Basquiat at the
Reviewed by Michael Carter
"If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn."
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
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
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
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
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
Exhaustive as the
"Build a Fort. Light That on Fire"