Saturday, June 04, 2005

Jean-Michel Basquiat Show @ Brooklyn Museum

Untitled (Skull), 1981With only a few days left before the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum closed, I raced over there on Friday afternoon and caught it. Many of the blogs I admire, like Bernie's, have already posted positive reviews about the show and most of the newspaper and online visual arts journal reviews I've read have been strong to rhapsodic, so instead of a full-scale I thought I'd post a few random notes and some images culled from the Net as well photos I snapped at the Brooklyn Museum, though it doesn't allow photos in special exhibits like the Basquiat one.

Overall I found "Basquiat" to be a comprehensive, authoritative, and intellectually coherent exhibit (even more so in terms of the works' conversation with and relation to each other than the pop-scholarly texts that accompanied them--Basquiat as the "the last major painter in an idiom that had begun decades earlier in Europe with the imitation of African art by modern artists such as Picasso and Matisse"--puh-leeze!) that would give anyone who wanted to learn more about Basquiat's work and life at the very least a better sense of his aesthetic and career trajectory that popular accounts and the enjoyable Julian Schnabel film lacked. What was also clear throughout the exhibit, though less so in Schnabel's film or Phoebe Hoban's biography was Basquiat's deep and abiding interest in and commitment to his Blackness (despite the desire to claim, as the museum did, that he "transcended it"--but that's the dead and defunct metaphysics of a mainstream society that's always trying to escape, elude and "transcend" Blackness, thank you very much), which he explored in multiple ways in and through the work; in the works on display, there are layers of racial, ethnic, cultural, ideological and political exploration and expression, often intricately and subtly worked like fine lace, that very few accounts of the artist-as-tragic-naïf-and-hipster have come close to capturing.

What I also realized was that Basquiat's work thrills and heartens me as much today as it did when I first heard of him and saw the pictures at the age of 20; he was already far up the ladder of legend then. In the same vein, his tragic death still saddens me today. Judging from the packed galleries and the comments I overheard, many people feel the same way. Though it ends tomorrow, June 5, I recommend catching it if you haven't already done so.

Basquiat (1960-1988), as is well known, became the most famous Black artist of his generation in the American and international art worlds, and remains an iconic figure in contemporary American and African-American art. Born in Brooklyn to a Puerto Rican mother and Haitian-American father, he literally embodied the African diaspora and the African-American experience, both of which played central roles in his personal iconography and symbology. (I rarely hear anyone state outright that in addition to obviously being Black and African American, he also was a Latino.) An artist from childhood, he began his public career in his late teens as a poet and graffitist (known as SAMO ©), and soon became active in the downtown music and art scene, fronting a band called Gray, rapping with figures such as Fab Five Freddy, hanging at the Mudd Club, and starring in Downtown 81; in 1980 he was included in his first group show, and by the age of 21, he had distinguished himself as one of the brightest talents among the cognoscenti. In 1982, he had six solo exhXibits, and was in the Whitney Biennial; that year and later in 1983, he created some of his most memorable works, which combine a range of influences and media in a rich, dense, expressive style that paralleled what his peers were doing, but which was very much his own. (How much non-Western pictorial traditions factor into his work is something I wished the museum had explored more, though perhaps art historians have done so.)

His fame and recognition steadily rose through the mid 1980s, as he pushed the formal possibilities of his work (Bernie notes that he painted on a helmet early on; later he created various kinds of constructions and experimented with a range of media) and began concentrating on several recurrent themes and emblems which give the work thematic coherence and power. At the same time, the cannibalization of his talent by the mainstream (white) artworld was well underway. Basquiat, no stranger to recreational drugs, also began using heroin, and became very ill because he lacked a spleen as a result of a childhood accident; but despite his addiction he managed to produce a number of masterpieces during this period. As his fame rose, he befriended Pop Art doyen Andy Warhol, and in 1986 he began collaborating with Warhol. Warhol died in 1987, and Basquiat lived only 18 months more, tragically dying of a heroin overdose at age 27.

Some notes (not comprehensive or even telling, just what I jotted as I walked and looked):

Brilliance: Brilliance of this brotha's mind, which was probing and querying and comparing and working and reworking to the very end; brilliance of color, especially reds, blues, greens, yellows, and bichrome (especially black or red oil crayon, pencil or ink on white paper, and black and white paintings in which the sharpness of the effect is indelible); brilliance of visual and architectural composition in the works themselves, which manage to create movement, narrative and coherence simultaneously with the energy and chaotic density; brilliance of improvisation, evident in Basquiat's special gift for juxtaposing media, images, texts; brilliance of wit, for JMB's knowledge, humor, and spirit, and his intermittent motherwit at playing the artworld's game (which ultimately destroyed him) are sometimes apparent in the strategies he chose in the works to secure attention for them.
Thanatos: There is death-haunted imagery from very early on is; I read a strong teleological undercurrent, with death as one of its foci, in the persistent skulls, skeletons, and crucified figures. Art is a testament to (his) survival in the face of Death's onward march. Basquiat seems to have foreseen his far too early demise, and to have viewed it as a kind of unstoppable process. He was constantly afraid of being exploited and repeatedly codes this fear (at times paranoia) in his works. Of course he was exploited (young! Negro! artist! [savage!] [savant!] [manchild!] buy! buy! buy!) and as he appears to have foreseen, his death sent interest in (and the prices of) his work (and his fame) skyrocketing.

Anatomy: Basquiat is fascinated by anatomy, but he goes beyond mere copying of anatomical drawings and texts (as the white art critics are so fond of pointing out about this self-taught artist and autodidact), because even with the textworks, he's anatomizing the battles--social, economic, political, culture--of [his] suffering [heroes (who include Basquiat himself, famous athletic and musical personalities like Sugar Ray Leonard and Charlie Parker)], and by extension, of Black people. Black bodies here are drawn and painted and celebrated beyond and into and as recognition. Basquiat vivisects and inspects so much--race and ethnicity, as well as racism, gender, class, nation, language, and more--directly in(to) his art.

Ennoblement and suffering: Basquiat often twins the two after 1981, when his true fame began. It goes beyond martyrdom. Heroes have little choice. Accompanying the skulls, anatomical figures, vivisected faces (sometimes in x-ray view), and cartoon-like featureless images are halos, crowns and crowns of thorns, with the two being less clear than the critical texts in the museum imply; the figures are beknighted (by Basquiat) and benighted (by society). IT's SAMO's/JMB's hand, however, that ultimately canonizes them.
Dust Bins
Anger, irony and fierce humor: Basquiat actually is quoted on his profound "anger," which is clear even in some of the coolest, most neutral-appearing early word texts/poems, and on his sense of humor, which he deflected. Was he not supposed to be angry? But a ferocious humor--one could even call it "Black humor," mixed with lacerating irony, underlines so much of the work. Reading it devoid of irony is, I think, to miss quite a lot of what's going on in it.

Struggle as gesture/composition/line/color: the gestural fury, gouged surfaces and figurative heterogeneity of the early and middle-period works reflects not only Basquiat's graffiti background, his personal knowledge of a range of musical referents (jazz, hiphop, r&b, etc.) and prior visual art sources like Twombly, Dubuffet and the Abstract Expressionists, but also the often frenetic struggle of living and surviving, especially as a Black person, in an urban environment like New York (Ford to NY, 1975: "Go to Hell!") in the 1970s and 1980s. Both he and those early brushstrokes are ever on the move. It also embodies his own personal life struggles, against alienation, illness, racism, exploitation, sexuality, addiction. This is truly art-work. The art-work on display grows somewhat calmer and sparer after 1985--"Now's the Time," for example, huge, beautiful black-and-white disc honoring Charlie Parker (one of my favorite works), or the griot series--before the return of a dizzying, anxious density, though rendered through photocopies and screens, in a late work like Exu.
Untitled 1981Drawing painting: Basquiat often breaks down the boundaries between the two--drawings like the Daros Suite possess a painterly density and architecture, and a number of the paintings show drawing's immediacy, its mark textures, it simplicity of line and color.

Texts/Works: Basquiat began as a poet, and I was thinking of his use of language not only in terms of his graffiti and early 1980s neo-Expressionist peers, but also in terms of the early spoken word and hiphop poetry movements of that era, as well as of preceding eras. His visual is often oral/aural. The lyricism, both in text and image, continues through till the end (cf. the Eroica series), and though the visual grammar shifts, the consistency in textual strategies makes it possible to (re-)orient yourself if you use your eyes, ears, and his other works as your compass(es).

Music/Works: Music is a constant from start to finish, the cut, the break, the bar, "harmonious affinity" even when disharmonious, the melodic line that races away as in Parker and Gillespie's "Klacktoveedstene," which JMB cites/sights/sites; whether drawing upon the lyrics of songs he heard or wrote, citing and quoting jazz standards, or finishing his career with a series of works titled after Beethoven's famous symphony, JMB pages and canvases sing, sound, tune, bop, funk, baila. They are rarely static, even if it is only color and composition, as in To Repel Ghosts, that keeps the(ir) beat.

Spirit/Conversation: JMB is in constant conversations--the earliest works read like responses to questions posed by the dopest interlocutor you could ever imagine, and later on the conversations expand across a range of boundaries. I'm thinking of his dialogues with Leonardo, various bluesmen, gallery owners, Edouard Manet and his Olympia, the Middle Passage, folks standing outside a bodega, ghost taggers, the dead and the living and the dying, himself. Repelling ghosts, maybe, his own; but appealing to (the) spirits, with the third eye and multiples, as in Exu, looking and talking and looking some more, are features of his work.

Symbolic economy: So many iconic systems are tranformed by this man's amazing mind and hands into something recombinant and new, something else, a dense, hybrid symbolic economy and web of signification he can draw on again and again, so profoundly personal and yet so compelling in its public presentation. The Daros Suite pictures like the later, flow-chart like works require, as Adrian Piper suggests, extended viewing: "Don't think," Wittgenstein says, "look." JMB's language game requires that you do both--hard.

Hybridity: Again recombinance--but are the descendants of Africans in the Diaspora but hybrid? Mestizaje, métissage, mixture, re-mix(ed): Basquiat's always remixing and recoding, enacting his own manner of detournement, whether in pencil or in his age of mechanical reproducibility, with the photocopies and silkscreens--the hybrid is one of the grounds of his art.

Mythopoeisis: He was already entering himself the realm of myth in his own lifetime, as the mainstream artworld was creating its myths about him (he sprung from a box! he taught himself everything he knew from artbooks! he would have been just another tagger had he not been "discovered"!) The mythmaking becomes increasingly realized and depicted in the work, from 1981 on. One example: in Leonardo's Greatest Hits, John Henry's=Jean-Michel's laying his mad (railroad) tracks in the lower left corner, now that the journey's already underway...

Dis/locations: Brooklyn, New York, the street, the gallery/galleries, the (post-)Factory and Warholia, Hollywood, pop culture, Afrobohemia, the Diaspora, Borinquen/Ayiti, bebop, numerous topoi, tropes, chronotopes, themes, references, systems: Is there ever a fixed locus or key, or as in myth isn't the continuum the thing, and why would we expect fixity from this constant boundary crosser, this visible scion and personification of Exu?

The (sexual) cut: everywhere, all the time, passing through and in it--cut and recut. Cf. Eroica II (the "b" words--sexual, Black references, dope slang, etc.)

Some of my favorite pieces: Untitled (pick a bunch), Per Capita, Irony of Negro Policemen, Boy & Dog in Johnnypump, Six Crimee, St. Joe Louis Surrounded by Snakes, Jesse, Price of Gasoline in the Third World, Leonardo da Vinci's Greatest Hits, Hollywood Africans, Untitled (Black Tar & Feathers), Now's the Time, the triptych Chas. the First, the sestych (!) Brothers Sausage, escaping slave in The Nile, Tuxedo, Untitled (Caucasian/Negro), Gold Griot, Riddle Me This (Batman with Tizol!), Daros Suite, Jim Crow, and the Eroicas.
Finale (Thanatos II):
Eroica I
(from the canvas
itself "For Blues"
--"Fixing to Die
Blu--" then it
runs off under
the frame)

As Bernie says, one of the disturbing aspects of the exhibit was how it ends, with the terminus being the packed and buzzing Basquiat merchandise mart (pictured above). ReggieH noted that this is common at museums, but it only reinforced one of the most cynical readings of the artworld's championship of Basquiat, his commercial value, and seemed to underline the notion that the best way to depart from this engagement with genius was not to carry away what you might have stored in mind and spirit, but what might fit in and fill out a Brookyn Museum-stamped plastic bag.

Plush safe he think....

One cool note: after talking up Ronaldo W. with Tisa B. the night before, I ran into his (former) student Khary, who told me Ronaldo would be at the museum eventually. I never did see him, but the almost-rendezvous was good enough.


  1. Basquiat was Great he had the line. Drugs and copying out of books while he was tweking. His power is that he didnt care or try to control just let it out. You say he evaloved but not very much one painting is done the same each time drugs random copying from book then line work over the top. This new artist Gregg Griffin at the Blah Blah Gallery is the next new artist makeing powerful art you have to see for yourself.

  2. I'll check Griffin's work out. I do think Basquiat evolved towards the end of his life, but it was an severely foreshortened change, to be sure.

  3. Basquiat's influence is profound of course, and as the young writer Nick Stillman wrote in his review of the show in the Brooklyn Rail, many, many, and much of the artists and the contemporary NYC scene owes the speedy acceptance of "young art" and the fetishizing of art that appears "off-hand" and prickly to Basquiat's aesthetic bravery.

    I was only able to find a few small jpegs of Griffin's paintings but they aren't remotely like that of Basquiats or even particularly innovative. They look like illustrations. They reminded me slightly of the british-american illustrator (and former painter) Russell Christian (The New York Press, The Nation, The New Yorker) adding only the most rudimentary hint at edge that I would guess until a deeper look at Griffin's work doesn't carry nary the intellectual spunk of Christian's line.

    The mistake many artists make with presumptions about Basquiat's work is simplifying his conceptual richness, and the contrapuntal aesthetic negotiation between urban density, madness and decay, with elegant middle class refinement that he brought that makes the comparison to Dubuffet a very accurate one, among others. Without the politics one could make a case for a relationship with John Chamberlain, and with the politics Larry Rivers and Bruce Conner. Another person to view for comparison with Jean-Michel who was making work concurrent with him in a different city is Tyree Guyton of Detroit.

    There are other artist to consider who were making work very much in the same vein at the same time as JMB who were a decade to two his senior, a couple being New York's Nancy Olivier and West Coaster Raymond Saunders. Saunders was so annoyed at what he thought were blatant rip-offs of his own work by Basquiat he refused a request by the younger artist to meet with him. Basquiat "appropriated" a lot, however that doesn't compromise his talent or genuis. Picasso himself said once, "Don't borrow- steal."

    It's also important to point out that though Basquiat's work is important in the American Painting tradition, and certainly an invaluable attribute to the African-American artistic tradition, his biggest financial supporters (or a very substantial part of his success) were European collectors and dealers, one being the German Bruno Bischofberger who was a dealer of Andy Warhol's. Bischofberger had access to the premier work of German "neo-expressionists" like Kiefer, Baselitz, Middendorf, Polke, Luepertz, Richter (to a small degree), to name a few. He made a connection between the young Americans sensibility and that of his German contemporaries.
    This is but one way our JMB functions as a cultural nexus.

    There is a painter named Neo Rausch,who is roughly the same age as what JMB would be today (mid-40's). Rausch like JMB, is in some sense "post-modern" and
    "classical", jarring and refined. Rausch seemingly has less to talk about in his paintings so the work however strong is powerful for some other reason than any political stance, or real exigency to paint other than perhaps a love of painting or perhaps even just simply a habit of painting. That said, this observation doesn't mean to take anything away from him. Rausch is a very good painter. If one compares the two in the given context of "neo-expressionism" as peers or just contemporaries we see the weight with which JMB handles his position in society as "black" artists, versus the airiness of an equally gifted painter who is "white" and free of the speculative lense under which JMB was thought to have to prove himself. Another gifted artist and a relatively tepid, pedestrian thinker who uses paint "light" like that, however in a very different way, is John Currin.

    My personal belief, is one of the purest ways to appreciate JMB's work is from the stand point of "artist" alone, and to consider what that means in a philosophical sense first. What comes after that makes him seem more and more important by the minute.

    - CS