Monday, January 21, 2013

27 and Basquiat

 I found out today that Basquiat was 27 when he OD'd on heroin (1988) and deprived the rest of us of an artistic cannon that could have, should have, spanned a full lifetime.

I'm 27, too.

A friend of mine took the time to go to Basquiat's grave in Brooklyn. I thought that was a compelling sojourn for January 21st, 2013, the date of President Obama's second inauguration and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Jean-Michel Basquiat lived one of those lives that puts us normal 27-year-olds to shame. A gifted artist--really, one of those rare people who merit the title of genius-- he was adept at drawing by age 4, trilingual by age 11. He grew up in a tumultuous Brooklyn household to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, who was committed to a mental institution when he was 11. He spent his teenage years running away from and then being brought back home, on and off the streets. He drew postcards and sold t-shirts to support himself and began a notorious graffiti art track. "SAMO" was he and his tagging partner Al Diaz's calling card, which stood for "Same Old Shit." They tagged high and low profile buildings alike. I loved this quote regarding Basquiat's graffiti moving beyond mere public defacement:

"SAMO marked the witty sayings of a precocious and worldly teenage mind that, even at that early juncture, saw the world in shades of gray, fearlessly juxtaposing corporate commodity structures with the social milieu he wished to enter: the predominately white art world. ”
— Franklin Sirmans, In the Cipher: Basquiat and Hip Hop Culture

I've never really dug into Basquiat's story, just casually noted his raucous canvases on the walls at my favorite art museums. He is held up as a black James Dean, a shooting-star-like presence in the irreverent 1980s art scene: the first black American man to break into the pristine white high art world (and many will argue, the first AND the best to date).

J-M B., Leeches, Daros Collection, Switzerland, 1983






If you know me, you know I am attracted to printed words and text in art. What a fantastic mind! You can feel the energy, the frantic evaluation of his world and its ills, leaching through the canvas.

"Basquiat's canon revolves around single heroic figures: athletes, prophets, warriors, cops, musicians, kings and the artist himself. In these images the head is often a central focus, topped by crowns, hats, and halos. In this way the intellect is emphasized, lifted up to notice, privileged over the body and the physicality of these figures (i.e. black men) commonly represent in the world."
— Kellie Jones, Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the (Re)Mix

Fascinating how Basquiat the man mirrored those things, those idols, that inspired and tantalized him. I wonder if that's one of the reasons he's so beloved by pop culture today; not only is he a tragic figure, his art reveals the types of concentrated musings and the frustrated, angry, fruitful rages we each encounter within ourselves while passing struggling through modern life.

Basquiat had a musical career, too, rapping with friends and designing album covers (now highly coveted objects in the art world). He counted Andy Warhol as a good friend and collaborator. Their spin on the Olympic rings still intrigues me; they totally take away the vaunted symbolic capacity of the rings and make them into something more grounded, more gritty. The painting, to me, must be how many athletes think of the games when they're still 2 years out: an elusive mistress, a demanding, demeaning boss, and a haunting dream.

Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Olympic Rings, 1985, Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas, Gagaosian Gallery


Basquiat's boisterous artistic jaunts around town brought him to the attention of Artforum magazine in 1981, which ran a story calling him "The Radiant Child." Larry Gagosian, infamous New York art dealer/ art king-maker, allotted Basquiat several solo shows in his prestigious galleries and gave him the run of the studio space in his own private home in Venice.

I used the word irreverent already and that's the best way to describe him. You hear scraps of information, whispers of urban legends about all of Basquiat's crazy stunts: painting in Armani suits, scribbling weed-inspired cartoons on magazine covers that later sold for thousands of dollars, painting on women's skirts, etc. The comparison between he and Jackson Pollock is striking (especially late JP when he's angst-y and starts putting human faces back in his paintings). Both lived fast, died young, one was responsible for the machismo Abstract-Expressionist movement, the second made waves as a Neo-Expressionist who also boldly addressed race issues and tensions with his jarring, colorific, wildly composed pieces.

Jackson Pollock, Portrait and a Dream, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1953

J-M B., Untitled Acrylic and Mixed Media on Canvas, 1984 
Sensational, haunting, challenging, uncomfortable, unforgettable, intellectual, enterprising, inspiring, vivid, violent. It's late now, Obama may have even finally gone to bed. What a world we live in. Freedoms are hard won, it's good to remember that, thanks Basquiat. Freedom of expression, of life, of passion.

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