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Meteoric Star Of 80s Scene - Brooklyn Museum Hosts Basquiat Show
By DAN BISCHOFF
March 25, 2005
ART Basquiat Where: Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y. When: Through June 5. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. first Saturday of every month How much: A requested contribution of $8; $4 students and seniors. Call (718) 638-5000 or visit www.brooklynmuseum.org .
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88), the most commercially successful African-American artist of his or any generation, was born in Brooklyn to a middle-class family, his father a Haitian bureaucrat, his mother originally from Puerto Rico.
He got his first taste of drawing and painting in Brooklyn Museum art classes for kids, and it is only right that his first full-scale retrospective (the 1992 show at the Whitney was more of a memorial) just opened at his homeboy museum.
It is a large show, sprawling over two floors, and it would be harsh to say that a painter who was active for just eight years before dying of a drug overdose had already become formulaic and repetitive by the time of his death - but it is hard to deny it, looking at these large, generously spaced paintings and drawings. "Untitled (Head)," done in 1981 and one of Basquiat's few canvases that show any kind of discipline - it took him almost three months to finish, a record for this artist - has all the trademark Basquiat tropes: large blocks of bright color, interspersed with black; X-ray compartments within the skull-like shape (a borrowing from early German Modernists like George Grosz); a fragment of a written word, and a kind of nervous scribbling all over the surface that gives it a ragged decorativeness.
Basquiat (pronounced bahs-key-aht) went on just like this for seven more years, every show selling out, every painting - except for the ones he did in collaboration with the aging Andy Warhol - raved about in the press.
Basquiat's style is certainly immediately recognizable, mostly because of the scribbling and the many, many words (a reprise of his days as a graffitist on the streets of New York), but also because he seems to have painted that same bug-eyed, big-toothed, Africanized skull over and over and over. It is curious to note, as curator Mark Mayer does in his essay for the catalog to this show, that Modernism began with Western artists in France and Germany "appropriating" imagery from natural history museums in an effort to restore art's "primitive" origins. Picasso's "Demoiselles d'Avignon" and the German Expressionists' nudist escapades in alpine parks were both attempts to touch the bear of Man's essential savagery, and meant to be understood as protests against the deadening refinement of the European tradition. The first Modernists wanted to wake things up, get the party started, maybe get the girls to take off their clothes in public. In his own day, Basquiat wanted to do all those things very much.
Only, it had been 70 years since "Demoiselles D'Avignon," which so prominently featured African masks painted over the heads of girls without their clothes on. Could something done with oil paint by a squat fireplug of a Spaniard in Paris in 1907 be duplicated by a tall, handsome, Haitian/Puerto Rican in New York in 1981 without striking a note of falseness, or worse, parody? Well, probably not.
Still, Jean-Michel Basquiat became an art star in a decade of incandescent art stars, most of them defined by money, excess, and loads of gossipy mass media. Basquiat's career can be understood as the apotheosis of Identity as a cultural construct: In an era dominated by Identity politics and Identity art, where those who had flavor could sell it to those that didn't, Jean-Michel had the best Identity of all - that of a multicultural black man from an urban/graffiti background who could make all the promises of the early Modernists come literally true.
He had to succeed, by these lights, because art theory predicted him. So he painted pictures in praise of jazzman Charlie Parker and boxing great Joe Louis, drew great lists of words in non sequitur patterns over huge canvases, cribbed from Batman, Spiderman, Captain America and Bullwinkle cartoons, made paintings about African "griots" (storytellers) and Southern racism (which he had never experienced, either directly or indirectly), most of them featuring Big Heads. Many of Basquiat's paintings are full of racial anger - he once said his painting was "about 80 percent anger" - even though, by his mid-twenties, he was painting these things in SoHo lofts barefoot while wearing an Armani suit, surrounded by pop stars and real estate speculators.
Basquiat's style does not develop, really - his career is too short for that. The style of most untrained artists (Basquiat skipped formal art school) tends to develop at a slow rate anyway, because they don't concentrate so much on their method as on their meaning.
Basquiat's greatest cultural contribution is probably one of attitude, the way he opened up this vast field of anger - about history, about race, about the imagery of fine art itself - to the youngest generation of African American artists. He really does prefigure hip-hop, even down to the obsessions with money and consumer status symbols; he recorded his own hypnotic rap single, too. Basquiat - with an assist from Italian hipster artist Francesco Clemente - has to be given credit for the unprecedented flowering of doodle art today, the omnipresent, mostly male, often wall-sized installations that combine drawing and written messages or lists. Satiric and obsessive, doodle artists like Dominic McGill (who has covered several walls for the "Greater New York 2005" show at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens) could not exist in galleries today without Basquiat. But their truly and alarmingly common presence on the scene lately also suggests that Basquiat was merely conferring status on a form that has long existed in the spiral notebooks of American youth.
Well, boys will be angry, and try to drown their anger in scabrous, inebriated doodles - check out the walls of any university town tavern bathroom. The Basquiat painting this writer has always liked the best, the big, black, ragged mural behind the bar at the old Palladium night club on 14th Street, is not in this show, and that's a shame. After wandering through these two brightly-lit floors in Brooklyn, you have to wonder whether its dim setting somehow gave the Palladium mural glamor - or if Basquiat just looks better when you're not particularly sober.
One of the peculiar boomerangs of Basquiat's fame stems from the heroin overdose that ended his life at 28. The rumors - actually, some are outright accusations - are that Basquiat's dealers provided him with drugs towards the end in order to persuade him to finish paintings, thereby killing him. In retrospect, that tale is told to give a post-mortem justification for all the anger we see on Brooklyn's walls - to suggest that Basquiat was in some bizarre way the victim of white greed in the end. He was jacked up to play for their pleasure, just another hit machine worn into nothingness. That would certainly fit in one of Basquiat's paintings. But it probably avoids the true heart-rending sadness of it all. Because really, if he were allowed to speak clearly, all the anger in Basquiat, like that in most addicts (but particularly well-heeled ones), would be recognized as directed at himself, by himself. And that is just so sad.
1. Brooklyn-born artist Jean-Michel Basquiat's paintings were hot in the '80s but he didn't survive the decade. 2. (From page 49.) Among Basquiat's works displayed on two floors of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the common threads - large blocks of bright color interspersed with black, big-toothed Africanized skull-like shapes and a kind of nervous scribbling all over the surface - reflect the racial anger of a young Haitian/Puerto Rican New Yorker. (Clockwise, from right) Philistines,1982; Untitled (Boxer) 1982; Gold Griot, 1984; Trumpet, 1984; and Untitled (Head) 1981.