BASQUIAT: Quick Killing in Art

      BASQUIAT: Quick Killing in Art

      by Phoebe Hoban

      384 pp., $15.95

      Penguin Books, New York


I made a schema for this review of Hoban's book on Basquiat, like a five-pointed star. It went Basquiat (book) voices schizophrenia music Basquiat. I was tormented badly this past year by a black-magic spell and ripped off by my record label. Both things cause me to lift books and magazines from stores sometimes, and as I was flyering for an indie movie, I snatched this book after scanning it. Basquiat's complete collection was in my possession as I flew from New York to Santa Monica & I spent the flight drinking in his figures, cartoons and diagrammatic bravados, like "Famous Negro Athletes" and "Most Young Kings get their Heads Cut Off." It was my clerical job at Christie's in 1989 where I first encountered Basquiat and as the book chronicles, after he died of a heroin overdose, they inventoried and sold his work.


In 1994 I was released from St.Vincent's psych ward into a sky that screamed blue-freedoms. Still in shock from what I'd experienced, I used my grandfather's inheritance (several thousand dollars) to recover and reinitiate my imagination. First yoga 3 or 4 times a week, then art, as I tried to put visionaries back into my terrorized third eye. That summer I saw Monk's Straight No Chaser at NYU, and began to sneak into The New School to play pianos, developing a repertoire including an anti-ode to the psych ward called "Bright Star/Shot Horse." \footnote{2} In the winter I found a Basquiat exhibit in Harlem. It was a small Mecca of 8-9 crown and baseball paintings. I tried to savor the subtle color switches and imprint the lines in my mind: "Lightening bugs circle our head: we tear their wings off and memorize what they said." Rickie Lee Jones, Ghostyhead.


My soul trembled with delight and sed yes to the inverse narcissism, the codes, the blackness and the bones of the paintings. It was "Basquiat's own version of a crown. He said he took the symbol from the King World Productions trademark at the end of the Little Rascals, but he made it his own€." He became my favorite post-modern visualist.


He looks beautiful, strong, African and bizarre (as the French say), in the book's photos before his forehead becomes molded by the implosion of chemicals he was using constantly as fuel and dream. My friend Martha, who drinks too much rum and reads Adrienne Rich asked, after I told her how much the book had upset me because of the devastation from heroin of his genius, "But would he have have been a genius without the dope?"


This is a song for the genius child. Sing it softly for the song is wild. Sing it softly as ever you can -- lest the song get out of hand. Nobody loves a genius child. Can you love an eagle, tame or wild? Wild or tame? Nobody loves a genius child. Free him and let his soul run wild. Langston Hughes, an interpolation in Hoban's book, by a friend of Basquiat's named Freddy.


Hoban succeeds in charting the rise of Basquiat's artlife from SAMO (a "CosmicConcept", a "guilt free religion"), and graffiti to the sale of his paintings and sketches through major NY dealers, Gagosian, Boone et al. Basquiat needed spirits, he was a shaman in his work who brought the underside out. He explored the violence & power relations of race and capitalisms and yet he was an expressionist pop artist, not political. He took as his musical doubles Parker and Coltrane. And he probably had most in common with Hendrix, who was also more brave and fragile about fame than many of those around him. None of Basquiat's friends were able, in the final days of his ghosting himself to drugs, to save his life by intervention, yet it was considered and possible. Given Basquiat's genius and strength, it's one of the most haunting truths of Hoban's bio.


I love the interviews in Hoban's book with Basquiat and Madonna's eulogy to him:



“I remember Jean-Michel's tag, SAMO, which was accompanied with a little crown and I remember thinking he was a genius. He was. But he wasn't very comfortable with it. I remember all the girls were in love with him and one night I looked out of his loft window and saw a girl whose heart he'd broken burning his paintings in a big bonfire. I wanted to stop her and rescue his paintings, but he didn't seem to mind. He said it was their fate.


I remember him getting up at 3 am and sleepwalking to an empty canvas. He stood inches away from it and proceeded to paint the most miniscule figures and what he did was so beautiful and instinctual and I stood watching him with dumbfounded amazement. He was one of the few people I was truly envious of.”


--Madonna, Essay for {The Guardian}, 1996



In Philip Dick's book Martian Time-Slip, the characters who're schizophrenic have seen the future in a dream, some of them recover from the trauma and some of them live in supervised camps, visionaries left to dangle on the edge of existence. It's the opposite of Star Wars, where Sufis have a force field of lasers protecting them and creatures dominate the landscape with speed and pleasures. Schizophrenia has traditionally been associated with hearing voices from without or within, and with a fragmentation of identity from that not necessarily from seeing into the future. What it is to see a dark dream of reality and be guided by outside spirits who also protect you is something like what heroin, coke, Coltrane and TV did for Basquiat. If he'd had guardian angel voices they would have advised him to take another path, away from drugs to save his life. Hoban in the preface writes, " In order to connect he disconnected into paranoia, into drugs, into music, into TV, sampling the culture, spitting it back into scrambled bits." Artists have the singular gift of creating wholes out of parts, of re-associating fragments of reality with a third eye from their SIKE and other gifts. Basquiat, like Dali, could draw well. He had the formal tools of a painter and the drive to objectify his surroundings. He invented a code to deal with the cruelty and absurdity of race and power in America.


Phoebe Hoban's book on Basquiat, subtitled "A Quick Killing in Art" has the fierce dimensions of a journalistic tour de force. She combines a map of the exchanges, episodes from 1980s downtown art-world and lots of quotes from luminaries to capture Jean Michel's trajectory. The book has rapid-fire pacing and some brilliant observations about how art and money and souls collided, especially in Basquiat. She begins and ends with Basquiat's death in his Great Jones loft. It's structurally tight and a very hip read. The premonitions of his death as a sacrifice to making it fast-- as a genius boy who wasn't allowed to balance out real-life and art-life are starkly clear.


I recommend the book--scan the bulk of it-- especially for an apprehension of the artworld of the 1980s and it's key figures, and carefully read her Epilogue titled, "Channel-Surfing in Paint". It's a beautiful lucid primer to Basquiat's paintings.


His shit was dope. His shit was dope. It was formally elegant and synthetic plus they could sell it like hotcakes. And dope and dope. Dope's what a saint of criticals did when the money rolled in. But he should have stopped. And lived on to evolve. The answer to Martha's question is Yes, Oh yes.



The spell came from magic voices called the geniuses. And they were protecting the karma of a Hindu deity. Ganesha spooked and challenged me and put love spells on me by my kitchen window. I'd sought his protection after being killed by a lover in the music world. The spirit also threatened me with brain cancer for not staying awake all night. Even in the hospital I was being asked to fast and given strange dreams, despite Thorazine, Zoloft, Trilofon.


"Hey kid, hey kid, what you got going, what you done did? There's a mad din in my mind today and I'd just as soon fight as sock it away? She said Hey kid, hey kid, what planet, what source? There's a mad dwarf in my mind today, like a bright star in a shot horse." {Bright Star/Shot Horse}




Lo Galluccio