Olivier Mosset It was done a year ago.
Fred Brathwaite Right, it seems so long ago.
OM I told you, I was a little embarrassed, you know, I have these problems like the relationship between foreground and background and . . .
FB I don’t know, man, I mean, doing that for me was really cool because, you know, it helped me to understand what it’s like to feel like the way artists feel . . . or something. It seems like an important thing. From the idea to the point of doing it, you know, cause I remember, Arielle had one of your small black paintings at the time and I remember looking at it and actually, you know, not knowing too much about art in an academic sense, but probably just knowing what I like and I remember, it was a painting, a monochrome painting and I looked at it and I had been aware of Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman, people like that and I looked at this painting and she told me it was done by Olivier and I said, sure, well, he’s a friend of mine, but, I don’t know, I mean, it’s just a black painting, but I saw the . . . I understood it and liked the way it was stretched and it looked good on the thing and then I—jokingly—said to her, well, you know, the only way I would like this, is if I could tag on it and I had a marker and I went over to it with the marker and she said: “No, no, don’t, Fred, no.” But it was a little strange because as I began to really look at that surface of the painting you made and just look at the surface, like not the edges, but just look at the black, I just thought of all the walls and as a graffiti writer at the time, which I am . . .
OM Yes, now you’re kind of separated from that.
FB Right, now I am not really a graffiti writer. I don’t know what to call myself now, but at the time I was doing a lot more tagging in the street and in the mind of a graffiti person, a smooth, clear, surface like that, is where one wants to put his mark and I just looked at it and it seems like, wow, it was like a strange rush went through my body when I just said to her that I would like to tag on it. But it was a joke. And she freaked out and . . .
OM Yeah, but then she told me, and in fact, it’s funny, because, of course, you’re from New York but especially at the beginning, coming from Europe, you have to notice, you take the subway and, you know, they are just fantastic. You see these trains passing . . . Oh, by the way, you know what, I went into one wagon with the Campbell Soup.
FB Oh, my God, it’s still running, it’s still running, the rumor is that . . .
OM On the number One I think.
FB Yeah, definitely, definitely on the One train. That train is one of the oldest graffiti pieces which is running now on the line. It has been running now . . . I painted that train in 1980. I think it was maybe, January 1980. I painted that train and . . .
OM You know, it’s still, it’s not too badly . . .
FB And it’s still running. I think that somebody from the Transit Authority wants that train to run because it . . .
OM They didn’t try to erase . . .
FB Well they . . . the train went through what is known in the graffiti world as the buff. The train was buffed, once or twice, but when I painted that train, I used Rustoleum paint because I know that that’s the strongest paint you could use. And that’s why I really didn’t complete the whole painting because I spent so much time filling the red and white parts of the Campbell soup cans. I spent so much time filling them in, that, you know . . . so it went through the buff twice and it remains, so it’s still running. That masterpiece . . .
OM Anyway, Arielle told me about what you had told her about my painting and so I thought, well, ok, if he wants to do it . . . I had these paintings that were painted in enamel and they were pretty well painted . . .
FB Yeah, definitely.
OM They are not always like that, but these were and I thought also because I remember at a certain point somebody told me about this French show that came over here and I was thinking about that. They sort of offered me to be part of it and I thought that was a stupid idea, you know, nationalistic, but for a very short time, I thought about graffiti, a thing that is really New York. That was before so when she told me about you, I said, sure, if he wants to do it, he should just do it. And also, there is a kind of tradition, you know, Raushcenberg erasing de Kooning and Tony . . .
FB Yeah, Tony Shafrazi, spray painting on Guernica. And I am telling you, as far as my background is concerned, me and Lee, when we began to make paintings, like in late ’79, for our show which we later had in Rome, lots of the paintings Lee and me did together. I would come on a painting and I would put the letters in and Lee would spray in the background and, you know, sometimes he would do something and I would go over things that he did which . . .
OM It’s a collaboration.
FB Yeah, collaboration. I don’t know, man, thinking back now, doing that really excited me, I don’t know, there was an excitement . . . I mean . . . it was . . . But those paintings that we did are museum pieces. In March, I had an exhibition in Cologne at the Kunstverein which was curated by Diego Cortez and he took the slides of those four pieces that we did over with us as we travelled, he would show them to various dealers. They knew who Olivier Mosset was. They didn’t know me, but they had heard of graffiti. But they didn’t understand the importance and the significance of what happened because, see, really what this comes down to is that my background basically is that of a vandal. I vandalize public property. I mean, this is no joke, this is a serious business and the paintings that Olivier was making or is making were monochrome paintings, one-color surfaces. In the real world, in New York, what made graffiti what it is, was the marriage which was the placing of the individual’s mark on that blank surface. But that blank surface that the individual graffiti person tags on, belongs to someone. I mean, this wall, it’s a white wall, it might be 10 by 20 and it’s on the corner of Fifth and Park or, whatever, but that wall is owned by somebody. But when you walked by that wall, it’s your wall, you know, so the graffiti thing was mainly to put your thing on that thing. And then, as I moved into the “art world” or whatever, or really just began to meet people that were as serious about art as I was, we began . . . I began to find similar common ground, that, I think, resulted in what we did. Which . . . I still don’t totally understand, but . . .
OM But, I mean, you know, there are problems . . .
FB They definitely are there . . . because so much more things have happened in terms of graffiti. I remember, when we first met, that was at the Times Square Show. I had known who you were because I had seen you at TV Party.
OM But the reason I was there (at the Times Square Show), was a little weird because my work didn’t really fit in with the kind of works that were shown there.
FB That, probably, was the beauty of the whole Times Square Show because it was open to anybody who was on the scene, making art at that time. Friends had a lot to do with it. So, graffiti, monochrome painting, conceptual, everything was in this show and that’s when we first met and you showed me your work and I mentioned Ad Reinhardt and I remember, you sort of being surprised that someone from a . . .
OM Knew so much about art.
FB About Ad Reinhardt. You said: “What? Graffiti artists? You know about Ad Reinhardt.” I don’t want to say graffiti artists . . .
OM But I can understand that because as I told you, when I see a train passing by with a good work, a good graffiti on it, I mean, it’s much better than a Frank Stella or whatever because it’s moving and with the noise and all this . . . and it also has a kind of street quality. But at a certain point, what was dangerous for graffiti, was when you had the art crowd getting interested. My point of view is that there are some kind of specific problems that you have to deal with, whatever it is, the market, the gallery system, things like that, art history also . . . If you don’t know about it . . . but, I mean, you know about it, as I told you, graffiti artists know a lot. You learn very quickly, I think, the scene is not that large and you just go, you see things, you hear about things, you buy a couple of books, you look at a couple of magazines and you just know what all this is. What was interesting, was to see that, when, for instance, the Fun Gallery opened and things like that, the works changed. It is no more graffiti. It’s getting into something else.
FB Yeah, definitely, as I sit here talking to you, that’s the point where I find myself right now, I mean, I struggle very hard with my friends and my peers to explain to them not to categorize me as a graffiti artist because I feel that a graffiti artist is one who actively vandalizes someone else’s property, I mean, that is what it comes down to in the denotative sense of the word. But clearly . . .
OM Yeah, you began not to do that anymore, you know, even my paintings, when I agreed, it’s not vandalism anymore . . .
FB Right, it’s Olivier Mosset saying you may collaborate with me on the surface of my . . .
OM It’s a different thing and you get into different problems. And then, it’s no more graffiti.
FB Definitely, that’s a good point because what we did in a way, it’s crossing the line because it’s not graffiti when one has the permission to do it, right, and you said, let’s collaborate, so we collaborated as artists. You, of course were and still are well aware of my background as a subway painter or street painter, graffiti artist or whatever, but you were also aware, at the time, that I was aware of the art scene.
OM The art scene also was beginning to get interested.
FB The Times Square Show had happened. I think, at the time we did our painting, the New York New Wave Show was still going on. I don’t know, man . . . I really should have done some thinking before we talked because, I mean, there is a lot of little things about that . . . I mean, a monochrome . . .
OM Yeah, but I don’t want to get into that too much, I think, of course there is a lot of things about it, but, I think, the work, in fact deals with these kinds of problems, you know, somebody who sees the work can get into these kinds of questions. I always liked not to talk too much, to tell you the truth, you shouldn’t tell them too much.
FB That’s interesting, but, see, I mean, a lot of people have their viewpoint, but I feel like sometimes compelled to communicate with people because what I have done and where I come from is so little understood, you know . . .
OM It’s also what I feel.
FB It’s so misunderstood as far as graffiti, my background, what I am doing, what I have done, and what I think I am doing. Now, you know, everybody says, “Yes Fred, you are a graffiti artist.” But really, I can’t understand what their term means because I am not going to paint the Lexington Avenue train every night, like I used to do out in the ’70s. But I think, basically, it has . . . graffiti has . . . was just a vehicle that helped me to see that I wanted to express something.