The Times today has an article about Beriah Wall, a Brooklyn artist who has been giving away thousands of small, silver-dollar-size ceramic “coins” that he made. According to the Times, he’d put them on ledges, windowsills and store counters or just hand them to people. Anyway, it got me thinking about other free art, or street art, I’ve seen over the years, and what a delight it was to encounter.
Everyone knows about Keith Haring and how prolific his public art-making was. A woman I knew in the early 1980’s told me about the time she invited him to her studio and he covered her entire lobby in about five minutes. Haring’s generosity extended to his exhibition openings where he gave away posters, t-shirts, stickers and such; and he usually had a live band and turned the opening into a party.
In the late 70’s through the early 80’s, Charles Simonds hid lilliputian clay pueblo-like villages (he called them “little-people dwellings”) under stairs, on ledges, or other out-of-the-way places, usually in the Lower East Side and SOHO. He also had a piece in Liberty State Park as part of Michael Grave’s Environmental Education Center. I don’t know if that piece was claimed by the marsh, or if any other of Simond’s “Dwellings” still exist in situ, but you can still see one now in the stairwell of the Whitney Museum. The Whitney piece is nice, but it's not as fun, or as unexpected, as seeing them outside on the street.
Some of my favorite street art was Dan Witz’s beautiful little birds painted on derelict buildings, alley walls and on doors -- usually around the East Village. I haven’t seen any bird or any other work by Witz in years, but I recently came across new paintings by him at the Jonathan Levine Gallery in Chelsea (529 West 20th Street, 9th Floor).
Dan Witz, E.4th St. between 2nd and Bowery, 1979
There’s still some street art around. In Jersey City someone recently attached delicate, filigree sculptures made of white plastic ties to utility poles and street signs, and someone else attached small paintings to wood utility poles.
Anonymous (to me anyway), photographed June 13th, 2009, near the Sixth Street Embankment in Jersey City
But until now, with Beriah Wall, I haven’t seen or heard of any artists giving work away lately. There’s something about the anarchic and generous spirit of the act that I love. Quite a few years ago I proposed a “free art give-away” (redundant but catchy) to publicize the Jersey City Studio Tour. The idea was for about 10-20 artists to get up early in the morning and spread art all over the Downtown. The work would have a tag that said “Free Art” and maybe a blurb about the Studio Tour. I didn’t get any takers then, but I still think it’s a good idea.