The Xerox Art Movement of 1980-81

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Between 1980 and 1981, a lot of emerging artists knew the Zeitgeist was changing and were experimenting with new media hoping to catch whatever wave might come along. For a year or two, Xerox art became the rage for many. In fact, Jean Michel Basquiat was doing it before he started painting on canvas, and the form may have even helped him segue from writing cryptic poems in the street to inventing his own image vocabulary based on opening up his inner child. Tom Forcade, the founder of High Times, by the way, was an influence on Jean’s teen years because Forcade was the most legendary character living downtown in the 1970s. Jean dumped a box of shaving cream on his high school principal, something that might have been inspired by Tom throwing a pie inside Congress during an investigation on pornography a few years earlier. One of Jean’s biggest boosters at the time (Glenn O’Brien) was momentarily Editor of High Times, and wrote the first major article on the new writers like Jean and Fab Five, although no one thinks of Jean as a writer today as he quickly backed away from that scene.

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Of all these Xerox artists, Keith Haring was one of the most political, using Burrough’s cut-up technique to rearrange headlines from the rabidly right-wing New York Post to convey shocking messages (left). Haring was also very prolific. Anytime he did something, Keith usually went all-in, and his short-lived Xerox phase was no exception. Kenny Scharf might have been living with Keith at the time, although maybe they were just in school together but he also joined in with his own Xerox art (below).

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Vapo Jet is the title of this piece, and it has to be one of the most phallic of all Kenny’s early work. The Fifties mom wearing Jetson-style sunglasses quickly became a recurring archetype in Kenny’s personal iconography. I wonder sometimes if my Xerox art collection is worth anything? None of the pieces are signed and it’s pretty easy to make forgeries, although I’ve never tried.

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Keith eventually switched from cutting up Post headlines to inventing his own personal iconography, and that switch took place during the short-lived Xerox art movement. By New Year’s Eve 1980, Keith’s new vocabulary was fully formed (left). Meanwhile, Kenny went to soak up the vibes at Stonehenge that spring and made a color Xerox that shows him with Samantha and Bruno.

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The Rise of Futura 2000

I arrived at the Mudd Club right on time and went upstairs to view the opening of the new Mudd Club Art Gallery. The owner, Steve Maas, had recently taken over the downtown scene by creating the coolest club in town, one that helped focus the merger of CBGB’s crowd with the Soho art scene. My article on Futura 2000 had appeared that morning, my first cover story for the Manhattan edition of the hip new afternoon New York Daily News.

Futura had designed the headline himself and been paid around $100. While Futura was in the art room sketching the piece, a  senior dude looked me in the eye and said: “We shouldn’t be promoting this.” It was my first inkling my reporting might be rubbing some of the old guard the wrong way.

I assumed we’d all be celebrating up a storm at the Mudd Club. Fred Braithwaite greeted me. When I asked if he’d seen the Daily News article, he pulled out a copy of High Times and showed me Glenn O’Brien’s much more in-depth article that ran for pages with lots of amazing color photos. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Fred were the major characters in his piece.

Somewhat deflated, I speed-read the article while thinking, “Shit, this guy beat me to the punch. I need to start reading High Times.”

Meanwhile, I notice a bunch of girls are looking at me funny. “That’s him,” one says. I can tell they are super pissed-off about something, so I ask them what’s up.

“You called our father an alcoholic! Do you know what if was like for him to read that!” snarled one, which cranked up the angry vibes on the rest of them.

I sought refuge behind the desk with Fred and whispered, “Holy shit. I assumed his dad was dead or he wouldn’t have told me.”

“Well,” said Fred, “he told you so he must have wanted it to come out, even subconsciously.”

It was the first time I realized the power of the media to cause intense emotional problems and how the unvarnished truth is not always the best option. The whole incident put a real damper on the celebration for me, and I went home early, although not before Fred gave me Bambaataa’s phone number, so I could interview him the next day. It was the beginning of a long trail I’d scout for the next four years, a trail I’d been put on by viewing a subway car called “Break” that I’d seen at New York/New Wave at P.S. 1, a train painted by Futura 2000. You can read the original Daily News article in my book Hip Hop: The Complete Archives.