What is so extraordinary about legendary graffiti artist Futura, neé Leonard McGurr, is that at a mere 57 years-old he has outlived so many others of his genre and generation and continued to triumph in the Paris, Tokyo and New York art worlds, where he enjoys patronage and support from leading fashion designer Agnes B. and international art critics.
A fixture on the New York City scene in the ‘70’s with the late graffiti artists Keith Haring, Dondi and Jean-Michel Basquiat with whom he shared space at the Fun Gallery, Futura has enjoyed a resurgence of appreciation for his abstract street art and can command upwards of $200K a pop for his space age surrealism. Defined by his pioneering thin-lined style of aerosol art, now referred to as “Graffuturism”, he has been known for painting backdrops on stage during concerts with The Clash, album covers for Unkle, and designing edgy street fashion under the name of Futura Laboratories.
Earlier this week we met up at Smith Commons restaurant in the trendy Atlas neighborhood for the launch of the individually numbered limited edition Hennessey’s V.S. Cognac bottle with a new Futura-designed label.
Jordan: What were some of your early influences?
Let me take you back to the 1964 World’s Fair and the Unisphere. I was fourteen, and I saw a fantastic experience of what the world was going to be like. All the New York City schools were busing kids out there to see it. That was my first indication that we lived in a really big world.
By 1969 Neil Armstrong was landing on the moon and it was the Vietnam War. I was going to school on the subway and seeing graffiti on the trains and I became inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I had read Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and I was into sci-fi, but the seed was planted by the World’s Fair. The future sounded promising. We would have more advanced technology, something I have always been fascinated by.
Everything was about supersonic travel and food was jet-puffed back then.
Oh yeah, I had to have my Tang. That’s what the astronauts were drinking. I felt very connected to what my perception of the future was going to be. It wasn’t just jet packs but Dick Tracy two-way radios and face time, whatever we have in our toolbox of technology. It was the Golden Era of that movement in New York.
Who did you hang out with?
In 1974 I joined the Navy and was stationed on a carrier in Alameda [California]. I remember I was at the 1980 Grateful Dead show in Oakland. I had been brought out there with a crew from New York, ‘manicurists’ who were out there to ‘clip’ marijuana. None of us had been told why we were there. I remember the Hare Krishnas and sprouts and carrot juice.
I was running around at night and painting but it wasn’t until the 1980’s in New York when uptown and downtown came together on a social platform and the alternative galleries in the East Village began to dominate the early 1980’s art scene. It was Basquiat, Haring, Scharf, myself, Dondi, Zephyr, a veritable who’s who. Some came from the subway school of art, some more traditional. Basquiat, the great artist that he was, came from nothing but he was very clever. He knew about art history and had all the answers. He was more calculated, writing these provocative and powerful phrases, and he was very prolific too. But it was Haring that commercialized the art. And Andy’s big show at the MOMA had a huge impact. But I wasn’t one of Warhol’s group. I was homophobic back then and felt uncomfortable in the gay world. I regret the ignorance I grew up with.
Graffiti was considered unacceptable then. People were talking about what products would facilitate its removal and what kind of machines could blast it off surfaces. When did it begin to become an acceptable art form?
In the beginning of that period it was, “How did it all progress beyond where it was?” And in a sense the rudimentary graffiti that still exists anywhere you go, is made by some kid with a can or marker and some sort of rebellious energy to express themselves. It’s unfortunate but it’s always going to remain on some lower level. There’s nothing productive or beautiful about it. It’s like a dog pissing on a fire hydrant. There’s always going to be what we call a “toy”, someone at the bottom of the barrel, and then you have your masters who are more mature and know their place in the system.
When graffiti was being cleaned from trains and security was increased to prevent it, artists could no longer access subways. Today it’s hard to paint on trains anywhere in the world from Russia and Tokyo to Sao Paulo and India. But why did we have a decade of street art? Because it’s the most accessible to artists.
Do you still paint on the streets?
Oh no. I just had an opening in New York this week at Valmorbida on Washington Street and sold a painting for $190K. It was very large, 8 feet high by 16 feet wide. That will help out my family a lot. I’m in the middle of a renaissance. It’s great. Recently my Paris gallery bought several of my earlier paintings to get them off the market and control the market. Now they can control the inventory and offer new work too. I’m happy to see a great price for my work at auction. It’s a secondary market that the galleries use to sell my new work.
How do we encourage younger artists coming up?
I’ve always told younger artists to first and foremost have a sense of humor. Don’t allow others to dictate what your process or vision is. It’s uniquely yours. Today there are more artists then ever. Back then you had to think on your feet and be creative. I see our society as seventy percent lazy. Nowadays artists don’t have to paint illegally. They can just ask a business to do a mural on their walls. There are ways to do public works today. So artists need to be more entrepreneurial, take advantage, be more forward thinking – not wait for the opportunity to come to them.
What’s next for you?
I’ll be continuing my tour with Hennessey. We started in August going to cities throughout the US. Now we head to London, Paris and Tokyo. In 2014 I have a proper Rizzoli book coming out. I had a book in 2000 that sold out. I tried to buy a new copy online and it’s now selling for $500. Prior to myself Hennessey co-branded with artist KAWS. I’ll be doing a show in Tokyo next June and of course I’m still making work in my Brooklyn studio.
Read Jordan’s other articles in Nibbles and Sips Around Town.