New York, 130 Orchard Street
Most people have seen the work of the celebrated French artist JR, even if they don’t know it. His rooftop mural of a giant pair of engaging eyes is impossible to miss from the terraces of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, nearly 20 million viewers tuned in to watch U2 perform in front of this dynamic photo during the 2018 Grammy Awards and the 2018 Oscar-nominated documentary Faces Places, which JR co-directed with the legendary Agnès Varda, has been attracting rave reviews since its release last year.
Starting out as an artist on the streets of Paris when he was still a teen, JR rose to international acclaim when he won the coveted TED Prize for his socially active art in 2011. The innovative work that won him the prize partially came about through chance. Discovering an abandoned camera in one of the city’s Metro stations at age 17, he added photography to his creative talents when he began documenting his friends while they were tagging.
Employing the wheat pasting technique of street artists like Banksy, Shepard Fairey and Swoon, JR ambitiously started making “Sidewalk Gallery” exhibitions of his photographs, which soon grew larger-and-larger in scale. After self-publishing My Street Diary with photos of his art pals in 2005, JR was surprised to see his pasted pictures in news reports of riots in the Paris suburbs that he knew so well.
Wanting to rectify the unfair coverage of the neighborhood, JR photographed its young people, whom the media had been portrayed as riotous radicals, in more playful poses. He strategically posted his portraits in bourgeois areas of the city and on the walls of art centers, which made such an impact that he was soon invited to wrap the city hall of Paris with his imagery. It was then that JR began to believe that art could change the world.
Using the power of paper and glue, JR made the leap to the international stage in 2007, when he and a friend traveled to Israel and Palestine to document the conflict with his project Face 2 Face. Making close-up photographic caricatures of Israelis and Palestinians doing the same jobs—posing as barbers, lawyers and cooks—he pasted their jumbo portraits together on both sides of the wall to show that they were more alike than different.