Futura 2000 interviewed in his flat in Brooklyn, NY. 12th Feb 2008 for Elms Lesters Painting Rooms
This essay was first published in the ELMS LESTERS book
There’s a reclaimed metallic street sign on the wall of Futura 2000’s apartment supposedly appealing to the responsible citizen to “Report Graffiti 1-800-Punk-Ass Snitch”. On the opposite wall next to the sofa is a recent painting on canvas by Futura featuring three of his formidable urban characters striding out of the picture’s abstracted flame-coloured backdrop like a crew of punk-ass renegades ready to confront the powers that be.
Futura’s signature tag top right connects via a spray drip down to his fearsome threesome, each the spontaneous linear creation of their author in the moment of responding to the abstract blocked-in colours he lays down in advance.
“I have never ever had one of my own paintings in my own space – I’ve never lived with my work. But something about that painting expresses exactly what I wanted to say.”
For an artist who went through what he calls “graffiti boot camp” as a teenager in the late Sixties when New York was a much poorer, rougher city, it’s tempting to read into such figurative, character-led paintings a residual sense of the social mobilisation and confrontational message that street art gave voice to in the artist’s formative years.
“I grew up in the late Sixties with anti-war sentiment… but today people are too passive. From my point of view, the way people thought about the war when I grew up, we got the troops home. Now, there is a big disconnect.”
Titles of works shown in London in 2007 bespeak Lenny McGurr’s own short-term professional experience in the military: “Corrosive”, “Aftermath”, “Muscle Command” and “Red Rum (if you’re a Stanley Kubrick fan, you’ll read that one backwards like on the mirror in The Shining).
But equally there’s a surprising tenderness to the way Futura discusses his paintings. “Back in the day I had a studio filled with some really cool paintings and one of them I always wanted to stay right there. I felt that was the one I wanted to use as the point to jump off from for the next work.”
Looking at specific works, he can remember in detail the order in which he laid down graphic elements and colours, pinpointing areas of the painting which taught him something new and suggested a new direction for his wider output, whilst always alluding to the strong emotional hold particular key works have on him.
“There’s one lucky stroke there which amounts to all of four or five lines.
It’s a question of minimal maximum – there’s only a few lines but everything falls into the right place.”
The “luck” of course comes from years and years of hand-eye co-ordination crystallising itself on the MTA system and the streets, a manual prowess which he sees as the key to art’s longevity in an increasingly digital culture. Digitisation must be the key development in visual culture that the young Futura 2000 (or indeed Stanley Kubrick) could not have foreseen at the time one artist was renaming himself after the other’s 1968 film about the future world of 2001.
“The shape of things to come for me is the analogue. The road to creating large-scale work is just a process. Given the technology now, the challenge is just creating the original data and then you manipulate the data… that’s not even my process, although I’ve certainly done that in the past where I’ve scaled characters up and it goes from the thickness of a felt pen to three or four inches and everything’s proportionate and it all works. But the analogue has the spontaneous energy. In my new work I want there to be a strong sense of layering elements in there where it’s technical, so you can see the technique but then there’s the spontaneous energy too, the quality a Futura will always have.”
The ease and precision with which Futura produces a line always goes hand in hand with a strong sense of thematic approach – “there might be a colour or something” – and that influences the touch of pen or spray or brush (Futura has always worked comfortably in mixed media).
“What I like when I see work is seeing the artist’s hand. Part of my introduction to graffiti was the calligraphic look of it and how people were writing and the hand, penmanship, something about writing – all kinds of writing and documentation.”
In Arabic script or Japanese characters, for example, an element of precise control combines with spontaneity of mark-making to produce the most elegant and concentrated execution of the word. In the master’s practice, the recognisability factor of the word is subsumed by the fluidity of the stroke. I suggest to Futura that it’s only the master that can write the word that doesn’t look like the word it’s supposed to be.
“Let me tell you I have signed my signature to the point where it looks fake. A couple of them have come out where there might be a tiny flared edge where the pen strokes the paper in a way that makes it look like a stamp.”
The Futura tag is penned onto each painting and works like a single abstract stroke with six or seven marks to it rather than being necessarily a legible name. To that extent it operates like an ideogram, a character symbolising the idea of a thing without indicating the sounds used to say it. It’s an abstract way of thinking about how we process visual information. Behind the play with legibility, long the mainstay of the graffiti writer, a serious engagement with abstraction has become more and more central to Futura’s work. In keeping with this development, Futura’s signature, increasingly disembodied from the letters that form the word, has quite the opposite graphic effect of the Futura Bold typeface that Kubrick used for the 2001: A Space Odyssey poster campaign.
“Sure, we can programme ourselves to write, but I’m not married to all the illustrative stuff. For me it’s circles and arcs, I seem to have this natural ability.”
The ideogram approach is usefully applied to other visual tropes that recur in Futura’s work. Spirograph radials orbit across the centre of a painting in an echo of the 2001 poster to be punctured by black and red backgammon triangles, elongated spears that infiltrate the central space from the picture edge. The physics of modernist art history past are catapulted back into the future, as references to the synaesthesiac battlegrounds of Kandinsky counterpoint the quieter directional flow of Morris Louis’s Unfurleds where thinned oil paint wafted across unprimed canvas to make a “veil” of thinly staining colour oppositions.
“There are certain elements of the iconography that people really get crazy about, and that makes me want to do something that no one really responds to! The paradox is that graffiti begins in part as a way of getting attention but you can end up getting more than what you bargained for – the work you make becomes more and more defined by the audience.”
With over 25 years of collectors’ interest in his work, he sees similarities with the peaking of the art market now and when he was first collected alongside acquaintance Jean Michel Basquiat and good friend Keith Haring when they were all showing with the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in the mid-Eighties.
“It wasn’t until ’80 that the movement surfaced, The Village Voice did a piece and I actually sold a painting for $200. I went to the guy’s house – the dude was so sincere – but later I had a bad experience when I was invited up to another collector’s apartment on Park Avenue to meet his wife and kids and I saw myself like a freak – deer in the headlights – they were like ‘Look we got the graffiti art’ and I thought I was seeing the death of this movement.”
But the movement, like Futura, was robust enough to push on through the prejudicial barriers set up against the untrained street artist. “Basquiat didn’t like being referred to as a graffiti writer even though he started tagging as ‘Samo’.”
Artistically, things continue to move forward apace for Futura 2000. Even though his name now points to Y2K history, a new generation of audience has discovered his work. The week we met, Manny Kircheimer’s new film Spray Masters featuring Futura alongside Lee, Zephyr and Lady Pink was just about to have its world premiere at MOMA. In the same week Futura observed with sadness the recent passing of Style Wars film-maker Tony Silver.
“When I get back into this next period – because I feel I’m really close to getting back there – I want to make some serious Futura paintings.”
Futura’s aesthetic is recognised worldwide. Crossing over into the fashion world, his own brand, Futura Laboratories, has over 30 outlets nationwide in Japan. Recent projects include guest designing for the first time for Stüssy, and not before time. It’s all about communication, and although painting may be one of the strongest forms of non-verbal communication, Futura is pragmatic: “It’s way easier to sell a T-shirt”.
Ben Jones, April 2008