Banksy & Matisse: Nothing but Masterpieces

I think of Banksy as the Zorro of the art world.   Masked?  Nobody knows his real identity–reportedly, not even his parents, who think he’s a high-end decorator.

After dark, he might turn up anywhere. He dazzles with his swordplay–okay, make that spray paint play. Then he vanishes into the night.

His art leans heavily on stencilled figures and silhouettes, gritty content, in-your-face messages.  EVen if some of it later is sold for six figures.  Still, this is illegal street art.

Cans Festival....A tunnel in south London has been transformed into an exhibition space by stencil graffiti artist Banksy

Banksy, Untitled, from “Cans Festival,” London, 2008

The Banksy I like best, though, is working in a painting and collage tradition that evokes modern masters.  In a recent Village Voice interview, Banksy talked Jackson Pollock:

“”Graffiti is an art form where the gesture is at least as important as the result, if not more so. I read how a critic described Jackson Pollock as a performance artist who happened to use paint, and the same could be said for graffiti writers—performance artists who happen to use paint. And trespass.”

Banksy has already been called  “Britain’s Andy Warhol.”    Similarities are pretty obvious, but for an interesting one, consider Banksy’s Buddha (above).   There hasn’t been a lot of Buddha in American pop.  But Warhol very late in life did a series of paintings of the Last Supper that have a similar feel.

Andy Warhol, “Last Supper,” 1986 (silkscreen ink and coloured paper collage on paper )

Collage pioneer of the fifties Robert Rauschenberg usually showed in galleries —even if he did stencil and paint, almost graffiti-style, on a bed sheet.   In an earlier post,  I mentioned Rauschenberg’s “collaging” onto a BMW.  (Warhol, Stella, and Lichtenstein did it too. )  This work is from 1986,

Robert Rauschenberg, BMW Art Car, 1986

Banksy spray-painted a car in his  October, 2013,  NYC extravaganza.  This one comes with an “audio guide.”   It’s accessed by cell phone at the site  or on the web and is additional evidence of Banksy as museum habitué.

Here’s Banksy’s version:


Banksy, October 9, 2013, Lower East Side

In the Village Voice interview, Banksy explained: “”The audio guide started as a cheap joke, and to be honest that’s how it’s continued, but I’m starting to see more potential in it now,

“I like how it controls the time you spend looking at an image. I read that researchers at a big museum in London found the average person looked at a painting for eight seconds. So if you put your art at a stoplight you’re already getting better numbers than Rembrandt.”

Stall tight privateIn another “interactive” work a  few weeks ago, Banksy set up a stall  in Central Park for seven hours.  An elderly man behind the counter sold  Banksy’s original canvases, priced at $60 each.  A total of three people made purchases, including one who bargained the seller down to half off.   According to the NY Post, the art, sold for a total of $420,  is worth  a quarter of a million dollars in the art market.

Claes Oldenburg “Store,” 1961

Was Banksy thinking of the Claes Oldenburg “store,” of the early 1960’s?  In a shop on New York’s Lower East Side, the artist sold plaster sculptures of typical products like cigarettes, lingerie, and desserts.

Oldenburg’s items were pricy (a sandwich was $149.98).  But both “installations”  dramatically challenged the valuation of art as product. In fact, in a piece in June—-before the Central Park Banksy shop—- the Oldenburg-Banksy connection was made in an article in Forbes magazine.

The next comparison might be a bit of a stretch.   Still,  the Banksy stenciled crane, from a wall alongside a canal in Dorset, reminded me of a detail from Romare Bearden’s “Purple Eden” of 1987.  ( Both below)   Bearden’s work is a combination of paper collage with painting. Banksy’s bird mimics origami, so it looks like paper.  Coincidence or influence?

Details from Banksy and Romare Bearden

Details from Banksy and Romare Bearden

Like Bearden and many other artists, Banksy has spent a lot of time copying masterpieces.  Here’s what he said in an interview with the London Sunday Times  (in 2010, I think, but I can’t access the subscribers-only article,  so this excerpt is via unurth):

“I have a large collection of famous art at home, but they’re all fakes. I make them myself. If I like a picture I grab a photo, project it up and paint it. Sometimes I change the colours to fit with the curtains. I do it partly because I’m tight and partly because if the Basquiats and Picassos in the sitting room were real I’d be too scared to ever leave the house.”

And the Matisse influence?  Here’s my favorite Banksy:

The  Banksy “stained glass window”  has been on view at various places, including the Geffen Museum at LAMOCA.  It reminds me of Matisse sitting in his Chapel at Vence, with the windows he created using cutouts and collage.

Matisse at the chapel in Vence, n.d.

Matisse at the chapel in Vence, n.d.

On a section of his website which, like many of Banksy’s street works, has since discappeared, the artist quoted Matisse:  ‘I was very embarrassed when my canvases began to fetch high prices, I saw myself condemned to a future of painting nothing but masterpieces.’

Image credits: 1) Man throwing flowers   2) Buddha   3) Warhol   4) Rauschenberg

5) Banksy car   6) Banksy stall    7) Oldenburg   8) Banksy crane  9)Bearden

10) Banksy “stained glass”    11) Matisse at Vence



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