes left in New York City.  For years it occupied an abandoned warehouse complex in Long Island City in Queens.  The 5 Pointz artists were originally squatters in a vacant building.  There were once scores of such collective artists' squats all over the city; in the East Village, the Lower East Side, the West Side docks, Williamsburg, DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge), and Bushwick in Brooklyn, and Long Island City in Queens.  Most of them are now gone, but a surviving handful converted into some form of community and cultural center with a lease from the city.  I suppose this was inevitable as the real estate boom of the last 20 years eventually eliminated the once vast supply of vacant building space in New York City.

A major real estate developer purchased the 5 Pointz buildings last year and plans to tear down the buildings to construct ... wait for it ... luxury apartment towers (what New York needs so desperately! ... sarcasm off).  The artists, and even the communal cat, have all been evicted, and recently, the developer had all the graffiti art on the building whitewashed in an act that looks to me like spite.

The 5 Pointz specialized in graffiti art, and was internationally famous as a graffiti mecca attracting "aerosol artists" from around the world.  Their buildings stood just a stone's throw away from the Museum of Modern Art's Queens facility, PS1.  I used to see the 5 Pointz daily from the 7 train when I lived for a year in Sunnyside in Queens.

5 Pointz says their name is from the convergence of the 5 Boroughs of New York in their neighborhood.  But, those with any knowledge of the history of New York City would know that their name refers to the "Five Points" on the Lower East Side that was once the center of the poorest roughest part of New York in the 19th century.  Their name proclaims their outsider status to the city.

The proximity of 5 Pointz to PS1 seemed emblematic of the strange and complex relation between the official art world of museums, academia, galleries, and grants with what is sometimes described as "outsider art."  The official art establishment at PS1 proclaims painting to be dead.  Its sterile white galleries are filled with installation art and various forms of expensive grant-dependent high tech spectacles.  At 5 Pointz a few yards away, painting flourishes and takes over the building like tropical vegetation.  I can remember when all the essays in all the magazines and textbooks proclaimed a state of war between abstraction and figuration.  In contrast, the graffiti art at 5 Pointz forcefully and abundantly demonstrated Willem deKooning's insight that the whole abstract versus figurative is but a red herring, that abstract and "realistic" are but 2 sides of the same coin.

The demise of 5 Pointz focuses attention on yet another sad paradox of gentrification.  The very people who make neighborhoods -- and whole cities--  exciting and desirable get driven out by escalating real estate prices.  Michael describes artists as the detergent of neighborhoods; when they are done cleaning up and fixing up a neighborhood, they get rinsed out (along with the long time residents) to make way for higher paying renters and buyers.

The 5 Pointz in its former state

The 5 Pointz in its current state

Graffiti painting is the loud rock n' roll and rap of art.  It is largely indifferent to the imperatives of modernism and anti-modernism.  Like popular music, it is a burgeoning survival of the romantic conception of the artist as genius who distills life into something urgently powerful.  It is not the same as the usual gang tagging vandalism that we see in public places.  Graffiti art values skill of hand with spray paint as much as popular music values virtuosity in a guitar riff or in a spontaneous rap.  Its imagery is as extreme as its colors and contrasts are loud.  Its images come from movies and comic books, the stuff of young male imaginations.  Most graffiti artists are from poor and minority backgrounds and have little to no art school experience.

There used to be splendid graffiti art all over New York.  I remember seeing a lot of beautiful work on walls all over Williamsburg and the Bronx.  Most of it is now gone.

Here is a sample of art from the 5 Pointz that is now gone forever.


JCF said...

Sorry to hear about this, Doug.

I recently discovered another place like 5 Pointz, one already in a spectacular natural setting: the Donner Show Sheds (on old Donner Summit in the Sierra Nevada, CA). Some truly remarkable work (I really love "Hummingbird Woman", and took a pic of it myself).

Some years ago, I was reading a book on my fave religious art (as you know), Byzantine icons. Included in the book, amongst the full-color plates, were some black&whites. Why? Because that was the technology available when these (spectacular!) churches were first photographed. Greek Orthodox churches in Turkey. Destroyed in the 1920s. All gone now.

We never learn.

Gerrit said...

'The artists, and even the communal cat, have all been evicted, and recently, the developer had all the graffiti art on the building whitewashed in an act that looks to me like spite.'

Tonight I tried, for the umptieth time. to locate a quote.
It goes like this:'Do not think that people who don not understand art are indifferent to it. They hate it, with a bitter and.....? hate'
Mark Twain? Ambrose Bierce?

Counterlight said...

I'm not finding it either, but I will guess (and it's only a guess) Ambrose Bierce.

Gerrit said...

...but you saw it before...?

Counterlight said...

No, I've never seen it before.