“We may have lost the trains, but we’ve gained the whole world.”
That’s a quote on the wall in the new exhibition at the Bronx Museum spotlighting the work of Henry Chalfant. The quote comes from Mare 139, one of the early graffiti writers of 1970s-80s trains in New York, referring to the now-scrubbed subway cars that once functioned as a mobile gallery for the young masters of cans throughout a metropolis that was in the grips of financial and social upheaval. Thanks to the work of artists and documentarians like Mr. Chalfant, the ephemeral works were captured, cared for, preserved, and spread throughout the world in the intervening years, in some ways helping to spawn a global interest and practice among burgeoning artists.
“Henry Chalfant: Art vs. Transit, 1977-1987″ takes one of the original titles that co-author Martha Cooper suggested for the book that they published together “Subway Art” in 1984. That tome, full of both of their images that captured different aspects of the wild and untamed urban scene, eventually gained regard as a ‘holy book’ in certain graffiti circles across the world. Chalfants’ academic and sociological profile with producer Tony Silver of some of the early graffiti artists in the form of the 1984 PBS documentary “Style Wars,” also cemented his reputation as an expert in a rapidly evolving scene that brought untrained artists and original voices to the streets and trains.
The show is the second iteration of an exhibition curated by SUSO33 in Madrid, Spain last year at the Centro de Arte Tomás y Valiente. At opening night September 25th at the Bronx Museum the curator and artist were in attendance for the overflow crowd of artists and fans – many of whose work and faces appear in photos throughout the show. Visitors also got to see the original “Subway Art” book in its initial “dummy” form on display behind glass in its own vitrine.
Spread over multiple rooms filled with original photos, elevated train videos, and an impressive full-scale recreation of subway car facsimiles, the exhibit gives a rich survey of an epoch of an exciting tumultuous visual environment that rocked a city. The thunderous rumbling and screeching of trains adds an audio backdrop, somehow freeing these steel monsters from the past and making them temporarily contemporary. The raucous rebellious spirit of those times organically permutated and redefined itself in intervening decades, but Chalfant’s influence and dedication to preserving this potent moment provides ample evidence of the staying power of graffiti and its impact.
HENRY CHALFANT: ART VS. TRANSIT, 1977 – 1987 is currently on view at The Bronx Museum of the Arts until March 2020. This exhibition is free and open to the public. Click HERE for further details, schedule of events, and hours of operation.