Basquiat at the Brooklyn Museum

Basquiat at the Brooklyn Museum

Reviewed by Michael Carter


"If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn."

--Charlie Parker



Because society is less concerned with understanding the meaning of artistic production than with promoting and profiting from name brand artists' commodities, it creates personal mythologies which insure the chosen's entry to the pantheon, all the more compelling if the artist has the good taste to die young. Keats, Kahlo, Pollock, Parker, Plath, Hendrix, Cobain, and thousands of other less recognizable names; usually some form of self-destruction is involved. ("Die young, and stay pretty", sang Blondie's Debbie Harry, who managed to avoid that fate.) In the 80s art world, the two meteors were Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Hagiography blinds hindsight, and the meaning and method of the work of both these artists are ripe for re-investigation. Though both were associated early on with the East Village, both saw the world (and the streets) as a greater canvas, to be re-coded and interpreted through a personal yet largely accessible visual hermeneutics. Haring devised a hieroglyphic language in which images supplanted words. Basquiat saw words as images with loaded and multivalent meanings, and images and visual style as a language of their own, all sparking off one another via puns and association, comic and lyric and haunting. The current show at the Brooklyn Museum not only displays the range and genesis of Basquiat's multiple talents, but goes far towards explicating his major strategies and recurrent themes, providing a broader cultural and aesthetic context for disentangling the artist's undeniable accomplishment from the hype, arguing for its significance today and for the future.


A stone's throw from the artist's birthplace in Park Slope, the exhibition dutifully traces the evolution of Basquiat's early drawing and painting style from childlike scrawls of milk trucks and airplanes and graffiti, to the creation of his alter ego SAMO (i.e., the SAME Old shit, whose street poetry started off as wry observation and quickly, intensely grew lyrical ("Whole livery line bow like this with big money all crushed into these feet/plush safe... he think"). Images only occasionally accompanied  SAMO's musings, but signature elements begin to emerge: the jagged three-toothed crown, the repetition of TAR, CARBON, and the Copyright © and Notary symbols. In the late 70s, graffiti enjoyed an underground appreciation, and the Crown was a common motif, which SAMO appropriated and altered, simultaneously for its street cred and to distinguish himself from it. The copyright and notary signs, along with "SAMO" became his street tag (though he originally shared it with then friend Al Diaz). Combining these symbols, along with street imagery sifted through his mixed Hispanic/Haitian heritage ("Arroz con Pollo", "Peso Neto"), and the repetition of various phrases, with deliberately "primitivist" imagery derived from African prehistoric stone paintings as well as expressionistic self-portraiture and anatomical drawing texts, along with harsh, angular lines reminiscent of late Picasso and wild graffiti-like acrylic colors and sometimes spray paint, Basquiat caught the eyes and imagination of art world insiders. As friend to Haring and Kenny Scharf, Basquiat met the downtown art/music/drug elite in his late teens, hanging and contributing to exhibits at performance bars like the Mudd Club and Club 57 and fashion hangs like Fiorucci and Pat Field's, culminating with his inclusion first in the watershed Times Square show and then in the New Wave/New York show at PS 1, curated by Diego Cortez, who had encouraged him early on.


In a few short years, fueled by wide acclaim and a galloping pharmacopia, Basquiat was already showing in major Soho galleries (as well as bringing it all back home to the EV's FUN Gallery in '82), a wunderkind of expressionistic energy and cryptic phaseology, which he would hone and augment, experimenting with a wide range of surface materials, collage techniques, and image layering, beginning with Xerox appliqués (which he used to appropriate the look of a well-detourned urban wall) and later silkscreen for compositional and repetitive effect. Unlike the chronological colorsplash of the 1992 Whitney Museum show (which, of course, included many of the same works), the Brooklyn show is intent on examining the phases and techniques of Basquiat's artistic practice. Spread over two large floors, separate areas are devoted to  JMB's various aesthetic and thematic concerns. The former manifests in the oilstick drawings of the Daros Suite (which chart his mind interacting with art/world history), a room devoted to seriography, maps or charts of wordplay; primary themes illustrated include the Griot series of '84-'85, homage to black heroes of music (especially Charlie Parker) and sport (as well as undersung African/American history generally; "The Origin of Cotton", "Jim Crow") and a preoccupation with images and words copied from Gray's Anatomy. But Basquiat himself, perhaps no more than he could fully control the torrent of words, images, and color in his paintings, didn't usually compartmentalize these concerns. In fact his oeuvre is distingushed by a sometimes messy cross-mapping of otherwise incongruous themes, styles, symbols, and imagery into a visually stunning, rich codex of personal, historical, and aesthetic information. A case point is Grillo, a large Griot-like image which is also an homage to the artist's friend Steven Grillo, with Basquiat playfully punning on the name -- a homophone in Spanish.


Stylistically, Basquiat emerges as the great synthesizer of 20th-century aesthetic strategy and technique. In this respect, he is something like the last modernist. Again, the primitivist drawing strokes align him with Picasso and Dubuffet; the wild color derives from the Fauves and the Cobra artists, as well as New York graffitists of the late '70s; his thick "paint-outs" are more reminiscent of De Kooning's bravura brushstrokes; his word-play again deriving from graffiti-writers, but also from Cy Twombly (whom he deeply admired), who integrated (especially poetic) language as a visual element in scratchy compositions; his use of silkscreen and multiple collage derived from Pop artists like Rauschenberg and Warhol (with whom he famously collaborated); his obsession with cryptic punning and personal alchemy echoes Duchamp. (Like Duchamp with his ready-made or Picasso with his instant sketch, he knew the artist could pull off the ultimate alchemic feat in capitalist society; i.e., transmute trash to cash.) His work also melded well with the Neo-expressionist zeitgeist of the time, then the trendiest (and most lucrative) art style glutting Europe and Soho.


Music, especially jazz with its improvisational structure and repetitive riffs, was important to Basquiat's technique as well as to his themes. Many of the paintings can be seen as compositional scores, where image, word, and color emerge, submerge and are transformed. The repeated, often monotone "riffs", with his brash "noisy" style, also recalls the loud, minimalist noise bands of the time, like Glenn Branca, the No-Wave bands documented in the film  Downtown '81 (starring Basquiat), or his own brief foray in the band Gray. The Brooklyn show also emphasizes the fallout of early hip-hop on his method, particularly the improvised scratching of DJs ("graffito" meaning scratch in Italian), as well as the technique of sampling, and colorful slang grammar. His approach is also diaristic, a visual record of all he saw read, heard, thought, ingested. This he shares with writers like Kerouac, another quick-mind engaged in improvisational inquiry and superfueled by substances, also tragic. (A famous picture of Basquiat shows him holding The Subterraneans, a favorite and influential text.) As with AbEx painters like Pollock and the African Griot he emulated, Basquiat possessed a shamanic power to open the collective unconscious, as well as his own. He also had a need to expose the rifts in the foundations of both.


His canvases themselves often bespeak, conjure, reveal the tension of time, the ephemeral nature of existence, of imagery, even of utterance. Not only was world/art/personal history his primary subject matter, Basquiat underscored this tension in the techniques of "the cross-out" and "the paint-out", where the certainty of meaning (of word, of image) is put into question, and both that which is elided and its ghost image/phrase are retained. To mean and not mean. To destroy, yet reference the destroyed (and the act of destroying/creating), in one or several fell swoops. Common in graffiti over-writing, this effect is also similar to Derrida's notion of the suture, a mark whereby erasure is indicated, as well as that which is erased. In Basquiat's case (see Untitled, 1981}, we're talkin' Frankenstein stitches. And as an African-American who identified with the street, Basquiat was keen to the cultural resonance of erasure. Even in early works like Untitled 1982 (Quality), the "cross-out" is in effect; while, in paintings like Three Quarters of Olympia Minus the Servant, thick swaths of paint blot out much of the image underneath -- a strategy which enabled Basquiat to exult with painterly flourish at the expense of (or complementary to) the imagery or words occluded. (Though in the case of Olympia, this ploy has clear social overtones; he dedicated another canvas solely to the maid.) This allows Basquiat to destroy his cake and eat it too, which is something like how he must have felt about his position in the art world in general.) His collaborations with Warhol, critically maligned at the time, were large-scale painterly jousts where each artist sought to cross-out, "improve," or transform the imagery of the other, with often unexpected and comic results.


If Basquiat identified with the grinning black, lozenge-eyed "Griot" figure (such as the one on the famous New York Times cover, which doubled as promo for this exhibit) at the giddy peak of his career, his darker, final years reference the African trickster god, Exu. The final painting in the Brooklyn show, Exu offers a central figure of fiery power beset by a multiplicity of floating eyes, an image expressing paranoia as well as defiance, and perhaps the ravages of celebrity. Like Warhol, Basquiat understood that his celebrity vastly increased the degree of his artistic/shamanic power, and like Warhol, that very celebrity and its trappings often became subject matter. In Basquiat's case, however he was compelled to examine that celebrity's incongruities, the extent to which he was using and being used by It; and he was keen to the paradoxes here entailed by his racial background. (A painting like Notary (1983), and the famous Marc Miller interview lifted by Julian Schnabel's fawning biopic, evinces Basquiat's evident disdain and evasiveness towards those who would try to pin simplistic interpretations on his imagery, as well as towards the artworld "fleas" and "leeches" that so eagerly attached themselves to him. Doubtless he would disavow anything in this exegesis as well; I once asked him to tag my jacket-- he just kind of grinned, "you fool"...) The later paintings of 1986, '87, and '88, are either relatively spare blottings of color brimming with mordant irony, such as The Dingoes that Park Their Brains With Their Gum} and Riddle Me This Batman}; large, sparse constructions like To Repel Ghosts and Gravestone (clearly intimations of - as well as desperate roadblocks to -- a deeply-sensed impending mortality); or the densely repetitive, mostly verbal meditations such as Pegasus, that evidence a late 20th-century alchemist on the edge, desperate to combine and record all he sees, hears, ingests, dizzying in their lyric jumps and scale, equally maddening. Evoking Beethoven, the Eroica} paintings of '87 and '88 once more attest to his musical ambition and range, though all the while looking toward the end, with their coda and symbol, "Man dies." In fact, the final Eroica, with its circled lists of Basquiat's basic needs and preoccupations, "balls, banks, white women, injections," and the like, culminates in a powerfully self-exploding Beethovian crescendo, the chemical formula for  TNT.


Exhaustive as the Brooklyn exhibit may seem, it is nonetheless an edited picture, which does aid in interpreting Basquiat's major subjects and stylistic flourishes. Yet certain works, like the large paintings known as the Blue Ribbon series, which showcase the heights of Basquiat's ability to integrate his intuitive flair for color with the verbal - the "paint-out" with the "cross-out" -- are notably absent. So is the grim, elegaic Riding with Death, which referenced a da Vinci drawing of a spectral horse and (one-eyed) rider, and punctuated the '92 Whitney show. Ever larger shows will be in the offing. That Basquiat could create so many signature works with such thematic and technical range in less than ten years testifies to a mind and talent in hyperdrive; for and against hype. Especially in the paintings of '83 through '85, Basquiat sometimes fell into formulaic repetition, pushed by demand of often greedy collectors and dealers. But while not every blessed fragment evidences genius, the aggregate effect of a retro survey like the one in Brooklyn is dazzling, making us re-ask questions we thought we already knew the answer to - the question of genius included. Now that much of the hype has finally been buried, along with Basquiat's bones in Brooklyn's nearby Greenwood cemetery, what we see is a very special artist: part poet, part shaman, part seer, and part uncontrollable ego (all full-force at once), whose accomplishment stands as rebuke to the art world's self-serving insular smugness and society's current technology-coddled complacency.


"Build a Fort. Light That on Fire"