Julian Cassady Photography
Contemporary Art

Graffiti Legend Lee Quiñones on the Golden Age of Street Art

New York

In advance of the upcoming auction Public Intervention: Art of the Street, Sotheby's sat down with New York graffiti legend Lee Quiñones to discuss his early influences and his interest in creating works in the public eye. The Dance Band (featured below) will be featured in the upcoming sale, opening September 24th, along with many other works from the early generation of New York based graffiti artists.

The Dance BandEstimate: 30,000 - 50,000 USD

LEE IN AMSTERDAM: COURTESY BARBARA FARBER GALLERY, 1983

Tell us about your early experimentation with graffiti and about your first time tagging a train or public building.

The early rumblings and masterpieces of the movement gained widespread attention by 1974 and as a curious young soul I wondered who, why, how, when and from where this explosion of color and attitude originated. It was a calling, of sorts. You could be swift and blazingly creative in a dark subway tunnel at 2 AM as I was at age 15, but what emerged in the next rush hour was still subjected to the critical eye of my peers from an esthetic level and as a criminal smear from the general public that didn't expect to encounter art under those circumstances. As far as experimentation, self-evaluation and empowerment was at my core and the act of mark making amongst a community of like-minded creatives made for some inspirational alliances and breakthroughs.

"Expression is a bi-product of compression and the transit system, the very life blood of the city, was conceptually the perfect vehicle to rapidly proliferate your expressions. When one of those subway whole car murals thundered into the station for all the world to see, it pushed out all the greyness and a festive aura took hold, everything and everyone excelled with excitement and disbelief."
YEAR OF THE DRAGON WHOLE CAR: LEE QUINOÑES, 1979. COURTESY OF LEE QUINOÑES

What attracted you to create works in the public eye as opposed to more traditional context? Having later presented your work in a more traditional gallery or museum setting, do you feel that the public perceived your work in a different way on subway cars and public buildings?

Ironically the city in all its despair had transformed into a center stage for the actors in all the genres of the arts. Art was the only voice in town and I wanted to take this unprecedented movement, which was based on grand representational mural making, to the next level. The work was accessible to the public, whether their opinions were on your side or not. I won't get into a symphony of asking for sympathy, but this was action painting as a reaction to the very harsh realities in stressed society. Expression is a bi-product of compression and the transit system, the very life blood of the city, was conceptually the perfect vehicle to rapidly proliferate your expressions. When one of those subway whole car murals thundered into the station for all the world to see, it pushed out all the greyness and a festive aura took hold, everything and everyone excelled with excitement and disbelief.

What was it like being perceived by the city as a “vandal” while you were perusing a new way of artistic expression?

Disconnected and closed minded perceptions outside my circle did not phase me nor deter my aspirations because most important art movements come from a place of discontent and controversy. On the contrary, there was an interestingly diverse group of intuitive and open minded supporters who saw through the fog of confusion and in their own way, provided the winds for my sails. The year was 1979 and aside from my immediate family and close friends, my first art dealer, the late Claudio Bruni Sakraischik, the president of the Giorgio de Chirico foundation gave my work its first opportunity to be experienced in a gallery context. On the other side of town, my junior high school principal Bernard Mecklowitz, quietly commissioned one of my iconic handball wall murals entitled "The Lion's Den," thus setting the stage for what we now label "street art."

"With dance music and DJ culture deeply anchored in the community it was only natural that I would want to celebrate music's ability to thread and sew the masses together. I love big band musicians such as the Funk Brothers, Kool and the Gang and others, but I also gave an ear to feature film score guards like Lalo Schifrin, Johnny Pate, John Williams and Isaac Hayes."

What is the story behind The Dance Band? What inspired the design and where exactly did you execute the final version?

With dance music and DJ culture deeply anchored in the community it was only natural that I would want to celebrate music's ability to thread and sew the masses together. I love big band musicians such as the Funk Brothers, Kool and the Gang and others, but I also gave an ear to feature film score guards like Lalo Schifrin, Johnny Pate, John Williams and Isaac Hayes. "The Dance Band" whole car was created on an I.R.T Lenox Avenue Express in 1976 while it was laid up over a wintery weekend on the elevated tracks overlooking the Allerton section of the north east Bronx. It was my attempt to revise the surface of the train to be a joyful cultural announcement.

DANCE BAND (WINDOWS BUFFED). PHOTO ERIC FELISBRET

Can you elaborate on the planning that went into a project like The Dance Band and the function of this study drawing in the execution process?

First came the vibes to paint it, followed by a long session of creating the working study that was actually used as a reference while on the tracks. This study reflects the subway car's rectangular shape. I composed the figures and letters in my head beforehand and my hands followed while on site. Having an arsenal of paint cans was paramount to succeeding with any given masterpiece, but having the correct color palette was even more important. For a number of reasons, I couldn't source the colors I used in the drawing for the subway car. I used khaki greens, avocado and silver instead. It took all night to execute in between interruptions from trains in service on the live northbound track and activity on the streets below.

Julian Cassady Photography

Who were some of your most powerful artistic influences in your early days and who influences your work today?

My earliest contemporary influences were the great graffiti kings Cliff 159 and Blade One. Shortly thereafter, I was very much influenced by the advertisements of the era that inundated the subways and platforms as well as DC and Marvel comics. Underground zines such as MAD, Heavy Metal and anti-hero films like Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin and Fritz the Cat. 1950s Japanese science fiction films also fascinated me. Many artists influence, inspire me or make me think. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the Futurists, Francis Bacon, Martin Wong, Hank Willis Thomas, Leslie Hewitt, Njideka Crosby, Kerry James Marshall, Firelei Baez, Gerhard Richter, and Cai Guo Qiang are some that come to mind. I believe that when approaching art making in any sense, there will be certain levels of anxiety and fear based on the work's honesty and exposure.

How has your artistic style transformed over the years? What types of projects do you enjoy working on today?

I am making new paintings for a number of shows planned for 2022 and beyond. The new body work will also incorporate sculpture and found objects. We are working on my extensive archive documenting artifacts, early subway works and handball wall murals from the 1970s, and drawings and paintings made over the past 50 years.

Julian Cassady Photography

Public Intervention: Art of the Street, will be open for bidding September 24th – October 1st. The sale will feature Lee Quiñones work, among other legendary New York artists who created works in the public eye.

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