The following is the second part in a series of interviews with key figures in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s downtown New York circle in the 1980s. (Click here for Part One of this interview.) The interviews were conducted in February by Museum of Fine Arts Boston curator Liz Munsell and writer and musician Greg Tate, who together curated the exhibition “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” on view at the MFA through July 25, 2021.
Fab 5 Freddy’s Campbell’s Soup train, a collaboration with Lee Quiñones, rolled out to the public on the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority’s 4 train in early 1980. Following a period of starkly minimalist and conceptual art, its serial Warholian design both paid homage to Pop art of the past and reanimated it in bold new motion. In Campbell’s Soup, Fab 5 inserts graffiti into the history of 20th-century art, writing Dada soup, Pop soup, Futurist soup, Fabulous Soup (for his ’70s graffiti crew, the Fab 5), Fred soup (for himself), and T.V. soup (for Glenn O’Brien’s famed public access show, TV Party).
Campbell’s Soup directly contradicted the racist assumption that graffiti art was unmoored from art history, proving that muralism on trains had its pulse on every corner of its metropolis: this train was rooted in myriad cultural and artistic influences, including but absolutely not limited to the canon of contemporary art, art history, comic book culture, and commercial design. Running on the tracks—untouched by the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s mass campaign to rid the subway of even the best works of art—Campbell Soup went “all city” for months—far longer than any “writer” would typically dream. The train served as a billboard to the art world: we know what you’re up to, and we’re coming for you; it predated by months the rise of the post-graffiti movement that saw the organized transition of graffiti’s top players from the streets into museums and galleries worldwide. Forty years later, this is Fab and Lee’s first interview on this painting. –Liz Munsell
LIZ MUNSELL: Let’s talk about the planning process and the Campbell’s Soup trains specifically. The technical side of things. What was the concept for the first version of the train and how did you work out its design? Were sketches made in black books or otherwise?
FAB 5 FREDDY: Well, the way I remember it, it wasn’t that technical. It’s not as complex as what other writers would do, what Lee would do with his trains and the many drawings he had. It was simple. The first one, which got buffed really quick, was two soup cans on either side and my name. Lee helped with all of that, but that one went away really quick. It got buffed! And then the one that lasted a long time, the second one—obviously I didn’t get to finish the piece in the middle, my name, but we got the soup cans up and they let it run for so damn long, thank God. That Campbell’s Soup subway car ran for a few years and people would be like, “Yo, I was just on your train” or “Yo, I just seen it, again.” And I’d be like, ” How the hell is this happening, this car still running when so many have been buffed?”
GREG TATE: This train also ended up directly next to another iconic work, by fellow artist Blade. How is it that these two masterworks ran on the same line? Did y’all have a fan that made it run so long? It had to be somebody there who just said, “Don’t—”
LEE QUIÑONES: What happened in the system is that, believe it or not, there were fans. They were either motorman, conductors, or even track workers. I know this for a fact because I’ve spoken to a couple of them. Trains sometimes would not get buffed simply because of the scheduling difficulties that the MTA had. So, they’re just like, “We’re not buffing this. We’re letting it run.” The buff erases history for some writers and creates opportunity for others. So sometimes cars would run for a few weeks to a couple of months with the windows and everything painted, untouched. Going back to Blade’s walking stilt letters, that whole car was done in 1980 as well. But the reason it was hinged to our car—to the Soup can car—it was because they were just switching trains around, they were putting single cars with other cars.
GREG TATE: But you know that sounds like curation, right?
Martha Cooper: Campbell’s Soup by Fab 5 Freddy, 1981.
© Martha Cooper
LEE QUIÑONES: I know, that’s what I’m getting at that. I think someone in those switch rooms, wherever they put trains together, who was like, “Hey, let’s put this together,” which was amazing. All these things were coming together because everyone seemingly—even some in the MTA itself—was trying to move the conversation forward.
LIZ MUNSELL: Do we know dates on these two cars? I’m targeting the second one for early ’80, which was a pinnacle for the movement with the new lines of color coming out in spray paint that everyone was ramped up to use.
LEE QUIÑONES: Right, right, yeah. Krylon had broken out with a whole new arsenal of colors aside from what they already had. We were working with what they had—the fundamental, whatever it was, 10, 15, 20 colors. And then they had colors that they had discontinued that were from the early ’70s. So, whenever we found those palettes of colors, it was like found gold—now you can up your game with color. The 1980s come in and they have a whole new palette of 10 or so different colors. I remember one of them being Chippewa. I could tell you the first Campbell’s Soup we painted, the one that’s finished, that was late ’79. We might have been right off the plane, coming back to New York from [our show in Italy in December 1979]. The second version came in right on the heels of that. And I think we were already experimenting because I remember saying to you, “Let’s experiment with tilting the cans.” Since there was a series of them, we figured the only way you could put cans like that, that big, was to put them in sequence so that when they go by on the express track, things move by you really fast, they’re like stop motion.
FAB 5 FREDDY: Another reason for wanting to do the next one, and to get it documented, was because the idea was for that piece to be a statement on what Lee and I were trying to do. I thought of it as a statement for the overall movement saying that we’re not these wild savage kids they portrayed us as in the media all the time. The way we—Black and brown urban kids—were depicted was almost always negative. I wanted to create a positive narrative, and also to control that narrative. And to then step up and off and do other things in the art world. But you’re right, Lee, the tilting of the one can, that definitely was a significant difference.
View of the exhibition “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” showing (right) Fab 5 Freddy’s Campbell’s Soup graffiti on a New York City subway.
Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
LIZ MUNSELL: And Fred, if you had finished this train, would it have said “Fred” in the middle? What was planned and what was the planning process for this?
FAB 5 FREDDY: Just “Fred.” We did an outline. It was going to just be a fade down. I think yellow’s there, so I probably would have faded down into a couple of shades of orange, into red. Most of the effort went into filling in all the cans, because it was lots of red, lots of white. The fun thing obviously was naming the cans. So, one was the classic, Tomato, then TV Party, Futurism, Pop, Dada, etc. Highlighting the other historic art movements was part of the statement of letting folks know we were hip to art history, from Giorgio Vasari to Pop to Graffiti.
LEE QUIÑONES: So, we were going to paint that entire car, the “Fred” car. We were going to cover it from top to bottom with a background. We just never got to that. And I remember that it was going to be yellow going into orange into red, which was the traditional color of fire, bringing fire to the situation. And there was a “Fred.” Yeah, “Fred” was outlined. I remember you were struggling with the paint because that night the paint was cold, because it was cold outside, and it was dripping a lot. So, I remember that we needed to keep the cans warm. Yeah. I mean, it was more chaotic because we had four or five guys painting in a line. I was always nervous about that, about having too much paint fumes up in the air, especially in that tunnel. So, when things went south, we had to abort. Everything had to be like… We had to take our paint and run out of there.
Actually, if I remember correctly, the train just pulled out. One of the most horrific things for me, aside from getting raided by cops or even meeting other graffiti writers was having an unfinished piece. Because it’s like you’re in a Broadway play and you forget your lines. I was also doing my own whole car, two cars down, so I was running back and forth to help and say, “Okay, fill this in, outline that.” And, “Oh no, this didn’t come out. This is not proportioned right. Let’s put it here. Let’s improvise.” There was a lot of improvising with the first one as well.
And then of course, Fred had all the reference -isms, like Dada, and the art soup and Fabulous 5 soup. And that was a homage to The Fab 5, because we both knew by that time that The Fab 5 were exiting. So, it was our way of like keeping them alive, of giving them a shout out. And going back to 1980, the tipping point is that I think that this subway car, the Campbell’s Soup can car helped a lot of cats in the scene. Helped them realize and actually see that there was something bigger than this little cocoon that we had built for ourselves. And it opened the aperture, as I like to say, of the extension that this movement can have concept and technique.
I don’t know if you remember this, Fred, when that second version that was done with Slug and Doc and Mona there. We all went together, except for Slave, and I remember exactly where we were standing and where we painted it. We painted at the Morris Park Avenue/Esplanade subway station, where it was a mile-long tunnel that they laid up trains in and we all painted together. Now, Mono and Doc and Slug, they were skimping on paint. So, they went there with a very small palette of colors. I went there with a large palette of colors and you went there with the red and white palette. Now, I’m here trying to finish my car and it was just a lot to manage. That night was a catastrophe. And rightfully so, you were very scared in the tunnels. It was very foreign to you in a way of, “What’s happening here? What do we do? Where do we go? Where do we stay? Where do we stand?” And I can understand that because I figured that out in the seven years prior, I figured out how to operate in different places. But at the same time, when we got off that plane in Leonardo da Vinci Airport, I was scared out of my skin.
Fab 5 Freddy and Lee Quiñones in Rome in 1979.
Courtesy Fab 5 Freddy
FAB 5 FREDDY: You wanted to go right back home! [Laughter.] I had my boombox with me by the way, playing my Bronx hip hop party tapes every night and I’m talking about the dopest tapes out at the time before hip-hop records, and me and Lee would walk the streets of Rome until sunrise, exploring and having a blast! One of the wildest things we did then that you can’t do now was we climbed the fences to get into the actual Colosseum and we found the last remaining steps, we sat on those steps, talked about movie scenes of Roman gladiators while watching hundreds of wild stray cats that lived there fed by locals, running through the Colosseum space. We had a nonstop adventure in Rome and it was big, big fun, right? It was like our playground, right, Lee?
LEE QUIÑONES: This mutual exchange of two young men having our fearful sides, our dark sides confronting that. I had to confront cocktail society, and Fred was like, “Yo dude, chill. No, you’re not getting on a plane back to New York.” And here I have to tell Fred, “No, Fred no. We’re good, we’re going to finish this whole car, we’re going to do it now.” So, it was beautiful.
FAB 5 FREDDY: It was scary that night, I can’t front on that. But I was definitely art nerding out in [art dealer] Claudio [Bruni]’s house in Rome, the collection he had. There was a major bronze Boccioni sculpture in his living room like—it looked like wild style graff in a way, the corners and the angles and shit. He had Caravaggio drawings, he had photos by Baron von Gloeden. I felt I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also was in charge of the de Chirico estate and several of his major metaphysical paintings were hanging. I was like, okay, okay, now I understand, this is on another level!
The Italian rebel group, the Red Brigade, had been on a tear the year or two prior to our trip doing what famously became known as kneecapping. They would roll up on big wigs or politicians in the street and they would blast out their kneecaps as opposed to killing them. And they would graffiti all over town, the “Red Brigade” in Italian as I’d seen in the American press. I was thinking to myself, “Well, we’re going to go to Italy, and the Red Brigade is making big noise there and hearing about our show. Maybe radical types there may come out for our exhibition.” When the opening happened in Rome it was nothing like I’d expected. The richest of the rich of the 1 percent of Italian society is who came to the opening, the Fendi sisters, Gianni Agnelli who ran Fiat was there, along with a contessa and other big wigs. It was a surreal crowd: women were dripping in jewels and wore bright colored fur coats. It was a really rich, very strange crowd to me and nobody was radical but they all treated us nicely and with the utmost respect.
Fab Five Freddy (Fred Brathwaite): Five, 1980-81. This painting is in homage to Charles Demuth’s I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, 1928, which Fab would visit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art weekly.
(c) Fred Brathwaite/Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts
LIZ MUNSELL: You guys are lucky you didn’t get kneecapped.
GREG TATE: No, I’m saying, like, “Y’all are hanging out with the target of the Red Brigade.” How affirming, or not, was that for you guys? Somebody who’s very learned, cultivated in terms of European art, is obviously making that same correlation that Europeans made between jazz as a musical tradition and you as so-called graffiti artists: both were underappreciated in your own country.
FAB 5 FREDDY: Yes, that was something that had given me a lot of inspiration, in how I thought about what we were doing, because having Max Roach in my family and knowing this history of jazz musicians being embraced without the racism we were facing in America.
LEE QUIÑONES: By that time, we were in the art thing, jousting with ideas and joking and I came up with an idea we never got to do. We were going to do a double whole car and paint the cars entirely, as two loaves of bread—because the trains’ shape looked like loaves of bread. They would have been an amazing two cars—a “married couple,” which is two cars that never get separated.
FAB 5 FREDDY: Two popular bread brands were Taystee bread and Wonder bread. Lee’s was going to be an entire loaf of bread, top to bottom, end to train end, Tayst-LEE, and mine was going to be, Wonder-FRED. The Wonder-FRED and Tayst-LEE idea, whenever we discussed it we’d laugh it up, just like we’re doing now! We knew the ideas were good and the laughter sealed the deal as it was always an underlying motivator to think of people’s reaction seeing those cars roar across the tracks. I wish we could have knocked out those paintings to further imbed our message but the wheels started turning fast and we were off to the races on an express train into art history!