Welcome to Tony Shafrazi’s playroom for adults—though he prefers to call it an art gallery. The walls are covered with wildly exuberant comic-book fantasies reflecting the defiant we-are-not-afraid mentality of some children of the nuclear age. Located in New York City’s SoHo region, the epicenter of experimental art in America, the Tony Shafrazi Gallery promotes the work of young street-smart artists like Keith Haring, the crown prince of subway graffiti (PEOPLE, Dec. 5, 1983). While members of the limousine set buy Haring paintings from Shafrazi for as much as $20,000 apiece, Haring continues to do graffiti in the subways for the fun of it.
Shafrazi, 40, dresses in natty blue business suits and speaks in guarded tones, as if discretion were a matter of honor with him. He never gives a straight answer. Intensely serious and philosophical, Shafrazi seems strangely out of place in his own gallery.
Indeed. But to understand how truly “out of place” is Shafrazi’s current position as patron of the arts, it is necessary to go back 10 years. On Feb. 28, 1974, Shafrazi took a can of red spray paint into New York’s Museum of Modern Art and scrawled the message KILL LIES ALL in foot-high letters across Pablo Picasso’s 25-by-11 foot antiwar masterpiece Guernica. When a guard finally grabbed him, Shafrazi shouted, “Call the curator. I am an artist.” Instead, the police came to take him away.
The spray paint was washed clean in less than an hour with a special solvent. Likewise, to minimize embarrassing publicity, criminal-mischief charges against Shafrazi were dispatched with haste and discretion. He was given five years’ probation, without a trial. “The judge asked me if I would promise never to do it again and I said it would be crazy to repeat an act like that,” recalls Shafrazi. Why? “Because it had been done.”
Shafrazi’s eyes glaze over upon mention of the Guernica incident, as if the memory brings demons back to life. A former painter and sculptor, he is at pains to explain that he meant no violence to Picasso. “The sign of the times had to be written on the greatest painting of the times,” he says. “Suddenly this painting appeared to me like a blackboard. One of the great masters had contributed his vision, but the work was locked up in a museum and didn’t have any significance to the world of events outside.”
American personnel were still in Vietnam at the time, and it was hardly unreasonable for antiwar protesters to be drawn to Picasso’s poignant memorial to innocent people killed in a Fascist terror-bombing attack during the Spanish Civil War. New York artists had once held a peace vigil under Guernica. But Shafrazi acted alone in defacing the painting, and his vandalism was immediately denounced as sacrilege by antiwar activists. “The attack on Picasso was absolutely deplorable and I don’t know a single artist who would defend it,” said Alex Gross, former head of New York’s Art Workers Coalition, who had seen Shafrazi at several demonstrations following the Kent State massacre.
Born in Iran of Armenian parents (his father was an oil-company executive), Shafrazi was sent at age 10 to study in England. After receiving a master’s degree in 1967 from the Royal College of Art in London, he lectured at several universities, including the School of Visual Arts in New York. His paintings and sculptures were exhibited in England, Holland and Italy, but by the early ’70s Shafrazi had grown disillusioned with the traditional arts.
After his assault on Guernica, Shafrazi spent several months producing a photo-fantasy book with artist friends in Italy. Then, in 1976, he returned to his homeland to help members of the Shah’s family choose works of contemporary American artists for exhibition in a lavish art museum in Tehran. Shafrazi opened his own art gallery nearby, but fled the country in 1978 as the mullahs were beginning to take over. Resettling in New York, Shafrazi converted his rented apartment into a makeshift gallery where he slept on a small loft bed at night. In 1981 he opened his current warehouse-sized showplace in SoHo.
As long as the Guernica affair lingers in people’s memory, Shafrazi will have to accept responsibility for having vandalized the work of a genius. A few months ago, someone threw a hand-painted brick through the front window of Shafrazi’s gallery. On it was inscribed the message: “Remember Guernica.” The incident was a reminder that Shafrazi once abused something sacred. “Toward the end of his life, Picasso said he wouldn’t wish his fame on anyone,” Shafrazi reflects. “It is almost like a curse.”