With New Exhibit, John ‘Crash’ Matos Nods to Past as Subway Artist

John Matos, aka CRASH, with one of his spray paint on aluminum works for "Remnant Memories"Kathryn Doyle

As one descends the stairs into the gallery space below Toy Tokyo, the room stretches out into a long rectangle, roughly the width of a subway platform. Pieces of painted aluminum are illuminated by track lighting – another echo of an underground subway station. What better setting for the works of John Matos, whose art career began when he spray-painted murals on subway cars in his native Bronx in the early 1970s.

At the opening of “Remnant Memories” at TT Underground on Friday night, Mr. Matos, also known as Crash, said the jagged-edged aluminum works were his favorites. “I like the ones with the bumps, you know, the texture,” he said. His friend Metal Man Ed, a West Coast sculptor, created the aluminum canvases to reflect subway cars, with grommet details, and Mr. Matos then spray-painted them.

As he spoke, Mr. Matos was surrounded by a crowd of polite admirers. Street style (bright sweatshirts and caps) mixed genially with Fifth Avenue chic (bright red-soled Louboutins). The artist’s own outfit was more understated: black Adidas sneakers, jeans, and a modest leather jacket atop a ribbed sweater with the collar turned up.

"Remnant Memories"Kathryn Doyle One of Mr. Matos’s aluminum pieces.

His short graying hair and stubble were more manicured than one might expect of a self-taught subway bomber. But Mr. Matos moved beyond that a long time ago. “Crash is one of the pioneers in the graffiti scene that transitioned art from the streets to galleries and beyond,” said Ken Levarek, the director of TT Underground. “His work was shown alongside some of the art visionaries of the ’80s like Basquiat and Keith Haring, and Crash has become one of the iconic leaders of the street art movement.”

In 1980, Mr. Matos was signed by Sidney Janis, one of the first gallerists to promote “post-graffiti” artists. His works are now included in the collections of Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and others. In 2008, one piece sold at auction for $25,000. The actor John Leguizamo has a sizable collection here in New York.

"Remnant Memories"Kathryn Doyle

“I did get down here [to the East Village] from time to time, to show with Keith Haring and those guys,” said Mr. Matos, his voice hoarse from accepting congratulations over the musical din. When asked if he knew Jean-Michel Basquiat, he said merely, “Oh yeah, he was one of the crew.”

Toward the far end of the gallery, mounted slabs of metal give way to more traditional silkscreen canvases tagged with the same swaths of colorful spray-paint – a change in medium that reflects a transition in his career.

Mr. Matos is currently working on a large mural installation at the Andrew Freedman Home in the Bronx, which he calls a “mansion on many acres, an old retreat for Manhattan billionaires and older people, and now a space for murals in rooms and on walls.” The estate is now vacant, and Mr. Matos is collaborating with other New York artists on the project, which will open to the public in April.

The silkscreen and aluminum pieces, on display at TT Underground through March 11, are for sale at $1,000 and $2,000, respectively.