I returned for a second contemplation of the Basquiat exhibit at the Gagosian gallery in Chelsea last week. While my first visit left me with a crisp and concrete response to what the young painter might have been trying to convey in his works, I went away from my second visit more than a little befuddled by what was being presented, and also somewhat sad.
Brooklyn-born, Jean-Michel Basquiat was son to an Afro-Puerto Rican mother and a Haitian father. He grew up speaking, reading, and writing in English, Spanish, and French fluently. In the second half of the 1970s, Basquiat found fame (or infamy) as SAMO©, graffiti-ing buildings around Soho and downtown Manhattan. He participated in a group show in 1981, and was then featured in an article in Artforum magazine, which brought him to the attention of the art world. While at first glance some of his paintings may seem gimmicky or amateurishly higgledy-piggledy, at his best, Jean-Michel Basquiat's work ranks among the most original of his generation - maybe even of his century.
After 1960s Pop Art championed celebrity and the commodification of the mundane, and after the sterile rigidity of 1970s minimalism, it seems Basquiat's multicultural New York-ishness, his energy and his anger were exactly what the art world thirsted for. He exploded onto the scene. His work and his personality - synonymous in a way that might only be compared with Andy Warhol's art/persona - shot to fame like a juggernaut. His gritty, Afro-centric, hurried, and agitated paintings began fetching exorbitant prices on the international art market. Unusual and impressive for an artist so young. Particularly notable for an African-American artist of any age.
This legendary and fast-burning superstar of the art world has been examined and reexamined in books, documentaries, films, and numerous retrospectives. What new insights could possibly be shared that haven't been considered before? And why reconsider his work and position now? What biting parallels might be drawn from his time and ours? The current landscape of unparalleled economic disparity, emerging class warfare, poverty, and an industrial prison complex that feeds itself on African-American and immigrant communities would have undoubtedly been fertile material for Basquiat's sharp and caustic voice.
In the 1980s, Punk Rock was being infused with a New Wave dance beat, clubs like Danceteria and Pyramid were spitting out celebrities, fashion trends, and artists that were making an indelible impact all over the globe. African-American neighborhoods in Mayor Koch's New York were being ravaged by crack, and corrupt police tactics were responsible for the deaths of graffiti artist, Michael Stewart and senior citizen, Eleanor Bumpers. AIDS was also beginning to take its devastating toll on the arts communities, especially in New York City. The landscape was rich with inspiration for Basquiat's unrestrained talent.
All the excitement, danger, inequity, and corruption of his generation are evident in the large unwieldy canvases (and boards, and slatted panels, and other salvaged materials) hung about Gagosian's sprawling, sun-drenched Chelsea gallery. Basquiat painted on a large scale, and each piece practically screams at the viewer with urgency and compulsivity. Whether his unique blend of compulsive obsession and urgency was motivated by his need for expression or the alarming prices his paintings were demanding (or both) may remain unknown. The result, however, is that he seems to have created his own artistic language; fusing painting, drawing, collage, and poetry to produce a distinct and vibrant historiogrphy of his experience as a young black man in a world dominated by the aristocracy of a privileged white few. His sharp jabs at an unfair hierarchical dominance are as much a commentary on the political landscape as on those who ruled the art world. An unlikely champion, he remained uncensored and biting in his narrative of black history, subjugation, injustice, and white dominance.
Incorporating iconography in his work: African masks, crowns, cars, cops, skyscrapers, etc., Basquiat consistently represented his own heritage and life experience in his work. In Eyes and Eggs (1983), measuring an impressive 9x10 feet, a black short order cook is dressed in a white cap and coat, he holds a frying pan with two eggs in it, mirroring his eyes, and he wears a name tag, which reads, "Joe." It is both cartoonish and sad - a nod to a generation of working class African-Americans who came before him, and a simultaneous spit in the eye to the collectors and agents of the art world who have reduced generations of hard-working people to fetishistic collectibles. Joe's mouth appears almost sealed with a diffused white swipe across the bottom side of his face - he's seen but not heard; in a position of servitude and voiceless. And if this cartoonish homage weren't enough to deliver a stern gut-punch, there are black sneaker treads all over the canvas, underscoring how an entire history has been walked on.
Prolific in his few short years of work, Basquiat got darker and more self-reflective in his paintings, perhaps paralleling his descent into addiction; the later canvases less frenetic and politically accusatory - more contemplative. There are larger areas of negative space, less use of primary colors and more use of subtle hues and metallics. Still present are the triple tracks of toothy grins and the seemingly arbitrary dismembered body parts, but also transparent compartments in alien looking figures; an intricate constellation of goings-on where a lung would normally belong, for example.
Riding with Death (1988), is a striking departure from the busy-ness of his earlier works; a large almost empty canvas with a background awash in metallic silver/green supports a figure riding atop the suggestion of a minimal and deconstructed skeleton. It is plaintive and elegiac; a prescient treatise of ambition, drug addiction, money, and celebrity.
Jean-Michel Basquiat had a lot to say, and he said it in exciting and never before seen ways that tore away boundaries between New York City nightlife, the art world, and the streets. I left the gallery space sorrowful and curious as to what we might have seen from a more calm and seasoned Basquiat - grieving the unrealized potential of what might have been had this wild and unbridled boy been allowed to mature and settle into adulthood without the pressures of fame, expectation, and drug addiction.