Dondi White - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, May 18, 2022 | Phillips
  • "Dondi is such a legend. You can mention his name to any graffiti artist in any country and they will know the contributions he’s made. When Zephyr introduced me to him, I was shocked at how down to earth he was. That short interaction bounces around my head till this day."
    —Brian Donnelly (a.k.a. KAWS)

    Executed at the pinnacle of Dondi White’s career in 1983, the present work is a tour de force of his now-storied practice that led to his standing as one of the first graffiti artists to transition from the streets into the international art world. At once atmospheric and architectonic, lyrical and controlled, Rebel Rocking the Blind Light depicts the New York cityscape through the artist’s singular painterly sensibility. Here, Dondi’s signature stick figure is positioned within a bold contour recalling the path of a subway line, which merges to form a spray can elusive of a grand skyscraper. Embodying Dondi’s “obsessive graphic formalism and elaborate iconography that was at once profoundly personal yet ambitiously allegorical,” the present work arrives to the public for the first time since it was bequeathed by the artist to the current owner’s late wife, who was a dear friend of Dondi until his tragic passing in 1998.i


    Dondi White at the Venue, London, 1982. Image: David Corio/Redferns/Getty Images

    "I do consider myself a painter. I’ve always said that because I learned how to paint before I learned how to draw."
    —Dondi White

    Rebel Rocking the Blind Light reflects the culmination of Dondi’s prolific career between the mid-1970s to 1980s. Lauded for his stylistic innovations and technical precision, the Brooklyn-born graffiti artist began painting subway cars with the crew TOP (The Odd Partners) in 1978 before forming his own crew CIA (Crazy Inside Artists) the following year. By the turn of the decade, Dondi cemented his reputation as a one of the most influential street artists of his generation by departing from complex aesthetic of “wild-style” graffiti in favor a more simplified yet dynamic style that would allow the public to comprehend his work. This shift led to the clear lettering, explosive use of color, and stick-figure characters for which he became renowned. In 1980, Dondi joined the Esses Studio project established by art patron Sam Esses, who paved the way for graffiti artists to bring their art from the street into the studio. It was at this time that Dondi began painting on canvas and became associated with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Futura through their collective association with the Fun Gallery in East Village—notably exhibiting with them at the seminal New York/New Wave exhibition at MoMA PS1 in 1981. 


    For Dondi, translating his aerosol works onto canvas was natural. Indeed the present work showcases the artist’s commanding painterly handling, displaying dynamic juxtapositions between tightly contained forms and oozing pigment giving way to Abstract Expressionist-like drips. Here, his use of enamel spray paint imbues the composition with a shimmering glow particularly evident in the rendered spray can form, forging a striking relationship between materiality and visuality.



    "Dondi’s life and art are now the stuff of myth, retold in the oral histories of a subculture and circulated in the documentary traces of a rapidly receding past…it will be the art itself upon which rests the final measure of Dondi White’s lasting legacy."
    —Carlo McCormick

    In the year of the present work’s creation, Dondi, then 22 years old, established himself as the first graffiti artist to have a solo show in the Netherlands and Germany. Marked by his pivotal solo exhibition at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam in October 1983, the artist’s swift rise within the commercial and institutional art world was in many ways the result of the important shifts that occurred in his painterly style between his first explorations on canvas and his arrival at Rebel Rocking the Blind Light. While his technical approach became more controlled, Dondi’s compositions pried more deeply into expressing his inner world. As Carlo McCormick observed, “While his public art gesture tamed and framed wild-style brute into a painterly poetics, it was the studio work where representation was steeped in hermetic contemplation…From his signature ‘stick men’ to his similarly inscrutable silhouettes, the alienated anonymity of Dondi’s city-sleeked everyman stood as haunted surrogate for a psychologically rich spectrum of disturbingly dark yet deeply humanist emotions.”ii This conceptual development in Dondi’s practice of looking inward materialized into the more atmospheric quality of his work and his deliberate choice to allow parts of the blank canvas to play a role in the composition. In Rebel Rocking the Blind Light, Dondi masterfully mediates the hues of blue fazing in and out across the painterly surface, capturing Alfred Nemeczek’s observation of the present work as “remembrances of the underground.”iii In the artist’s words, “I do things because I have them inside and I need to release them. And when I release them, they come from the heart and soul.”iv 



    i Carlo McCormick, “Foreword: Graffiti A.D. (After Dondi),” in Zephyr and Michael White, Dondi White, Style Master General: The Life of Graffiti Artist Dondi White, New York, 2001, p. 1.
    ii Ibid.
    iii Alfred Nemeczek, “Wer fürchtet sich vor einer neuen Mode?,” Art: Das Kunstmagazin, February 1984, no.
    2, p. 54.
    iv  Dondi White, quoted in Zephyr and Michael White, Dondi White, Style Master General: The Life of Graffiti Artist Dondi White, New York, 2001, p. 112.

    • Provenance

      Private Collection, New York (bequeathed by the artist)
      Thence by descent to the present owner in 2014

    • Literature

      Alfred Nemeczek, "Wer fürchtet sich vor einer neuen Mode?," Art: Das Kunstmagazin, February 1984, no. 2, pp. 54-55 (illustrated; dimensions erroneously listed as 142 x 102 cm)


Rebel Rocking the Blind Light

titled ""REBEL ROCKING THE" BLIND LIGHT........" lower center; signed, titled and dated ""★ Dondi White" 1983.© Rebel RockinG... Rebel Rocking..." on the reverse
acrylic and spray paint on canvas
63 7/8 x 48 1/8 in. (162.2 x 122.2 cm)
Executed in 1983.

Full Cataloguing

$100,000 - 150,000 

Sold for $151,200

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 18 May 2022