AVANT - Street Art New York City, 1980-1984
origins of the street-as-gallery movement

This website has been created in 2009 to serve as a historical street art archive of the guerilla art group avant. While the street art of today is well documented with digital cameras and posted in abundance on the web, its New York origins and history of the early 80's is not. Out of the literally thousands of street art posters avant actually posted on the streets of lower Manhattan, few were ever photographed, and even fewer film images and press clippings have survived each artist's personal archives over the years. What has been posted to date does not necessarily represent avant's best individual works, but it is all the historical documentation available that remains of their efforts, concepts and contributions.

To enhance this archive, collectors of avant artwork and photographers with images of avant street art posters are kindly requested to contact us. Ownership will be credited according to the owners’ wishes.

AVANT, also known as AVANT street art guerrilla collective, was the artist group active in New York City from 1980 to 1984. By 1984 AVANT had produced thousands of acrylic on paper paintings and plastered them on walls, doors, bus-stops and galleries city-wide. Principal artists were Christopher Hart Chambers, David Fried, and Marc Thorne.

More on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AVANT

The Birth of Street Art


Growing up in NYC, all the young hoodlums wrote graffiti, mostly in the subway. It started as an ethnic thing, but disaffected middle class white kids caught on quick. My high school (Music and Art, now conjoined with Performing Arts = Laguardia) friend Marc Thorne adopted the Graf name avant; his imaginary mob: T.A.G. – The Avant Guarde. Which was a double spoof: a tag was nomenclature for a dashed off name in marker or spray paint, not a fully realized spray paint masterpiece; tagging meant to “get up” in the parlance. There were many graffiti gangs: The M. O. B. was the Masters of Broadway. “N.O.G.A.” was the Nation of Graffitti Artists. “S.A.” were The Soul Artists, 3YB, The 3Yard Boys. (The 3 Yard was where the number three train was housed and those writers ruled that train line.) There was the ex-Vandals, and many more. So Marc’s TAG was a facetious mob of nonexistent young toughs. Jean-Michelle, Al Diaz, and Shannon Dawson were garnering acclaim for there clever SAMO graffiti, which was a departure from the standard self chosen nickname tags. SAMO (same ol’…) wrote incisive commentaries wherever they saw fit. Like everyone else I was an enthusiast. But, I thought, ’That’s not for me. I am an (visual) artist”. Staring disconsolately at my pile of works on poster paper stacked by the radiator up to my knee at eleven in the morning while my stomach growled hungrily after mopping the floor all night it struck me. I’m going to paste these damn things all over town. Particularly right on the outsides of the galleries that treat me like dirt. Fuck ‘em, they aren’t going to show me anyway! I called Marc on the phone and asked him if I could join his non existent gang. I laid out my plan for a uniform style signed avant and painted by everyone we knew that was willing. Our friend Andy Witten by then was starting to show his Zephyr graffiti in galleries. He advised us to work and promote ourselves as a group, so he deserves the credit for our starting the first art group, thought of like a rock band, although he just meant we should band together, not necessarily under one banner name, but to work as one towards a single aim. The core members were myself, Christopher H Chambers, Marc Thorne, David Fried, Peter Epstein, and Jed Tulman. Other participants included Brant Kingman, Caleb Crawford, and numerous others who perhaps would rather remain anonymous may have only painted one or two “avant” posters on any given day. Because we were practicing petty crime I coined terms such as, “art militia,” and “guerilla art.” I found it amusing a few years later when the feminist art group Guerilla Girls attracted attention. I talked the owner of Grand Illusion, a kites and arts and crafts shop on East 9th Street into our first exhibition in a “gallery” – we had already invaded a few night clubs, exhibiting anywhere that we could indoors or out, thus the first “East Village” art exhibition. By forming a group we could produce enough work to continuously exhibit new art, mounting shows and throwing opening parties practically weekly. A month or two later the Fun Gallery opened showing strictly classic graffiti and soon thereafter 51x was opened by painter Rich Colicchio on St Marx. Once again Andy Witten came through by introducing and hyping our act to him. Thus the East Village art scene was born. The whole street art and East Village scene came out of Latino and Black kids writing graffiti and their subsequent artistic expressions, but the street art thing and the short lived though tremendously influential East Village movement were the result of a bunch of a bunch of arty white kids “hopping the train.” Nowadays (I am writing in the summer of 2009) exhibitions of street art and graffiti are lumped together and co-titled Urban Art, or whatever, but at the time the graffiti artists hated us.

To be fair, I must state that there was already somebody wheat pasting hand posters advertising “The Rise of Louie Bimbo,” which I think was a play, and Richard Hambleton had fully completed two conceptual projects using the street as venue. The first incorporated outlines of supine figures drawn the on sidewalks of Chicago like murder victims, the second, life sized cut out photos of himself pasted on walls outdoors around NYC, but honestly, I never saw either. Around this time Keith Haring started doing his chalk drawings on empty ad spots in the subways, but, this is not “Street Art” per se. To my knowledge, this was the origin of Street Art, art “groups,” and the East Village art scene as they are thought of today.

- Christopher Hart Chambers

CHC, 1981


1980 lower Manhattan. The streets are strewn with refuse, there are layered graffiti tags, peeling decrepit walls, and manipulative advertisements for crap everywhere you look. The daily public street-experience a pounding affront to our culture’s deeper sensibilities and priorities - except for the more visionary writers at large - a self-interest consumer landscape void of its inhabitants' poetic expressions.

Avant, the first artist group in NYC to adorn public spaces with their handmade unique works of non-calligraphic art was born out of that vacuum. An apparent cultural niche was explored that begged evolution in New York’s short-lived cycles of natural selection.

Until that point, everything that was street was done on the street. Beyond graffiti, early Basquiat SAMO texts and Haring’s crawling baby began to appear. Until Avant’s efforts as artists to use the street as an exhibition space for works that were created in the studio on paper that may otherwise be owned, exhibited and collected had never been explored. Ultimately, Avant produced thousands of acrylic on paper paintings and plastered them on walls, doors, bus-stops and galleries city-wide.

The idea of forming an anonymous group of young artist guerillas that would be capable of mass distribution tactics like commercial ad-agencies was a radical idea that aimed at a mass shift in public accessibility, awareness and engagement in visual art.

The street-as-gallery tradition was born. After avant, this venue has become an evolving world wide establishment as countless artists and creative people make sure that the avant garde is not restricted to the elite institutions of art alone.

Avant is dead, long live the avant garde.

- David Fried, 2009

DF, 1982

AVANT became an artists' collective late 1980 when Christopher Chambers and Marc Thorne embarked upon a mission to paint hundreds of posters, and paste them up all around lower manhattan. Eliciting the participation of various friends, chiefly painters David Fried, Jed Tulman, Caleb Crawford, humourist/carpenter Chris Karlson and photographer Peter Epstien, we began to garner attention in the downtown art scene in spite, or perhaps because, of our rather unfasionable-at-the-time post modernist tendencies. Our musical soul-mate Hayward Peele, oft seen and heard playing solo bass guitar for our openings was much more about Mingus than Jaco or Bootsy. We created art for the streets, not street art. This evolved into more of a multi-media endeavor, beyond having live music at our openings we began to create tableaux, starkly illuminated for night club environments. We participated in mass urban art exhibitions, audio, video and performance art. This diversification, to me, represents the moment a flower's petals detach and it scatters its seeds to the wind. To the best of my knowledge we are all still alive and well and making art. Though it's been a quarter century since we've disbanded, I thought it a good idea to create a space to document and reflect upon this period and perhaps exhibit our more recent, independent endeavors how much or little they may relate...

- Marc Thorne 2009

MT, 1981