The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

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JUNE 2019 Issue

Writings on the Wall

Revealing the city’s concrete surfaces as democratic ledgers

Brassaiï, <em>Graffiti de la série VIII, La magie</em>, 1950. Silver gelatin print, 15 x 11 inches. © Estate Brassaí Succession.
Brassaiï, Graffiti de la série VIII, La magie, 1950. Silver gelatin print, 15 x 11 inches. © Estate Brassaí Succession.
On View
Waddington Custot
May 17 – August 8, 2019

Bringing together six mid-20th-century artists, Waddington Custot’s “Writings on the Wall” is an idiosyncratic show that explores how the urban surface has acted—to use Brassaï’s poetic phrase—as “truancy’s blackboard.” His extensive documentation of Parisian graffiti proves integral here, informing the preoccupations of Jean Dubuffet, Antoni Tàpies, and, to a lesser extent, Manolo Millares. Each artist honors a legacy of mark-making in their work: finding inspiration in the cave petroglyphs of our most distant ancestors; the mutable materiality of the urban environment; and the accumulated etchings of the city milieu.

Brassaï’s perception of the wall as a locus for nonconformists, and the fascination of the artists’ here with graffiti’s long history, illustrates a shared anti-establishment ethos. Currents from the broader wave of Modernism, such as Art Informel, matiérisme, Art Brut and Arte Povera, overlap in their championing of spontaneous, “authentic” expression.1 Art Brut in particular privileged the raw instincts of those outside of mainstream arts institutions above the work of individuals who had been formally trained, with the productions of children, the mentally ill, and the socially marginalized viewed as the more creatively genuine.

Jean Dubuffet, Pisseur au mur, 1945. 15 x 11 1/4 inches. © Fondation Dubuffet/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London, 2019.

Forming the exhibition’s nucleus, Dubuffet’s “Les Murs” (1945) sits alongside Brassaï’s assortment of photographs taken between 1935 and 1950. Both focus their attention on decaying urban landscapes besieged with graphic incisions. Brassaï’s images depict porous concrete and bored holes elaborated on by human hand to create anthropomorphic faces, or large gestural splashes of paint applied to brick walls. Dubuffet’s series, meanwhile, echoes the former’s monochrome coloring and frontal perspective to illustrate the influence of the aforementioned photographer. Carefully imitating the materiality of walls, his lithographs show discolored bricks incised with myriad lines, with random letters and individual initials entangled with crude symbols of love and male genitalia.

Adjacent, Vlassis Caniaris’s “Hommage aux murs d’Athènes” (1959)–two beige-hued pieces daubed with red paint–have the most visceral impact. Suggestive examples of both matiérisme and gestural abstraction, they allude to a wider socio-historical context: the occupation of Greece during the Second World War and the country’s subsequent civil war. Even without this background knowledge, these pieces evoke a tangible sense of embattlement and struggle. The larger canvas, victim to the destructive actions of the artist, oozes urban conflict. Multiple slashing motions flay surface plaster and paper from its substrate of blackened burlap sack, while red paint is smeared over the work’s surface to suggest defiance as well as violence.

Antoni Tàpies, Duat, 1994. 98 1/2 x 236 1/4 inches. © Antoni Tàpies. Courtesy Waddington Custot.

Tàpies’s Duat (1994) is a more physically imposing example of matiérisme. Dominating the gallery’s entrance at 236 inches long, it hangs on the wall like a rectangular stretch of beach. The names of Greek gods, geometric shapes, and the contours of doors have been carved into its sandy-brown marble dust, with protruding shutters affixed to its wooden base. The notion of the artwork as a portal between past and present is evident in the title’s reference to the Ancient Egyptian underworld, and further compounded by the recurring motif of doors and open windows, which Tàpies’s conjures in his employment of grattage and the addition of symbolic objects.

Vlassis Caniaris, Hommage aux murs d’Athènes, 1959. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 59 7/8 x 52 x 1 15/16 inches. © Vlassis Caniaris.

In Duat, mark-making connects both ancient cultures and contemporary society with a common heritage, and affirms “existence and identity in the face of obliteration”: providing an assertion of presence in the face of life’s transience.2 Inspired by the traces left on prehistoric caves and urban walls, Tàpies paints and carves symbols–ostensibly ‘crosses’–into his work. Though deliberately enigmatic, these are most likely a non-verbal proclamation of being, insisting that: “I am here.” There is something primal and innately human about this gesture, one that recurs throughout the exhibition. Both Tàpies’s Petjada sobre vermell / Footprint on Red (2000) and Cercle rogenc / Reddish Circle (2004) also register the fleeting agency of the individual; the former provides a black impression of a foot on red board, while a small piece of card marked with a thumbprint is attached to the latter.

While the works gathered here share an elemental aesthetic, none feel as astoundingly simple as the three untitled pieces by Cy Twombly. His pencil and crayon scribblings on large sheets of off-white paper suggest the Surrealist technique of automatism, with Twombly aspiring to circumvent rational thought to channel some more essential expression. Untitled January 16 (1969), for example, is a two-dimensional melee of pencil squiggles, squares, ovals, and pink wax crayon elaborations. Although initially alienating, the composition eventually exerts a subtle fascination on its viewers—an appreciation for its diverse graphic qualities and sense of vital energy.

Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1969. 23 x 30 3/4 inches. © Cy Twombly. Courtesy Helly Nahmad.

Writings on the Wall is an impressively conceived and immaculately designed exhibition, immersing the viewer in the social, political, and artistic concerns of this group of unconventional artists. It reveals the city’s concrete surfaces as democratic ledgers onto which the marginalized attest their experience, as well as being historical loci of accumulated socio-political conflicts. And, although Millares, Twombly, and Tàpies’s deconstruction of graphic communication often feels cryptic, Caniaris’s “Hommage aux murs d’Athènes” resonates clearly: effortlessly communicating an atmosphere of violence, protest and oppression.

  1. Martin Irvine, ‘The Legible City and the Language of the Wall’, in Writings on the Wall (London: Waddington Custot, 2019), p.5.
  2. Martin Irvine, op.cit., p.6.


Daniel Pateman

Daniel Pateman is a freelance writer based in the UK. He has an MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture and writes for Aesthetica magazine, Photomonitor, Eyeline, and This is Tomorrow among others.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

All Issues