REVIEWS AND ARTICLES

30 Years of Dan Witz’s Art, Illegal and Otherwise

by Hrag Vartanian

December 29, 2010

Vinyl painted stickers and airbrush by Dan Witz on a Lower East Side handball court wall (1999) (via danwitz.com)

In the history of street art, New York’s Dan Witz is a pioneer and one of the only names in the field that continues to enjoy an impeccable reputation based on skill, reinvention, and innovation. Yet, his monograph In Plain View is more than your conventional street art book. Its 220+ pages document a personality who arrived in New York in the late 1970s to attend art school, played in a band in the city’s thriving music scene, started working on the street because of the lack of opportunities for young artists to show in galleries, and continued to develop related but independent bodies of work both in public and in his studio. What makes Witz’s artistic contribution impressive is his endless stream of ideas that demonstrate an incredible knack for adapting to the times without falling victim to trends.

The cover of
“Dan Witz: In Plain View”

Unlike other street artists, Witz has a rich archive (over three decades!) to draw from for his book and they are almost all well documented. There is also an extensive and excellent interview with Marc and Sara Schiller of Wooster Collective, which probes the artist’s background (“…normal, healthy childhood. Nice parents, safe home, supported.”) and early influences (R. Crumb, Magritte, Grateful Dead…), but also does a great job of capturing some of the texture of New York in the late 1970s and 1980s. Witz explains that the realities of creating street art, though still illegal, was “less the danger of getting arrest and more about getting roughed up or mugged.” Boy, how things have changed.

The incredible story of Witz begins with his young ambitious aspiring artist self (he went to two top art schools RISD and then Cooper Union) who felt the need to turn to the streets as a mode of self-expression during a period when there seemed to be little (if any) value in the medium. At the time, the only street art he knew of was Charles Simonds’ Little People Villages on the Lower East Side. So, Witz, in relative isolation, developed a style based on visual pranks, casual interventions, and surprising juxtapositions.

You can get a glimpse of one of his works on a tagged up New York subway car (1983) on the left, and his hilarious work on Richardson Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (right).

His first works in 1979 were a series of realistic hummingbirds on the walls and doors of Manhattan. These high-metabolism birds seem like a perfect starting point for a young and talented artist who was coming of age in the frenzied energy of a decaying New York. The jewel-like birds also appear to ominously foreshadow what was to come and in the photos they seem to highlight the delicate and fragile ecosystem all around.

From these unlikely street characters he moved onto street poems (metal letters embedded in asphalt), and his ominous Hoodies (c. 1994), which came at a time when downtown Manhattan has been terrorized by drugs, crime, and HIV, not to mention that the scene that had fostered Witz was being pushed out by gentrification.

Some of the 911 Shrines created by Witz at (left to right) 23rd Street & Sixth Ave, Financial District, Soho, Battery Park (all 2002).

Other series soon follow, a new one every few years and each continues to blend illusion with urban imagery. Yet, what is fascinating about Witz is that his work appears to be in a constant state of redevelopment even if it retains some of the same language. He could’ve easily gone on for decades painting his signature hummingbirds and hoodys but he resists the branding other artists, particularly street artists, crave. Each era he tailors the visual intervention to suit the time and place.

After 9/11, he created one of his most original works, the 911 Shrines. These intimate candle monuments at the base of the city’s light poles were hopeful, quiet, and respectful … as apt metaphor for mourning and recovery than any other that was created post-9/11.

In his most recent street series, Dark Doings, he has created small illusionary windows that reveal the signs of human torture and other strange occurrences behind grates and glass. He places them on the streets in a curious attempt to see if anyone would notice or care, and, other than the very observant, few in fact do.

"Teresa" (2008) reminds me of the work of 19th C. American painter Ossawa Tanner.

As if the street work wasn’t enough to distinguish Witz, the book includes some of his moody and dark paintings that can feel like they were created by a 17th C. Dutch genre painter dropped in the middle of contemporary New York. Each captures fleeting moments, from a nude women staring into her first-generation iPhone and illuminated only by that erie and momentary light — “Teresa” (2008) — to a bodega’s flourescent glow on a field of blacks and browns. His often large mosh pit works portray a jumble of human bodies in a state of struggle, pleasure, and confusion, all the attributes of being human.

Humanity is in fact the unifying factor in Witz’s work. Whether on the street or in the gallery, his art probes the visceral lives of his audience and subjects. By placing a solitary balloon in the middle of a generic house wall or painting holes into metal boxes that reveal wires within, Witz makes the mundane came to life through visual surprises that often feel like they were hidden in plain sight all along.

Dan Witz: In Plain View, 30 Years of Artworks Illegal and Otherwise (Gingko Press, 2010) is available on Amazon and through other online booksellers.