Wunderkind/High school drop-out. Gifted artist/Street scribbler. Incredibly successful in his early 20’s/Heroin addict dead at 27.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s life was a study in warring forces, forces that fueled both his painting and his addiction, forces that likely did him in in the end. He favored large, rough, cartoonish depictions of his subjects (mostly people), often painted on backgrounds of emphatic primary colors or garish aquas and oranges, finished with crayon and graffiti-like text. The paintings sold to elite collectors in the 1980s for astronomical prices, and they still do today.
The Gagosian show is an excellent opportunity to look at the work again and consider it anew. Hung in the spacious 24th Street gallery, with ample natural light coming in from the windowed tops of the 20-foot walls, the paintings are as thrilling and as enigmatic as ever. The artist’s trademark faces are, for example, on the one hand grotesque and vulgar, more skulls than faces, with their grid-like teeth and wide empty circles for eyes. Yet they are also not only obvious homages to African masks and primitive paintings, many of them are essentially self-portraits. Then there are paintings like “Eyes and Eggs,” a fairly straightforward portrait of a line cook that one could view as a respectful depiction of the ordinary working man, yet the artist has imprinted the canvas with the tread of his sneakers as he walked all over it. The paintings themselves on first glance can seem slap-dash and crude, but a closer looks reveals the artist's many layers of working and reworking the image and its components. Was Basquiat a high artist intentionally looking to make cultural commentary with his raw form, or was he a merely a talented kid overly exalted by the art establishment who couldn’t quite pin down what he was trying to say after all? While many of the paintings can be read as a certain thumbing of his nose to the world of high art – while incorporating those very elements – one can also see a certain thumbing of his nose to himself and his work.
Basquiat rode into the galleries on the wave of street graffiti artists who were being “discovered” in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, a world that essentially consisted of clandestine criminal activity that became oddly intertwined with the world of high art. Unlike most of the other street artists showing their work at the time, Basquiat didn’t paint subway cars or use spay paint for his work. Under the name Samo (Same-oh, as in Same Old), he markered short, pithy phrases and sentences on the buildings of lower Manhattan, a kind of street poetry whose remnants turn up in the later canvases. In 1980 Basquiat participated in an exhibit put on, in part, by Fashion Moda, a South Bronx artist space and collective that encouraged outsider and untrained artists. He also met the artist Andy Warhol that year. Most of the graffiti-artist darlings had very brief moments in the spotlight, but Basquiat had a staying power, likely because he had a precocious intelligence and some thirst for fame. His friendship and work with Warhol helped.
His amazing career lasted a short eight years (he is a member of the 27 Club), but he was prolific. The
Basquiat Authentication Committee has rubber-stamped over 2000 pieces of work, and the Gagosian show, on view until April 6, has over 50 on view. This is certainly not as comprehensive as the grand Brooklyn Museum exhibit of 2005, but it provides a decent cross section of the work. There are a few multi-panel pieces studded with incongruous text and illustration whose overall effect call to mind the interior advertising on subway cars, while some of the individual panels give nod to Basquiat’s love of comic books. There are several pieces that display the artist’s quirky methods of canvas stretching. And there are several examples of his homages to black musicians, sports heroes, and everyday working people. One of the most compelling and fully realized of these is “Ribs Ribs,” where the ennobled Rib Man, crowned with a halo and looking almost like a superhero, serves up ribs from his own body. This is Basquiat at his finest, where all the influences come together in a coherent image that he hasn’t second-guessed or denigrated with his own personal editorial. Striking, too, are the eerily similar paintings “Bicycle Man” and “Riding with Death,” the former an exuberant yet darkly foreboding piece of death as a bike rider painted in1984, the latter, a man riding the back of skeleton, painted shortly before the artist died.
A recent auction at Christie’s fetched an amazing $26.2 million for a 1981 portrait of a fisherman (not on display at this exhibit). If you go to Artnet.com, you can find out which Basquiat pieces are for sale, buy one yourself, hang it over your sofa, and try to figure it out.