vandalism today – Radtke reconsidered

Definitely tongue in cheek – or maybe not?

Behold a picture gallery of Operation Clean Sweep

From’s graffiti expose Hello, and welcome to part one of an occasional series on New Orleans painter, personality and provocateur Fred Radtke. In this series I will present some alternative viewpoints on the much-maligned and misunderstood creative force that is Fred Radtke. My argument, simply put, is that he is a major artist– certainly the most important in New Orleans– the profundities of whose work have gone unfairly unexamined due to the regrettable paparazzi-like attention paid to the man himself and a creeping philistinism characteristic of our time.

It may be difficult or at least counter-intuitive for some of Radtke’s detractors to take Radtke seriously as a painter. This is the first step of my Reconsideration, establishing Radtke’s legitimacy as an artist.

To begin with, I understand some feel they have personal reasons for disliking Radtke. I have read internet postings calling him a bully and worse. The general allegation is that he reacts in an uncouth way to those who bother or harass him while he’s working.

While it is not for me to speculate on these (entirely unproven) assertions, let us admit that many artists of every calibre find interruption or unwanted personal attention anathema to their creative process. Granted, not every artist works in public and uses the city as their canvas in the way Radtke does, but the complex issues of ownership and property his work raises are part of what makes Radtke groundbreaking, and I will address them in due time. For now, let us imagine walking into Jackson Pollock’s studio, trying to take his photograph, and hectoring him about the nature of his work. You ought sooner to provoke a bear in its den. Leave Radtke alone! We are lucky he even performs for us bastards, an argument I will flesh out in greater detail over the course of this essay.

Radtke’s work and methods are not popular. Often Radtke’s critics cry that he’s “as bad as a graffiti artist” or “just another tagger.” He is, in certain ways. He’s also much more, but if you are going to criticize Radtke’s work as being graffiti, you are obligated to render it the aesthetic consideration you would any other piece of graffiti, which is to say, a fair evaluation on its own terms.

I find ghettoizing Radtke as a “graffiti artist” problematic, but it’s a good enough jumping-off point. He does paint at present exclusively on the streets– if his work hangs in any galleries, I am not aware of it, and hope a reader will set me straight– and he employs the same public canvas as crass muralists like Keith Haring, so “graffiti artist” will do for now.

Artist as controversialist

Without going too deep, what is it that constitutes “art?” Is it a creative self-expression, one that challenges or inspires us, a visual reaction to existing human conditions? No, that’s rather glib and narrow, but unless you’re some perverse undergraduate who thinks “everything’s art,” it will do as a working definition. Art serves ornamental purposes; it is that within our lives the creation and value of which derives from something besides strictest utility.

The grey overlapping squares which Radtke paints on every available surface are not as obvious or eye-catching as the candy-colored nonsense and fanciful lettering most of us think of when we think “graffiti artist.” Radtke is an artist in a different league, and the furor his work has generated is proof enough of its power. When is the last time an argument over a painter has lasted this long and involved as many members of the New Orleans public?

If you’ve been to a gallery show lately, how many of the pieces there evoked the strength of response Radtke’s do? Those gallery paintings are entombed, pinned against the wall like butterflies in a case. They are safe, contained within the sterility of an approved setting. They are unambitious art which knows its place, and few have anything to do with what Radtke is about. The threat Radtke’s art presents– the prospect that your house or business could become his next canvas– is part of the revolutionary nature of Radtke’s work.

Outside the terrifying, ghoulish cabals of the French Quarter and Marigny neighborhood planning commissions, how much community debate is there over the unified “look” or visual aesthetic of New Orleans? Radtke inspires that debate. His persecutors often claim that he is changing the “look” of a city they wish was more colorful, and he is– let there be no doubt he is– in a way few other artists in history have dared to. He is ambitious outside the gallery, outside the restrictive niches which modern life has relegated art to, and the very success of Radtke’s work serves to obscure appreciation of it as art. Let us not hold his success against him.

Though Radtke is an artist against and beyond authority, in pleading his case as an artist I turn to precedent. For those still resisting the notion that Radtke’s work is art, I would like to cite some of his aesthetic predecessors, the mostly American painters of last century’s Abstract Expressionist movement.

Abstract Expressionism challenged the art of its time, partly by its focus on process. Spontaneity, energy, chance, and a disregard for figurative and literal representation are just a few of the elements I vaguely recall as being associated with the movement. No less an authority than whatever anonymous person wrote its Wikipedia entry informs us that the key to Abstract Expressionism was a combination of emotional intensity and self-denial. In what contemporary artist but Radtke do we see these twinned characteristics expressed so powerfully, so poignantly? That he is a driven, emotionally intense man none can deny, and as for self-denial, he is an artist against art, an artist whose very creations are both canvas (for subsequent artists) and denials of art-as-aim: his work perpetuates, on many levels, that which it seeks to destroy. So crushing! So brilliant! So Radtke!

His “loveable curmudgeon” public persona may play off of or spoof the egotism which popular imagination attributes to artistic genius, but Radtke is actually a master collaborator, and though no Radtke can ever be considered “done”– this is part of what makes him so exciting, that his process is organic and temporally infinite– a really good Radtke is one which he has revisited multiple times, building on and over his collaborators to create the look that defines New Orleans. On the assumption that almost no-one will actually read this entire essay, I have also tried to make my argument in visual terms, juxtaposing throughout it tiny, low-res reproductions of the work of some prominent Abstract Expressionists with Radtke’s. To wind up this installment, let us examine an almost chillingly prescient piece by one of Radtke’s forebears:

Hanging now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Gottlieb’s “Man Looking at Woman” resembles, in a primitive, inarticulate way, a Radtke in full flower: layers of beautiful, roughly rectangular grey overwritten with childish doodlings. I wouldn’t deign to try to psychoanalyze Radtke’s collaborators, beyond that some of them apparently feel antagonism towards Radtke. I mean, clearly they’re sociopathic and suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but that’s neither here nor there. What matters is that they provide Radtke with a vital piece of his process. Looking at “Man Looking at Woman,” those of us fortunate enough to live in New Orleans know that such a work here, on an overpass or the wall of a restaurant, would not be finished, not ready for consignment to some alcove of a high-dollar gallery with a high-dollar entrance fee. No, to see it is to anticipate Radtke’s next layer, the next color fields he will daub atop the crude, figurative contributions of the lesser artists whose participation Radtke alternately invites and invalidates.

In future installments, look for my explanations of where Radtke’s process has set him apart from the “old school,” what the proper reaction to Radtke’s work is (reverence), and his relationship to the Situationist notion of writing under erasure. Did I say look for? I meant eagerly await. Until next time, dear readers, in the words of another anonymous interweb yahoo, Paint it Grey.

Dingler – the anti-Radtke?

Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose recently sat down with local artist and member of the NOLA Rising project Michael Dingle to discuss his inspirational artwork.

According to the article, Dingle’s art is meant to inspire and brighten the city. He also says that it’s not considered graffiti since anyone can take it down, if they like it or if they don’t. No gray paint necessary.

What do you think? Is it art? Or more graffiti?

Check out the NOLA Rising blog for more information on the Radtke/NOLA Rising conflict.

and finally, Operation Clean Sweep

Lost on what we’re talking about when we mention “Operation Clean Sweep,” “Fred Radtke,” and the “Gray Ghost?”. . . let me explain
Eugenio Hernandez III / NOLA.comGraffiti over some gray paint that probably covered up some earlier graffiti on the side of a pawn shop on Magazine St.

Simply put… Fred Radtke is the president and chairman of the board of the Louisiana nonprofit organization called Operation: Clean Sweep, Inc. Anti-Graffiti Task Force. Some refer to him as the “Gray Ghost” due to his signature gray paint that he uses to cover up graffiti he finds around the city. While some people consider him a great citizen fighting to help keep New Orleans beautiful others consider him a vandal that is only adding to the problem.

Despite denial after denial that he does not paint over graffiti on private property without prior consent more and more locals are calling him out on these claims. The chief of police and Mayor Nagin have commended Radtke for his work and say he is simply doing what the city would do about graffiti if it had the resources to solve this problem that is plaguing New Orleans.

For some examples of his work go here

and feel free to upload your own gray paint images

What’s your take? Is he fixing the problem or just as bad as the graffiti artists tagging up the city?


~ by maringouin on Thursday, May 29, 2008.

2 Responses to “vandalism today – Radtke reconsidered”

  1. I think your otherwise excellent and exhaustive analysis ignores a critical component of Radtke’s ouvre: his role as the Diego Rivera standing with a brush in his hand and a pistol in his waistband with all the convictions of a mid-20th Century Marxist, weilding his art against the ancien regime.

    The superficially uniform swabs of grey which prove, on closer examinnation, to offer subtle variations on color and texture and in shape and brushwork, are the perfect evocation of the new order of demolition and condominium. He is a warrior in the avant garde of the of the revolutionary transformation of our city into a place where the low-rent taggers and chalk artists of the Bywater have no place.

    It evokes the subtle variations masking a conformist marching order of the manufactured home vernacular architure you see advertised along Pontchartrain Boulevard in Lakeview. He is leading us into the future of the visionaries of the New New Orleans.

  2. The analysis comes from the Times Picayune – the pictures on I-10 are mine.

    I can appreciate your critique of Radtke as one of the more cutting edge monochromatic artists in the New Orleans public eye painting on a public canvas – compelling, n’est pas?

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