Gagosian closed a Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective last week. Unsurprisingly, people lined up in the streets to see the show. It was a blockbuster. The only other velvet-rope-and-line-around-the-block shows in Chelsea in recent memory have been two Picasso shows and a Monet show (all Gagosian) and Marclay’s The Clock at Paula Cooper. I don’t plan to review the Gagosian show but the NY Times had Ken Johnson do the review a few months back (sorry to be so behind on this). This may have been they’re continued vote of confidence for him since there had been much controversy over his review of a group show entitled Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles.
Johnson gives us this thought: ”At a casual glance Basquiat’s paintings look as if they’d been made by a brilliant, autodidactic schizophrenic driven to download his inner demons, obsessions and fantastical ideas by whatever means possible.” If I were still in college unpacking (or maybe these days its downloading) articles I would have to comment on the “whatever means possible” ending of this sentence. For me this brings the “by any means necessary” rhetoric of Malcolm X and Medgar Evers to mind, and the white paranoia of a militant black cabal storming their cities and towns. Whatever my particular gripe is with Ken Johnson, he follows up with this apt statement: “You can imagine the creative persona Basquiat’s art conjures, muttering and chortling to himself while compulsively improvising his chartlike compositions of cartoon images, glyphic signs and enigmatic word lists.”
He nails it dead; Jean-Michel Basquiat is no longer man but persona. He has lost his personal qualities and is now a dark Saint, imbued with our notions of the artist as some damaged oracle. Even with all the attention and gaudy prices, we often find Basquiat marginalized as an idiot savant. Rather than calling him “genius”, he is still quietly rundown for being a street artist who gave away his gift to the anonymous public. Like his contemporary Keith Haring, he saw the evolving graffiti as a public language. There was no cost of admission and no prerequisite for joining in. Graffiti wasn’t his style, just the avenue for him to begin his work.
Building language into fine art was not new. Basquiat was certainly not treading new ground, but the self conscious, visibly edited stream of consciousness language was. Twombly had already given words the DeKooning treatment. Ruscha departed from the highly stylized advertising gimmickry of words and image by engaging another substance either in the look or creation of each piece. In Basquiat’s work they are written, struck through and written again, and the words became lists which became comments. The imagery often plays second fiddle to the text. This is not to say the images alone aren’t haunting. At Gagosian I saw several portraits that would easily rival Picasso’s Mosqueteros, recently presented in the same space, for their depth, skill and exuberance. Warhol must have seen these images and immediately understood what was new and important.
The question as to whether Warhol was his patron or his exploiter won’t ever be answered. The marriage of their two styles made no sense at all. The sleek purity of Warhol’s silkscreens and the slapdash chalk and oil of Basquiat’s unedited naïve hand were quite literally like oil and water. Still I would argue the collaboration had merit. They each got what they wanted from it and we got the birth of the modern mash-up in full color. Artist collaborations don’t need to make sense, they need to make art.
Maybe because I am too young to have been in the same spaces as Basquiat while he was alive he seems unattainable but not unknowable. His words and deeds are large. His image is sadly larger. Schnabel, his contemporary and maybe his friend, gave him a lovely biopic even if it was sickly sweet. Jeffrey Wright will forever be my Basquiat because of this, but I could do worse.
And when they open up the books (a la Goodfellas) where will our junk filled Icarus end up. A ghost and cautionary tale with an artists panache or an artist, plain and simple, with the problems that anyone might have had. A black artist, a dead artist, a New York artist, a Warhol creation, a market darling, a shooting star?
Eventually, when the language changes and Jean-Michel Basquiat is deemed post-medium for his seeming disinterest in quality or style of materials or post-color (his, not his work) or “Downtown 81” school and all the academic evaluation will be squeezed out of his corpse. And then I will see a jughead crown, floating high above the a skeletal form and the bold name of a once great and now fallen fighter. Basquiat never ended up the punch drunk elder statesman, he died in the ring.