Special Exhibit
Norris Embry

Thomas Morin-Williams


The Norris Embry Estate is pleased to present GRAFFITI ! - the first of a series of online exhibits that will explore the multiple dimensions of Norris Embry’s work.

This first exhibition focuses on the theme of graffiti, a form of artistic expression that is attracting increasing attention from both museums and the art community at large. In considering the relationship between Embry and the practice of graffiti, it must be recognized that graffiti was both a constant and a necessary component of Norris Embry’s work throughout his career.

Often cited as the last artistic current of the 20th century, so-called “Street Art” (which encompasses such forms as graffiti, stencil, and collage) actually traces its origin as a mode of artistic expression to some of the artists active in the first half of the 20th century.  Originally graffiti consisted of messages and schematic drawings etched in stone or drawn on walls with chalk. Artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Brassaï were fascinated by all forms of primitivism.  They saw in graffiti a self-taught and sincere form of expression which is unsubordinated to academic standards. For them the beauty of graffiti lay in its authenticity, and in the primal character with which it is associated.

The first signs of urban graffiti as it is still practiced today emerged in the 1970’s, in the streets of Philadelphia and New York. Street graffiti “writers” started using spray paint cans to write “tags” (usually consisting of single words) which were actually unique nicknames.  Each writer had his own tag that he would try to copy as often as possible in public spaces across his city – on walls, signs, and trains. Pioneering urban graffiti writers of that era operated under such tags as “Cornbread”, “Taki183”, “Phase 2”, and “Seen”. 

Urban graffiti has several goals. Originally created by teenagers from poor neighborhoods, graffiti fills their need for social recognition. The very fact of finding the same signatue in every corner of the city gives omnipresence to the writer, who in some way takes possession of the tagged zones and affirms himself under the cover of a pseudonym seen by hundreds of people passing by.

The second objective of graffiti is adrenaline. At the end of the 70’s, writers organized themselves in groups.  Little by little they tried to access the most difficult and exposed spots of the city to make their graffiti, which had become more elaborate and colorful. When painting on trains or high walls, the goal was to show off the work to as many
people as possible, to impress other writers, and to feel the thrill of danger from the threat of applying their art in dangerous situations -- or being caught.

Finally, there is a third objective associated with the practice of graffiti, which is not sourced in an immediate ego satisfaction. Here the goal of the artist is to incorporate the written word in a manner that can be both more direct and subtle than is possible through images alone.  Through graffiti the artist can elaborate on his expression.  He can literally “spell out” and thread his personal vision into the consciousness of the beholder. That vision may be intimate and closely shared.  Or it may be so bold that his aim is to shift the consciousness of the beholder in some way -- or even the consciousness of society at large.  This form of graffiti can sometimes take the form of phrases or poetic verses criticizing political injustice, or exposing certain aspects of society in an ironical way. The late 1970’s work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, allias SAMO (for SAme Old shit), gives a good example of this more socially engaged graffiti.

How, then, does the work of Norris Embry fit in with the artistic tradition of graffiti? The association of his work in connection with the practice of graffiti has been long recognized and remarked upon.  For instance, in 1974 a critic reviewing an Embry exhibition at the
Robert Elkon Gallery in New York commented as follows:

"The ebullient, mixed media paintings of Norris Embry are executed with all the glee of a naughty child scribbling on the nearest wall. Yet these works are sophisticated graffiti [...]. Perspectives collide, bodies take vertical or horizontal positions at whim, and things are never what they seem. Yet all these works are handled deftly, with a sense of humour.  At a deeper level, the artist has clearly assembled a group of messages to himself, visual notations of sights he has seen, images dredged up from memory, or just daily notations from the humdrum activity of life. Sometimes he scrawls these messages to himself, uses collage scraps of letter paper or envelopes, or includes a bit of paper he has sketched on. Altogether, these are impetuous, uninhibited works which convey a zest for life’s experience."

We understand in this passage that Embry’s incorporation of the written word in his works places him, historically, in a transitional period. Embry drew upon and elaborated on the conception of modern graffiti developed by certain artists in the early 20th century. In doing so he forged beyond the boundaries of his predecessors, creating a style uniquely his own.  Unconsciously, Embry also gave a preview of the form of contemporary graffiti art that would begin to emerge in the early 1970’s.

Embry’s connection with early 20th century modern graffiti art is evidenced by his fascination with its primitive character, an interest he shared with Brassaï and Dubuffet. Certain of Embry’s monotypes, such as Untitled (Hand) (view image) and Hitler's Ghost (view image), recall both prehistoric cave paintings and wall drawings. The artist thus reveals his taste for unconventional art forms. Indeed, Embry is among one of the first generations of artists to use handwriting in a systematic way. Like Cy Twombly (born in 1928), Norris Embry uses the written word for its meaning as well as for the graphic qualities of each letter. 

Unlike contemporary artist-writers, Embry does not use a
sophisticated, deliberately stylized and deformed writing.
It is always intuitive and fleeting, sometimes executed so quickly
that the writing becomes frenzied and illegible. Embry’s rough graffiti embodies the very American notion
of what Thelonious Monk expressed as “Ugly Beauty”i.

Links with contemporary graffiti are visible as well.
The signature NO (for Norris), used in many Embry works, takes on a similar function to tagging. We notice with both Embry and the tagger the same obsession with the “me” which affirms itself in the repetition of a nickname. Although Embry’s work is without the vandalism inherent in Street Art, some intrusive words often disturb the composition in a violent way. This occurs sometimes by covering existing images (AMOR, 1979 (view image)), by sequencing words in an absurd style (No Words, 1979 (view image)), or, in all cases, by writing in a rapid manner. Embry also introduces into some of his work annotations of a more lyrical or politically oriented nature (The Cross Between, 1977 (view image) and The Shift of the Zeitgeist, 1978 (IMAGE 197) which unknowingly announce Jean-Michel Basquiat’s scribbled canvases as well as more socially engaged graffiti. Finally, through the use of letter fragments and bits of scribbled paper – a recurrent technique with Embry – the artist is close to Sticker Art, a sub-gender of Street Art which shares certain characteristics with Graffiti.

Yet, one has to grant Embry a very personnal use of graffiti in his work. As the critic above points out, if the words used by Embry seem at a first glance -- and justly so – like “child scribblings”, they appear, upon closer examination, to be “sophisticated graffiti”.  References to literature and art history, interlaced with words evoking movies, jazz and classical music, define Embry’s cultural identity. Using notes as if they were part of the artist’s diary of daily activities does not fit the strict definition of Graffiti, even though the effect of words violating the composition is reminiscent of this technique.

Thus, Norris Embry’s use of graffiti shows similar preoccupations with those of modern artists, while creating, simultaneously, a bridge with the younger generation of contemporary writer-artists. Obsessed by the written word, Embry never ceased to assert himself through this tool of direct expression. Recognizing his debt towards graffiti, Embry used many aspects of this technique to his advantage, never forgetting to pay tribute to it by writing on several works, the word “GRAFFITI”.

« Ugly Beauty » is the title of one of the pianist’s compositions, released in the album Underground in 1968.

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