Exploring the Artistry of John Fekner
Doug and I had the pleasure of meeting John Fekner during the Nuart Festival in Stavanger, Norway in 2018. John’s unassuming presence amidst the chaotic art scene left a lasting impression. Although not one to boast about his artistic legacy, Fekner’s impact on street art and graffiti precedes the fame of influential artists like Banksy, Blek le Rat, and Basquiat. Fekner’s work reflects the social environment of 1960s and 1970s New York City, featuring bold stenciled text with powerful messages like “Broken Promises” and “Urban Decay.”
The Early Influences
John Fekner, a young art school student at the time, was deeply influenced by the socio-political atmosphere of the concrete jungle. His art was a response to the tough realities and limited opportunities within the city. Fekner’s work often portrayed a flower emerging from the rubble, symbolizing hope in a city on the edge. Collaboration with artists like the original Space Invader and Don Leicht further showcased Fekner’s impact on the political and social aspects of street art and graffiti.
Freedom in Anonymity
Throughout his career, Fekner maintained a level of anonymity. This allowed him the freedom to pursue his art without any distractions or the need for attention. Instead of engaging in social activities, Fekner dedicated his Friday or Saturday nights to creating artwork. This focus on productivity and solace provided him the creative space to develop his unique style. Fekner’s preference for anonymity gave him the freedom to let his art speak for itself.
The Birth of Outdoor Art
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Fekner began venturing into outdoor art, which was relatively uncommon at the time. His motivation for this unconventional approach stemmed from a desire to juxtapose elements and challenge the norms. One of his early outdoor projects involved taking a green highway sign from the Grand Central Parkway and hanging it on the metal fencing above a handball court wall. By placing the sign in an unexpected location, Fekner sparked curiosity and initiated a dialogue about urban landscapes.
The Rise of Stenciling
Fekner’s involvement with the early Soho scene in 1968 introduced him to the world of stenciling. This artistic technique allowed him to create streamlined, visually striking messages with an air of authenticity. Stenciling gave Fekner’s work a sense of authority, often resembling official signage or government communications. The use of stencils enabled Fekner to amplify the visibility and impact of his artwork.
From the Streets to Conceptual Art
Fekner’s journey as an artist led him to explore conceptual art, breaking traditional boundaries of the art world. He embraced the vibrant and experimental art scene of the time, which encompassed fashion, music, and performance art. Fekner’s involvement with Fashion Moda, a legendary art space in the South Bronx, opened new avenues for his creativity. These experiences further shaped his conceptual approach, allowing him to challenge the status quo and advocate for social change.
The Influence of Music
Music played a significant role in Fekner’s artistic development. The emergence of rap, electro, and hip-hop during that era fueled his creativity and provided a soundtrack to his artistic journey. Artists like Kraftwerk, with their hypnotic and immersive soundscapes, captivated Fekner. The fusion of art and music in his surroundings added depth and inspiration to his work.
Fekner’s Impact on Forgotten Spaces
One of Fekner’s most impactful projects took place in the South Bronx during the 1980s when the neighborhood was ravaged by a crack and heroin epidemic. Fekner, alongside his creative partner Don Leicht, employed large-scale stencils to draw attention to the city’s neglect and lack of investment. The stark phrases, such as “Broken Promises” and “Decay,” transformed abandoned buildings into powerful voices demanding change. These stencils became symbols of hope and resilience in a struggling community.
The Authority of Stencils