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Buffalo News: "Futura2000 takes center stage with mural, retrospective"

Libby March, Buffalo News

Futura2000 is feeling some Buffalove.

The first career retrospective in the United States of the seminal New York City-based artist opened this weekend at UB Art Galleries. The exhibition, “FUTURA2000:Breaking Out,” spans the vast output of an artist who rose to prominence with aerosol can-propelled graffiti and street painting in the 1970s and ‘80s, evolving into painting on canvas, sculpture, wall murals, and product design and high-end fashion.

To connect Futura2000’s new works with the old, a show created for the exhibit, “From Brooklyn to Buffalo,” features 10 works tied to Buffalo neighborhoods. The Buffalo AKG Art Museum also commissioned a mural, “Bradford Reds,” named for the brick Futura spray-painted over in Buffalo Bills’ colors on the side of Bureau, a men’s clothing store at 712 Elmwood Ave.

“As a lifelong New Yorker, it’s so wonderful to see such an exhibition held here,” said Futura, 67, whose real name is Leonard McGurr and who goes by “Lenny.” “It’s quite an honor, I feel, because this is the first time, at least in America, that my work has been elevated to a sense of a retrospective show.”

Futura said he’s deeply grateful to UB Art Galleries and the Buffalo AKG for celebrating his work.

“UB (Art Galleries) is a proper gallery, and although I’m not showing at the Buffalo AKG, the mural is a bridge to that higher institution, which is much better than any other mural I have painted around the world,” he said.

The exhibition was the brainchild of Robert Scalise, director of UB Art Galleries, after seeing Futura’s work on exhibit at the Eric Firestone Gallery in 2020. Firestone, a friend of Scalise’s, has collaborated on the project.

“I thought Futura’s work was amazing,” Scalise said. “Then I started uncovering the layers of Futura – an iconic, pioneering street artist who did the ‘Break Train,’ the first pure plunge into abstraction for graffiti art that until then had been letter-based.

“I looked at him as an action painter, equivalent to those of the 1950s and ‘60s, like Jackson Pollock, (Willem) de Kooning, all those guys,” Scalise said. “It was crazy that no one had ever done a retrospective of his work.”

After Scalise visited Futura’s Brooklyn studio and got him on board, he brought in Zack Boehler, Buffalo AKG’s public art project coordinator, who added the public art component and agreed to co-curate the exhibit.

“When you talk about retrospectives in an artist’s career, it’s always looking at past tenses,” Scalise said. “But Lenny’s not past tense, he’s now. So the Anderson Gallery show really shows his depth on where he came from and how he got to be who he is, and the extent of his reach."

The exhibition is divided between UB Art Galleries’ two sites.

“From Brooklyn to Buffalo” is in the Center for the Arts gallery, along with a reading room and visual timeline of his career. A large Futura2000 subway wall serves as a gallery guest book.

The Anderson Gallery offers a historic survey of Futura’s paintings, drawings and sketches. The second floor presents products he’s designed and includes skateboard decks, record jackets, T-shirts, caps, sneakers, bicycles and toys.

“There is a synergy in terms of us being a company that supports creativity through design and art, and Futura is at the heart of culture,” said Mark Maidment, senior vice president of brand for Buffalo-based New Era Cap, the exhibit’s presenting sponsor who has worked with him for decades. “It’s great to bring him to Buffalo.”

New Era also made it possible for a group of Futura’s contemporaries to celebrate the exhibition opening.

“Break Train,” a photo captured by Martha Cooper in 1980, is one of the first pieces seen at the Anderson Gallery. Whimsically colorful and poofy forms fill the subway car. It was done a few years after Futura completed a four-year stint in the Navy.

“The train system was predominantly what we were using because, to me, no pun intended, it was an obvious vehicle that because it’s New York City and it’s running 24/7 unless that car goes out of service, could transport what we were doing,” Futura said.

“There was a moment when I thought that was the gold standard of doing graffiti in New York City,” he said of “Break Train.” “It was my greatest work on trains, but it’s also my introduction to, like, I’m done with you and I’m going to try this next level and walk through this door to what art can be.”

It was around that same time that he and contemporaries like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring began moving above ground, including first-generation East Village galleries and alternative spaces.

In 1981, Futura met and became close friends with Joe Strummer of the Clash. He spray-painted backdrops on stage with the band in Paris and London, and designed the “Combat Rock” album cover and lyric sheet.

“Many of the artists that we have worked with in our public art initiative have told us of meeting Futura for the first time,” the Buffalo AKG’s Boehler said. “He is extremely influential in the street art and public art worlds, but really has been embedded in so many cultural movements of the last 40 years.”

Futura’s also done work for the New York Yankees and Mets, and will be working on a major sports event coming in 2024 to Paris, he said coyly.

Futura will speak at 6:30 p.m. Monday as part of the UB Speaker Series at the Center for the Arts. He will be in conversation with Carlos Mare, an artist and contemporary of Futura’s. Admission is free.

The proud father of a son and daughter with his first wife, Futura called them “my best work.”

“That’s really what my life is about,” he said. “Despite all of this and what I carry around, I know what’s real.”

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