Somewhere in the Museum of Modern Art, I’m stoned, staring at shiny gold statues. I’m in front of a bunch of polished gold objects on tall, thin pedestals, digging deep for the one 20th Century Art History course I took to satisfy some credit five years ago. It’s Boccioni? (It’s not; it’s a skinny Brancusi number; Boccioni is in the next room). The “skinny little Brancusi” is called Birds in Space. It sits alongside other prominent Futurist totems in the collection at MoMA, and while its title is an applicable caption for photos of certain NBA stars in flight, the piece’s history further underlines the connection between the aesthetic of a widely sold sneaker, and the legal boundaries of commercial art as we now know it.
It makes perfect sense in the present day to inject great monetary value into classic pieces of art, creating a solid fiscal asset akin to a bar of gold—one replete with the added perk of making its owner seem very cultured. As I stared at Birds in Space, I thought that someone recently bought an edition of it for 26 million dollars, possibly looking for a tax write-off. Whether or not they put it in storage, display it in their home; lent it out or gifted it to a museum, it is up to the individual who injects the most value into the object. If it does go on display, they can rest assured that their names will appear in italics below the name of the piece and its maker, if they so choose.
The Nike Air Foamposite One was $180 MSRP when it was first released in 1997. Originally designed with the Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen in mind, the shoes were released as the signature sneaker of Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, Jr., a young star on the Orlando Magic—he was one of those amazing 6’7” guards that remind you some people are simply built differently. He was, at that moment, regarded as a player of the future. Sure enough, tall athletic guards have come to dominate the league, but only very recently. Unfortunately, after an explosive first few seasons his body began to betray him. Before his knee gave out during the 1997-98 season (his first not playing alongside Shaq), he looked like an all-timer, and these shoes came out. He went on to play nearly another decade moving to the Suns, the Knicks, and finally to the Miami Heat, but never played at the same level.
Foams were preceded in 1995 by the Jason Kidd signature model featuring two carbon fiber bubbles that looked like a 1950s diner at the edge of the universe. Converse was a decade off from being purchased by Nike, Vans was not yet a household name, Reebok was barely holding on to their basketball market share, and Adidas was not yet the factor they are today. Futuristic Nikes, in particular their basketball models, were highly coveted. Even in this climate, Foams were an aberration. Like the player models that had come in the years before them, they appeared to be designed with space travel in mind, blasting into the next millennia. The shoes, not unlike the player they were made for, are built differently than most others of their kind, down to their infamous, nearly impossible to clean, translucent soles.
No existing foam-injection process supported the design of the shoe, and production seemed unfeasible, until the South Korean automaker Daewoo, just three years before the company was dismantled by their government, invented a new injection/molding process specifically for the sneaker. If you believe, as l do, that Futurism directly paved the way for the pop art of the ’60s, it’s hard not to take joy in seeing a commercial designer utilizing a car company to mass-produce a shoe that looks as much like a Duracell battery as it does a piece of art.
When Foams briefly vanished from production, they were largely forgotten, but remained mythic in the then-esoteric circles of sneaker collectors. Before the tidal wave of “retro” releases that began in earnest halfway through the aughts with the popularity of the Nike Dunk, signature shoes surfaced for the season in a few colorways, and then vanished, but for the heads. Sneaker collecting as a sprawling second market was not yet a reality. Then Nike discovered the power of the retro model. They began to re release the shoe with sparse regularity starting in 2001. Today they are regularly, tiredly, doggedly, re-released in limited batches with an MSRP price of $230-$250, keeping them a firmly unattainable object of desire in my stingy world.
The controlled valuation of art through dealers and auction houses is not so different than Nike creating endless differing limited runs of Foamposites, injecting each tweaked edition with its own value separate from the rest of the batches, even if the only real changes from batch to batch are in minor tweaks to the fit, and vastly more importantly, new colorways—or more coveted still, classic colorways. The impossibly high MSRP, though eclipsed in the shadow of the value of a Brancusi (but which itself is probably dwarfed in value by the gross sales of Foamposites since 1997) still garners what most would call a hefty sales tax, no matter how many times the customers in line outside sneaker boutiques might have called them art while waiting to make their purchase.
Objects of desire like this are born out of an aesthetic known to many boys as the “Fucking Awesome School of Things That Look Cool.” In fifth grade, I didn’t know who Brancusi was, or that I would one day covet his work, but I knew I wanted Foams so fuckin’ badly. I was 11, right on the precipice of dying my hair blue and buying a shitload of black clothing. With a hard shoe budget of $60 imposed by my (totally reasonable) parents, copping was unfathomable—making them all the more covetable.
Poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti released the Futurist Manifesto on February 5, 1909. In less than two thousand words, Marinetti holds forth about a deranged, aggressive vision with manic ferver. He speaks of a new reality where there is only a present and future. Libraries will be burned, and the weak discarded. Aside from every other worrisome, wrong idea in their admittedly concise point, key futurists such as Marinetti played a hand in the advent of Italian fascism. The two coexisted for a brief time… until Fascism established itself as an aesthetic deeply indebted to Roman Grandeur, which is directly at odds with Futurism. The manifesto’s fourth point reads as such:
4. We affirm that the beauty of the world has been enriched by a new form of beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car with a hood that glistens with large pipes resembling a serpent with explosive breath… a roaring automobile that seems to ride on grapeshot—that is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
The Victory of Samothrace is a statue that was probably sculpted around 200 BC. It was rediscovered by a Frenchman in the 1860s, and was on display in the hallowed halls of the Louvre hardly twenty years after that. The Victory of Samothrace, incidentally, is also known as the Nike of Samothrace, (Nike is the Greek Goddess of victory, and yes, the namesake for the company), and it’s more beautiful than the roar of an engine.
The Foamposite has this visual power too—injected with so much ‘Nike-ness’ in its design (paired with brand perception, and actual injections of foam) that the signature model only bears a tiny swoosh near the toe, because that’s all it needs. In this way it reads as a sneaker company’s take on a concept car, whose aerodynamic bodies often suggest futurist lines and evoke speed in much the same way.
I think about the Foams and the sculptures side-by-side for the next ten minutes, until I’m rooms and rooms away, and the two complementary aesthetics have cannibalized themselves. Two shiny objects that looked forward now meeting in a walk through glass case dedicated to preserving the past. A habitually re-released shoe that walks next to sculptures born out of a manifesto that proudly states: “We want to demolish the museums and libraries.”
While fascism’s penchant for the Roman aesthetic eroded the tenets of futurism, Nike’s basketball sneaker designs stay admirably forward-thinking, finding new ways to look like something between a sentient robot and the now de rigeur space-wear aesthetic. Eric Avar, the principal designer of the Foamposite, remains at Nike nearly two decades after the Foamposite was conceived, cranking out new designs for the cantankerous Kobe Bryant and his legions of fans. With Bryant hurt more often than not in recent years, it’s easy to see some of these shoes as a warning shot, instead of a new release. They look futuristic now, but one or more of the recent designs will be an icon of childhood for a slew of present day prepubescents. They will be re-released in limited editions ad infinitum. Foot Locker, already half museum in that respect, will not be burned. Neither will the ‘true’ museums, as they continue to develop their own commercial habits, with storefronts and accessories playing off their brand as well as their collections.