The Radiant Death

The Radiant Death

by Nicholas Powers



At the Brooklyn Museum

Through June 5



Basquiat thrashed inside his paintings as if he lived in a prison cell filling up with boiling colors. He struck at the walls of paper. He cooled the vivid emotions by spreading them into shapes but he could not stop the rising tide. It poured out of his mind and eventually it drowned him. The cell collapsed and the walls floated away into the hands of art collectors who display them in the Brooklyn Museum's latest exhibit Basquiat. The show which lasts until June 5th has gotten good reviews. A rare buzz can be felt around the museum's 200 Eastern Parkway address.


It is a buzz that for most visitors will become a surge of sentimentality over his death, or confusion as to what his work says. It may be impossible to fully recognize Basquiat's art and remain sane because his art was his continual struggle for sanity. Each painting is a window through which we see the encroaching chaos that defeated his busy hands. 


His rise in the art world has no arc, no descent because he did not live long enough to bore us. He died young and he died hard, frozen in the blue bliss of heroin. He is locked inside it still, sealed from view by a maze of curator introductions, articles and reviews. Each new exhibition guides the visitor around his absence because if we went there, if we entered the chaos he disappeared into we might not simply look at his art but dare our selves to become it.


He hasn't had such a grand viewing since the 1992 Whitney Museum exhibit, which for some art critics was not a show but a belated funeral. Its emphasis on his early death was read as a liberal lament for a noble street savage captured and sacrificed to the art world's hunger for authenticity. Robert Hughes in his Time Magazine article \work{The Purple Haze of Hype} called it an exercise in "heroic victimology" that raised an unrealized talent to the status of a saint. He dismissed Basquiat's sympathizers who said the forces of history collided inside the painter and threw his exploded psyche on the canvas. No he insists, "The plain truth -- that Basquiat killed Basquiat -- that nobody but he was sticking needles into his arm -- is not going to get an airing."


In response the four curators, Marc Mayer, Kellie Jones, Fred Hoffman and Franklin Sirmans, keep a cool distance from tragic interpretation. Instead of explaining his death they explain his art. Carefully chronological, they begin as most do, with his graffiti and end as most do, with the heroin binge that killed him. In between they give the visitor new guidelines. Yes Basquiat closed the circle of European appropriation of African forms that began with Pablo Picasso and Henry Matisse. Yes he used Cubist collage, reaching into the trash everyday life for material to transform such as news papers, anatomy lists, the names of empires and cartoon figures. Yes he was angry and Black and male, an art world rapper, sampling the rage and senselessness of the era and fusing it into violent compositions. Yes he used the authority of his own talent to create himself, because nowadays we affirm Black agency, even if Basquiat failed to achieve it. Yes, he was the griot of a destroyed generation, who painted its un-witnessed violence in loud shrieks of color. We can see this in his painting Obnoxious Liberals 1982, where a Black man, whose spine is an exposed jagged line, plays the role of Samson by pushing cartoon pillars apart as a top hat liberal Lincoln caricature stares out of burn scarred eyes. It is an image of a man eager to die with the knowledge that he is killing his enemies in the same imminent collapse.


What cannot be said is that the booming art market of the 1980s was riding the giant waves of capital swelling out from Wall Street as investors sent manufacturing jobs to "developing nations". It was Good Morning in America. Reagan was in charge. White men felt good again. What cannot be said was that this Right Wing era resembled the origins of Expressionism itself. In post World War 1 Germany the militarized aristocratic elite demanded art that glorified national heroes, in essence they wanted propaganda. Artists revolted. Instead of painting halos on mass murderers they delved inside themselves to search for the cause of war. They found it to be that distance that exists in each of us between what we can feel and what can be said. They found it in the life-long ache of exile from one's emotions as we make our selves out of signs we did not shape but simply inherited.  Expressionism is not just a style of art it is the place of speaking. It begins in a place before words, where a blind hunger begs to heard but cannot find the signs to satisfy it.


The Neo-Expressionism of the 1980s was an attempt to stand still on the sleek surface of irony that was Pop-Art. It was a way to connect art to necessity and Basquiat had needs, desperate needs. It is why his life and death is so much part of his art's value. His art and its aesthetic tradition were not based on technical skill but terrifying sincerity. In the end it is an aesthetic which demands a constant sacrifice of raw emotion, the more raw and pure the better yet no one warned him that the passage of such primal energy through the mind will inevitably destroy it.


We see it in Basquiat. The world is locked in a child's state of exposure, the force of color is his translation of the madness of his mother and the rage of his father, the crude drawings, the crayon faces emaciated of detail. It was not the world he saw with his eyes that he painted but the world he could live in; jagged and simple, held together by gusts of color that blew like radiation through the bodies of his figures. He once said in an interview about his peers work, "I'll take a little kid's work over any of that any day." What they could have said about him was that he did take a little kid's work because he took his own art from the child he never stopped being.


Basquiat needed fame. He didn't need money or power but fame. The spotlight saved him from disappearing into the chaos rising in him. It gave him an image of himself he could exist within, a manufactured self to show the world and also hide behind. He of course was the audience member who didn't believe it. Again and again he fought his way out until nothing was left but a man who died in his dreams. Yes Basquiat did kill himself and we paid to see it.