PART THREE: THE POWER OF NUMBERS
“It’s massive,” says Futura of his Hennessy collaboration. He’s smoking a cigar before dinner in the conservatory of Chateau de Bagnolet. On one side of the room Arik Levy’s most recent sculptural bottle design for the brand towers above perfectly set tables. “Sometimes, when these type of projects appear…” he pauses, searching for a way to put it all in perspective. He remembers one in particular where he teamed with Philadelphia-born, New York-based letter master Steve Powers (aka ESPO) on another large corporate engagement. “We all did a Calvin Klein bottle, but it didn’t have my signature. For me it’s all based on that tag.”
As a writer, he says, he was never one to blanket the streets. He chose his spots carefully, thinking critically about both longevity and visibility. Tagging 360,000 bottles gives him plenty of both. “Getting up is not the main thing,” he says, “but it is a great perk.”
Something like this [Hennessy collab] is a door-opener. My goal is to present myself and let them determine if I am worthy of their time.
For all the graphic design work and global success, the lure of art for Futura remains the same as it did when he started writing on 103rd and Broadway —for him it’s a mode of communication, a chance to interact with people.
“Something like this is a door-opener,” he says of the bottles. “Needless to say I’m going to open up my audience. My goal is to present myself and let them determine if I am worthy of their time.”
Of course, another door opener is the current fervor for street art, which has never been more popular or respected. “Banksy, Shepard Fairy, Swoon,” Futura says, ticking off the names of street art’s new generation. “Any of the contemporary people who are blowing up right now and giving art more visibility and more credibility, it really allows me to appear and say ‘Hey—what’s up guys? I’m here.’” At this point he’s as much an old master as Rembrandt.
"Futura's contributions to the abstract element of graffiti are well documented,” asserts Eric HAZE, famed for his graphic design work with Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys. “His important place in art history will remain clear.”
Futura was able to strip away the letters for pure abstract color and form, making a statement that is still being digested today. —Poesia, Graffuturism
“It’s hard to explain how important Futura is to our evolution as artists,” says Poesia, a major figure in the Graffuturism movement. “As the cliche states, Futura was ahead of his time,” notes the Bay Area artist. “He was a complete paradigm shift... Futura's purely abstract whole car in 1980 can be compared to Wassily Kandinsky's first purely abstract paintings. Both were firsts and painted almost 60 years apart. Kandisky opened a door to modern art, Futura has opened a door to what we are doing today. Futura was able to strip away the letters for pure abstract color and form, making a statement that is still being digested today. The graffiti artist leaving figurative letter forms, the graffiti artist transcending aesthetically, the graffiti artist becoming an artist, graffiti becoming art—Futura addressed so much with one painting. It didn’t stop there. He’s had huge impacts in streetwear, photography, design, publishing and much more. He seems to always be first to the punch on so many things. Legend is not a strong enough word. He is the exception to every rule, unparalleled.”
Despite his OG status, Futura keeps his finger on the street art pulse. “Logan Hicks is a mastermind, Saber is the sweetest spray painter, and C215 is my brother from another mother,” says Futura, applauding those who wave the flag of progressive graffiti. “There is a whole new crew, this Graffuturism crew. I love that,” he says, “The thing that is great is that it has been coming for a decade. It was great to see 2010 hit. I see things from a decade-to-decade perspective and I see abstract having its time now.”
Although he enjoys the universal respect of his peers, Leonard McGurr remains, as Poesia puts it, a “humble visionary.” Thanks to his keen interest in history, he knows his place in art is understood and rarely toots his own horn.
“Who started all that?” Futura asks, ashing his cigar, then half-jokingly answers his own question. “Duh, Lenny.” All jokes aside, Futura says that “It has never really been about me.” Still he concedes that “I need to be more assertive in the art world—and I will be.”
In January, Futura mounted his most recent solo show at Galerie Jerome de Noirmont in Paris. The opening drew friends ranging from the French fashion designer Agnes B., with whom Futura created one of his first co-branded products, to up-and-coming English street artist Nick Walker. It was the type of crowd that hammered home an essential point — Futura speaks to many people and his forward movements function like a snowball, bundling up old fans with new ones.
The fresh paintings on view proved that the 57-year-old artist is still progressing. His traditional atom, helix, and Pointman were minimized, his canvases pushing beyond the edges of traditional graffiti and into a more fluid abstract realm, soft aerosol mixing with harder paint and marker line for a never-before-seen depth. The exhibition served as a reminder that Leonard McGurr is always looking for new angles and new challenges.
The relationship I have with my kids is super strong. In the end, the value of my relationship with my family outweighs everything. —Futura
His own call to action comes from his own family. Futura’s daughter, Tabatha, is with us at Chateau de Bagnolet. For each of her father’s stories, she has an aside. She lovingly cuts him down, playfully punctuating points with a “you’re stupid”. McGurr’s son, Timothy (making a name for himself as a photographer under the moniker 13th Witness, is physically absent but a constant presence as father and daughter check iPhones and track him via social media.
“Coming from a broken situation, it was important for me to get my family together,” says Futura, who was an adopted child himself. “The relationship I have with my kids is super strong. In the end, the value of my relationship with my family outweighs everything. Moving forward, that balance helps me maintain a certain reality in my life.”
The stars of art and family are now aligning. Just over 30 years ago, Futura came to France and set off on an artistic journey that continues to surprise and delight. When we see his signature and that trademark abstract style on the Hennessy bottle, we understand the history, and we see it repeating as the art world—and the real world—gets back to Futura.