But then, as galleries began merging street art with fine art — an evolution that would propel some of his contemporaries to multi-million-dollar stardom — he grew disillusioned with the establishment. “I got sour,” he recalls.
“I felt I was just being manipulated a bit. I was a token in their world,” McGurr says of the institutions he felt were pigeonholing his work. “Yeah, I was showing in a gallery with Jean-Michel, Keith, Kenny (Scharf) and other contemporary artists. But then there I was — the ‘the subway guy’ — and I’m there thinking, ‘The gallery is using me.'”
A work by Futura on display at a Monaco exhibition about the history of street art in 2011. Credit: Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images
In the decades that followed, he moved beyond walls, canvases and aerosols, finding new mediums for an aesthetic that nods to particle physics and the space age. With two children to support, McGurr shunned exhibitions in favor of graphic design and, later, edgy brand collaborations with the likes of Comme des Garçons and Nike.
“In the end, I found other things to do,” he says. “I got into clothing, I got into other means of expression, I found the internet in the 1990s. I just tried things other than being a classic artist, represented by XYZ gallery in Asia and North America — you know, the classic cookie cutter stuff.”
Collectibles on display at Futura’s new pop-up shop in Hong Kong. Credit: Courtesy
None of this is to say that McGurr hasn’t been successful — far from it. After all, it would be unfair to measure anyone’s accomplishments against those of his most idolized contemporaries. (“Jean-Michel was the golden child,” McGurr notes fondly of his late friend. “He was the chosen one.”)
But now, aged 65, the New Yorker is finally getting his dues.
Known simply as Futura (the new millennium rendered “2000” an anachronism), McGurr is arguably more relevant than ever. Having long embraced the kind of collaborations that have become de rigueur for today’s contemporary artists, he finds himself perfectly placed to capitalize on his decades-long experience.
“I feel I’ve been very patient, but I’m getting mine now,” he says.
A new abstraction
Futura’s new installation in Hong Kong is his largest work to date. Credit: Courtesy Belowground
“I look at my life that way too. I don’t live in the rear-view mirror. I don’t want to come telling you about everything I did. Who cares, it’s irrelevant.”
Having just declared the past’s irrelevance, McGurr gamely entertains my questions about his early career. (“I certainly don’t ever mind taking about it,” he clarifies. “And I have a great memory and know exactly what happened.”)
It was perhaps little surprise that New York, the city responsible for Abstract Expressionism, might also produce a style of nonfigurative street art that eschewed bold lettering and cartoonish forms. But, McGurr says, “it wasn’t premeditated.”
A work by Futura on dsiplay at an exhibition in Calais, northern France. Credit: Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images
“People were comparing me to Kandinsky,” he adds, “But it was kind of an accident what I did.”
Revisiting an era
“The story that we were telling, way prematurely to its acceptance, is all coming back,” McGurr says. “And all the contemporary artists of the moment are out there keeping it going, and transitioning from the street to commercial galleries and institutions or whatever their path is.”
Items from the Futura’s 2014 collaboration with streetwear label Crooks & Castles. Credit: Noel Vasquez/Getty Images North America
Fitting, perhaps, that McGurr is also dipping his toe back into the institutional waters. In 2020 he exhibited a series of paintings at gallerist Eric Firestone’s New York space (a show dubbed “Futura 2020”). And despite Covid-related postponements, he hopes to open a show at Takashi Murakami’s Tokyo gallery later this year.
Overcoming his misgivings about the art establishment is both about “being in control of production and publication” and finding — in Firestone and Hong Kong’s AllRightsReserved — representatives he trusts.
“I have too many options to let myself get manipulated now,” McGurr says.
Futura pictured during the press launch of “Futuraland” in Hong Kong. Credit: Courtesy Belowground
Nonetheless, his reasons for reconnecting with the art mainstream still closely resemble his reasons for rejecting it in the first place: For Futura, the idea of legacy appears closely tied to the wellbeing of his family.
“Prior to Keith (Haring’s) passing, he laid out a bunch of artworks for all these kids — my son got three or four pieces,” he recalls. “I thought ‘Wow, dude, how benevolent and generous of you. You know you’re going to die, and you’re taking care of other people and children?’ So, I was super inspired by that.
“For the moment, I’m preparing for my guys, putting away work and archiving stuff. My digital IP will live in perpetuity. You know at some point my family, whether 100 years from now or in 2050, will be able to use that.”