Postcards from the ice age
In caves in southern France, 35,000 year-old paintings of mammoths, ibex, aurochs, dawn horses, musk oxen, cave bears, lions, reindeer and rhinoceros.By John Ryle • April 1996 • City of Words • The Guardian • Chauvet Cave: The Discovery of the World's Oldest Paintings by Jean-Marie Chauvet et al • Posted 2016 • 1,012 words
Last weekend I went to see the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. I need hardly have bothered. Basquiat’s careless paintings draw their inspiration from the least beguiling side of New York City subway art; their surfaces are a scatter of words and phrases plucked from the aether, more or less detached from meaning, scrawled and misspelled as though disorder had significance in itself.
Basquiat, who died in 1988, aged 27, may or may not have immortality to look forward to. Those who deserve fame at least as much, in my estimation, are his immediate predecessors, the spray-can artists of the Lexington Avenue Express in the 1970s and 80s, and their gigantic polychrome inscriptions on walls and subway cars. They were the pioneers. They did the interesting and dangerous stuff—pushing the limits of lettering, moulding new fonts to the shape of the city.
These pseudonymous artists—Poet, Crasher, the Fabulous Five—did not have the benefit of patrons or galleries. Their works, or performances—now mostly erased—were the product of a few hours’ illicit night-time sojourn in the Transit Authority Yard. Theirs was an art of wild display, of pure self-advertisement. They called themselves writers, and their paintings were their own signatures writ large. More than large, in fact. On permanent exhibit between Brooklyn and the Bronx, seen in the afternoon light as the trains crossed over the East River, these moving murals had primordial grandeur and glamour. They were were runes, spells, sympathetic magic for an age of narcissism.