After the succesful launch of their collaboration with New York artist KAWS, luxury cognac brand Hennessy asked Lenny McGurr aka FUTURA (57) if he would fancy designing a custom label for their esteemed Hennesy V.S. Cognac bottle. KNOTORYUS jumped at the chance for an exclusive interview with the legendary artist ...
KNOTORYUS : I am really honored to be talking to you right now.
FUTURA : Thank you, that is very nice of you.
KNOTORYUS : As I understand it, as part of the Hennessy collaboration, you offered them to promote the bottle worldwide. So have you been to any new places that you haven’t been before?
FUTURA : At the end of the tour I will have been to more than 8 countries, I think. But none of them are new destinations, unfortunately. I have been back to Japan and Russia. Actually, now that I get to think about it : they mentioned Nigeria. I’ve been to Africa before : Kenya, Tanzanya, North Africa ... But not Nigeria, so that’s exciting.
KNOTORYUS : How has the response to the artwork been? I know the boxed limited edition with the spray painted Converse were very well received.
FUTURA : For Colette we did a limited edition, but for the global release we are talking about 200 000 bottles. At some of the events as part of the artist participation at the party I have painted boxes that contained bottles. I can’t remember the number but there was a wall of boxes that I did in Paris, we did the same sort of thing in Los Angeles at the very first event as well. But that one wasn't quite as big as the one in Paris, where we did about 400 boxes I think.
LENNY & HENNY
Leonard 'Lenny' MCGURR is one of those few people that can truly claim they been there and done that. FUTURA actually did run a t-shirt company at one point. But before that came his illicit graffiti art on the New York subway as a fifteen year-old lost kid. Citing influence of artists like SJK, Frank 207 and UGA, young Lenny set out to find a bigger family of his own, after the news of his adoption was broken to him. With 70s New York as his backdrop he expressed himself with a spraycan on empty subway walls. His style was very abstract from the outset, he found inspiration in science fiction and '2001: a Space Oddyssey', which inspired his initial tag name 'Future 2001'. That later changed into FUTURA 2000.
KNOTORYUS : You will be touring, but the actual work designing the label is done. How are you feeling about the result?
FUTURA : It’s an opportunity to continue to promote not just the bottle, but myself. Yes, I’ve been to all these countries before, but I haven’t visited them presented and represented in this fashion. When I visited them years ago, sometimes I stayed in hostels, because that was during another part of my life when I wasn’t necessarily doing as well or had other things to take care of. So I appreciate the opportunity to continue to promote my art with Hennessy… It’s beyond the product : we’ve created it, we’ve sold it, people seem to be positive about it. Now I look to what I can get out of it as an artist moving forward. I think I’m always trying to do some sort of self-promotion. Whatever vehicle I am using to get my name and my creativity to a new and younger audience is positive. I am very lucky in that aspect.
KNOTORYUS : Any answers to that question of what you can get out of this moving forward? And I don’t mean necessarily what kind of collaborations you are up to. Did you get any existential answers?
FUTURA : (laughs) Existential answers. Let me see. What is next for me as an artist? As a person? If anything is known about my work for the last decade at least is that I have been collaborating. I have never collaborated with a brand with the kind of range and power that Hennessy has, but I did with big players like Nike, The North Face, Burton and Supreme. So for me the idea of collaborating with a brand is not life-changing. It’s just part of how I am making a living. But at the same time : no other company that I have ever worked with treated me really as an artist. Those were business transactions. It’s like : my name is on a product and they sell it. And that’s separate from : you bought my painting for 50.000 euro. So I appreciate how Hennessy has treated me as a person and as an artist. They are very kind to me and treat me with a lot of respect. And that is a big brand that given the history of over 40 years of dealing with people didn’t necessarily have to do that. Most people don’t do that. Therefore I am grateful and I want to give back. If you look at what I did on their bottle, it is quite small. So, I look at the big picture. What’s next for me? Is it existential? Yes, it is actually. Because, there are things happening in this process that are very rewarding. I don’t mean making money, because that is not rewarding for me. I think anyone with any intelligence can find a way to do that. I am more interested in relationships and the emotions of the people I am around. I look at things differently. It is not a big brush stroke. It has to be more detailed. We have to be specific when we talk about things because everything is quite different from the other.
FUTURA is a notorious family man. If you don't know about his kids, you don't really know about him. Timothy and Tabatha, have already successfully stepped out from under their father's name. 22 year-old Tabatha has proven to be a prolific writer, blogging for cult brand Married to the MOB since she was 15 and even publishing her own book at the age of 21. She currently resides in Brooklyn and writes an explicit column for Complex, on love and sex. 27 year-old Timothy aka “13th Witness” is one of Instagram's most favoured users and a professional photographer/videographer. He has carried on his father's spirit of collaboration, working together with brands like Sebago, New Balance and Belvedere. Their mother CC has her own vintage boutique in the Williamsburg borrough of New York, called “Le Grand Strip”.
KNOTORYUS : In interviews you -and I think you are doing it right now it again by saying you are more interested in the relationships around you- repeatedly talk about your family. How have you been able to -and now I am going back a bit- as a younger father keep taking risks and go forward with your art while still being a responsible and supporting parent? You obviously did a really good job raising your two children Tabatha and Timothy who are fully fledged adults now and artists in their own rights ...
FUTURA : Everything you just said : I appreciate. Honestly, I have shared this with my wife and I wouldn’t dare to take all that credit. My wife and I are separated which is not a bad thing because as a group, as a clan we actually still are very together. We are still there for each other and life is what it is, but that is not going to deter the respect that I have for my wife and the gift that she gave me with our children. I value that more than I do my own success and I think that is a much greater accomplishment as a human being than whatever I have been able to do creatively which I think is a lot of hype sometimes.
Pointman, Original Drawing
FUTURA : I don’t know how to really answer that question. I think I have just been very lucky. I did put in a lot of time. I am not going to debate that it doesn’t take a lot of work. My wife and I kind of did it the “Old World Way”. Not depending on a lot of other people, just getting it done. My responsibility to my kids has always been the most important thing in my life, but once again I can always make money to support my family, it just might mean that I have to work two jobs. Or it might mean that I have to be very aggressive. Now that my children are young adults and they are doing really well and we all are there for each other it’s like a dream come true. I couldn’t have imagined anything better. I’m not without some mistakes along the way, but it’s quite a commitment I think, to be a parent. I had to make some sacrifices with my art. Maybe that’s why in the eighties I wasn’t as successful as I could have been because I had a young child. And in the nineties when there wasnt a lot of opportunity in the artworld for us, I chose other means to support myself and my family. I started doing graphic design and getting into computing, so I found other ways to still manage to support everyone. And I think that is what everybody needs to do when you do have other human beings around you that you have to support.
Cover art DJ Krush "Meiso"
FUTURA : Now that I look back I feel like my wife and I did a great job. I am more proud of my kids than I am of any other creative accomplishment. I am doing pretty good now and there was a time when I wasn’t, but that didn’t matter because I would go home and I would see my children and we would all be really happy. Sometimes it was hard, but looking back if I could do it all again I would totally do it all again. I really would. I miss those young years too. A lot of people are getting into parenthood now. Babies are everywhere. They are always everywhere. And I wonder: wow, what would that be like? But to be clear : I am not in a position to do that and I am not going to do be doing that. But I sometimes wonder : how is that a challenge for younger people in today’s world? To financially support your kids? The reality of all that. Let’s put it this way : I am very grateful that it is behind me and I don’t have to struggle any longer with that. Tabatha is working with me in some professional capacity, her brother Timothy is doing really good on his own at the moment. And I am very proud of him. There’s time for them to become even something more which is inspiring and I’m very well-connected to all of that so I’m grateful to see it happening right before my eyes as well. It’s awesome.
(Tabatha and Lenny McGurr)
KNOTORYUS : What are you most proud of when it comes to your kids?
FUTURA : I know exactly what it is. It’s the fact that they are bi-cultural. They both speak French and Tim also speaks Japanese. To have a cultural advantage at a very young age is something Europeans have quite freely, but for us here in America there is a lot of second generation people and people who don’t know their language, culture or history. To know that my kids spent a lot of their summers in France and were completely submerged into that part of their heritage and to see the benefits of that over time as it opens their mind and they are able to sort of communicate better. Locally, if I were to compare them to other kids I am most proud of the possibility that we were able to give that. Money can’t buy that actually. I have been very lucky meeting my wife in France and having the opportunity to go there later on with the kids so they could be French. To know that my kids spent a lot of their Summers speaking French while being completely submerged in to that part of their culture and to see the benefits of that over time as it opens your mind and your able to sort of communicate on a better or different level. Even when they were younger, they were in-between understanding all of that, now it is really clear that the advantage is there. It’s just obvious. I just see them more as children of the world. Of course they are New Yorkers, but they have a much better view of the earth and the world than most kids who don’t have that access to life. So I’m most proud that they have got that experience in their life and they did something with it. They do have two passports, they do speak multiple languages, they do know their French history. I don’t want to call myself an orphan, but I am someone of a questionable heritage… We can’t really put our finger on who’s who in my life, so it’s great for me to look at what I have created with my wife and I understand that it is a bit of a miracle. Also, our health is something I am really grateful for. It seems like we do have good genetics. That could be our little secret weapon. Our blood mixed really well together. I could bore you all day with this. I could talk about that way more than I can talk to you about my art (laughs).
THE ADVANTAGE OF BAD SHIT
KNOTORYUS : We just talked about Hennessy treating you with the respect I think you should have gotten a long time ago, but do you think it's finally come to that point that great grafitti and street art is getting the shine it deserves?
FUTURA : I feel my art has significance to a very small niche culture. I think it’s changing, but for the moment it’s still small. You can tell that by social media. People aren’t as connected to what we are all about as they are to ... whatever, say Justin Bieber. It’s because of that I don’t feel too great about the youth movement : yes, they are energetic and they have got a lot of possibilities but there is a lot of misdirection. Which makes my job as a parent and a teacher more important. To try to make my kids a little bit brighter and a little bit more aware. The -quote unquote- street art, graffiti, I don’t know what label we are going to give it, I think it is a niche thing. It’s still quite small numbers. You know these things like the “Art In The Streets” exhibition at MoCa, it’s a big event to put us on the map. That could have doubled the global consciousness through a ripple effect and that’s fantastic. But we still need a few more years and I think this decade will bear that actually. There’s also going to be this abstractionist movement that I can fully see coming as well. A lot of these young artists are going to abandon a lot of the narrative stuff, I think there is going to be a lot of abastraction in the next coming years. The artists aren’t necessarily new but collectively they are better organised. Suddenly they are their own movement within a movement. So those things are encouraging from a point of view of the growth of the culture.
KNOTORYUS : You have been saying :" quote unquote, Street Art." Is it difficult for you to put a term on it? Do you dislike the term street art?
FUTURA : I don’t dislike the term, I would rather just call it art. Basically it doesn’t necessarily have to find itself on a street. It could be in other locations as well. Certainly now with the diversity of the type of art people are doing. The street is the gallery. I think unfortunately the streets are getting overrun. The streets in the bigger cities are becoming ruined with all the enormous stickering. If you look at places now, it’s becoming a little crazy. That’s not interesting. Or maybe it is. We are really at a moment now where it is such a DIY-culture where anything can be done behind closed doors and then suddenly put up somewhere. A lot of the magic or even the rebellion, it is not there. It’s a different era we are living in. It is passive, very passive. But yes, maybe we should call it art in public spaces, because there is such a range. Everyone wants to talk about the diversity of it. The pros and the cons. The good and the bad. It is so obvious, though : you see stuff on the wall and you know what is good and what is not.
KNOTORYUS : Exactly!
FUTURA : (laughs) I know, right?! It is no longer a debate people were having thirty years ago. Like, in 1982 people were saying : "Is it graffiti, is it art?" That’s discussion has kind of always been there. Look at it like a bird: what can you do about it? Nothing. These kids have a desire to do something, to communicate ... so, accept it. I completely get how the introduction to it all happened. It’s peer pressure, influence, … so in today’s world you just got to find a more clever approach to how you’re doing it. And take advantage of the really bad stuff that’s out there.
FUTURA : But it is true! The bad stuff is your best ally. When we see really new interesting creative things, we recognize it easily because there is a void of it. We don’t see enough of it. I encourage young artists to do what they want to do, but shortcuts are no guarantee.
Panic Button, 2011
LARRY & WOODY
KNOTORYUS : My two final questions : I am from Belgium. Have you been here before?
FUTURA : Hold up, did we meet in Paris?
KNOTORYUS : Unfortunately, no.
FUTURA : Oh, for a minute I thought I recognized you. Well, yeah I have been to Belgium : Knokke-Zoute, Antwerp ... I used to take the old train that went from Paris to Amsterdam. Not the TGV. I would always come during the eighties. There was even a gallery that did something with us, a group exhibition at that time.
KNOTORYUS : Do you remember the names of the other artists or the people who organized it?
FUTURA : No, unfortunately not. Wait, let me think ... There was an artist named Koor and he was the one guy. Because in the eighties a lot of artists left America and kind of pursued what was at that time the money and the interest. And there was interest in your country. A few galleries were supporting it, but my connections had always been French. The only time I would go out there was for group shows. I like your country you know. I am one of these kids that was fascinated with going to Europe and discovering what it was and enjoying the history. I was always fascinated with going out there. I had to go there and get that experience.
KNOTORYUS : And now for something completely unrelated : I heard that you are somewhat like me as in : I am a huge Curb Your Enthusiasm lover, but I once watched a whole season of Seinfeld without so much an inkling of cracking a smile.
FUTURA : That is so funny! I am a huge Curb-guy. But I never really bought into Jerry either. He’s not my guy. I’m sorry. And people are like : Oh my god, what are you talking about?! But I grew up in the sixties, so I’m still critical of what I’m watching. And when it comes to Jerry : I just can’t give it any time. I grew up with Woody Allen. So to me it’s like Jerry is the second coming of the funny Jewish guy, but you can’t because Woody is still that guy. I’m not going to forget the sort of education and humour I got from growing up with that guy. I’m very particular about that. But as far as you sitting through a whole season of Jerry without smiling? Jeez, Dominique, just don’t do that to yourself again, ok?