Basquiat - The Last Great American Artist
"Genius is the recovery of childhood at will" - Rimbaud
Jean-Michel Basquiat was not only the last great American artist, but the only African-American artist to have a successful impact on the mainstream pop culture art world. A sobering fact considering more than thirty years after his star burnt out, there have been no other American artists, not to mention any black artist that has matched his success. Basquiat's mark on the art world has in time become a stunning accomplishment. Unmatched. And given the certain financial requirements needed to become a famous painter, like a Robert Miller or a Bruno helping hand, have all but since disappeared leaving the art world void of a any serious fresh talent. The current landscape of the world also leaves little for nurturing the next great artist. Every year billionaires flock to Miami for the art party of the year. A disgustingly rich event known as Art Basel. If you plan on being in Basel be ready to fork over at least 10k to have your work shown. It won't matter anyways because the rich that come to Basel are looking for Van Gogh's, Pollock's and now more than ever Basquiat. Sad to say but he's about the only black artist whose work will be available to buy at Basel. How did this happen? More importantly is what happened to the American artist? No matter what color they might be. It's a sign of the times. Because America has fallen and so has its idols and the electricity required to create new heroes no longer exists in a land whose light burned out like Basquiat's in its youthful prime. He was the lighting bolt of energy that lit the stunning artistic explosion that boomed out of Manhattan in the late 70's and early 80's. He went from sleeping in cardboard boxes in Tompkins square park to selling out art galleries all over the world. He even dated Madonna before she was famous and drew a portrait of the ass-whipping Basquiat's girlfriend Gina gave Madonna for sleeping with her man.
Madonna told the Guardian in 1992:
Basquiat joined the 27 club after dying of a heroin/cocaine "Speedball" overdose in his NoHo art studio on Great Jones street.
The building was owned by Basquiat's mentor and father figure idol Andy Warhol. After the duo's art exhibit unexpectedly flopped and the press had a field day at Bsquiat's expense...
The pair had a falling out and Warhol died unexpectedly soon after. Leaving the art world shocked and the young Basquiat devastated. He plunged into his heroin addiction head on and much like the saga of another tragic black icon Phil Lynott - Basquiat died tragically young with nothing in his hands but Van Gogh's ear.
Phobe Hoban spectacularly writes about Basquiat in the New York Times: Friday, August 12, 1988. On the sidewalk outside 57 Great Jones Street, the usual sad lineup of crack addicts slept in the burning sun. Inside the two-story brick building, Jean-Michel Basquiat was asleep in his huge bed, bathed in blue television light. The air conditioner was broken and the room felt like a microwave oven. The bathroom door was ajar, revealing a glimpse of a black and tan Jacuzzi tub. On the ledge of the tub was a small pile of bloody syringes. There was a jagged hole punched in the bathroom window. Beneath it was scrawled the legend "Broken Heart," with Basquiat's favorite punctuation, a copyright sign. Kelle Inman, Basquiat's twenty-two-year-old girlfriend, was downstairs writing in the journal that Basquiat had given her. He usually slept all day, but when he still hadn't come down for breakfast by midafternoon, Inman got worried. When she looked into the bedroom to check up on him, the heat hit her full in the face, like a wave. But Basquiat seemed to be sleeping peacefully, so she went back downstairs. She and the housekeeper heard what sounded like loud snores, but thought nothing of it.
A few hours later, Basquiat's friend Kevin Bray called. He and Basquiat and another friend, Victor Littlejohn, were supposed to go to a Run-D.M.C. concert that evening, and he wanted to make plans with Jean-Michel. Kelle climbed back up the stair's to give Basquiat the message. This time, she found him stretched on the floor, his head Jean-Michael on his arm like a child's, a small pool of vomit forming near his chin. Inman panicked. She had never seen anyone die, although Basquiat's drug binges had made the scenario a constant fear. Now it seemed like the worst had happened. She ran to the phone and called Bray, Littlejohn, and Vrej Baghoomian, Basquiat's last art dealer. "When I got there," recalls Bray, "Kelle said she had called an ambulance. She took me upstairs. Jean-Michel looked like he was comfortably out cold. He was on the floor, lying against the wall, as if he had fallen down and didn't have the strength to get up, and was just taking a nap. There was a lot of clear liquid coming out of his mouth. We picked him up and turned him over. We shook him, and we just kept trying to revive him. It took a long time for the ambulance to arrive. But for a while, after the guys from the Emergency Medical Service came, we thought he was going to be okay. They were giving him shocks and IV treatment. Victor had to hold Jean-Michel up like this so the IV's would drain," says Bray, stretching his arms out in a cruciform.
Bray couldn't take it anymore. He went downstairs, where Inman, and two assistants from the Baghoomian gallery, Vera Calloway and Helen Traversi, were trying to stay calm. "We tried to take his pulse. His skin was so hot," says Calloway. Baghoomian called the studio just as the paramedics arrived. He was in San Francisco and Helen was forced to act in his stead, "It was almost like it was some sort of business transaction," says Bray. "They put a tube in his throat and they brought him downstairs. They wouldn't tell us whether he was dead or alive and they took him outside. He had this beautiful bubbling red-white foam coming out of his mouth."
"We all hoped some miracle would happen," recalls Helen, who begins to cry at the memory. Outside on the pavement, a small crowd had gathered in horror and fascination. "I was about to leave on vacation with my wife," says filmmaker Amos Poe, who was a friend of the artist. "We watched as they loaded his body into the ambulance. I saw his father pull up in a Saab. I kept saying to my wife. `Jean-Michel is dead.' He really lived out that whole destructo legend: Die young, leave a beautiful corpse." At Cabrini Medical Center, Basquiat was pronounced dead on arrival. The cause, according to the medical examiner's death certificate, would be determined "pending chemical examination." A later autopsy report stated that Basquiat had died from "acute mixed drug intoxication (opiates-cocaine)." In the months before his death, Basquiat claimed he was doing up to a hundred bags of heroin a day. Basquiat was buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn five days later. His father invited only a few of the artist's friends to the closed-casket funeral at Frank Campbell's; they were outnumbered by the phalanx of art dealers. The heat wave had broken, and it rained on the group gathered at the cemetery to bid Jean-Michel goodbye. The eulogy was delivered by Citibank art consultant Jeffrey Deitch, lending the moment an unintentionally ironic tone.
Blanca Martinez, Basquiat's housekeeper, was struck by the alienated attitude of the mourners. "They were all standing separately, as if it were an obligation," she says. "They didn't seem to care. Some looked ashamed." People began to leave the cemetery before the body was buried. Ignoring the objections of the gravediggers, Martinez tearfully threw a handful of dirt onto the coffin as they lowered it into the grave. Basquiat's mother, Matilde, looking dazed, approached Baghoomian to thank him for his help to her son during his last days. Gerard Basquiat later admonished his former wife not to talk to the art dealer. The scene was already being set for a bitter battle over the estate of the artist.
The following week, appraisers from Christie's set to work taking inventory of the contents of the Great Jones Street loft: finished and unfinished paintings, other artists' works (including several dozen Warhols and a piece by William Burroughs), a vintage collection of Mission furniture, a closet full of Armani and Comme des Garcons suits, a library of over a thousand videotapes, hundreds of audiocassettes, art books, a carton of the Charlie Parker biography Bird Lives!, several bicycles, a number of antique toys, an Everlast punching bag, six music synthesizers, some African instruments, an Erector set, and a pair of handcuffs. There were also a number of paintings in warehouses: following Andy Warhol's advice, Basquiat had tried to squirrel some of his work away from his ever-eager art dealers. According to Christie's, Basquiat had left 917 drawings, 25 sketchbooks, 85 prints, and 171 paintings. Artist Dan Asher walked by his old friend's loft and was astonished to see a number of Basquiat's favorite things in a Dumpster: his shoes, his jazz collection, a peculiar lamp made out of driftwood, Sam Peckinpah's director's chair. Asher salvaged a few items; he sold the chair to a collector.
It would be another year before Gerard Basquiat ordered a tombstone for his son. But for several weeks after the artist's death, he was commemorated by a small shrine some anonymous fan had placed by his door. Shrouded in lace, it held flowers, votive candles, a picture of Basquiat, some carefully copied prayers, and a Xerox of a David Levine caricature of the artist, complete with a caption: "In an age of limitless options and limiting fears, he still makes poems and paintings to evoke his world."
A formal memorial service was finally held at Saint Peter's Church in Citicorp Center, on a stormy Saturday in November. Despite the rain, wind, and bleak gray sky, several hundred people crowded into the church. Behind the pulpit hung a portrait of the artist as a young man, superimposed on one of his faux-primitive paintings. One by one, his former friends and lovers remembered Basquiat. Gray, the band with which Jean-Michel had played at the Mudd Club, performed several songs. John Lurie played a saxophone solo. Ingrid Sischy, editor of Interviewmagazine, read a eulogy. Ex-girlfriends Jennifer Goode and Suzanne Mallouk tearfully read poems. And Keith Haring, AIDS-thin, reminisced about his friend. "He disrupted the politics of the art world and insisted that if he had to play their games, he would make the rules. His images entered the dreams and museums of the exploiters, and the world can never be the same." Fab 5 Freddy, who knew Basquiat from his old graffiti days, "interpolated" a poem by Langston Hughes. "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, can you love a monster, of frightening name? Nobody loves a genius child. Free [sic] him and let his soul run wild."
After the service, everyone went to M.K., the bank-turned-nightclub on lower Fifth Avenue. Owned by Jennifer Goode's brother, it was one of Jean-Michel's favorite places. In fact, it was his last destination the night before he died. He had come to the club looking for Jennifer. Now people stood around the big television set, sipping champagne and watching a flickering black-and-white video of Basquiat. A photographer from Fame magazine snapped pictures of the known and not-so-known: the jewelry designer Tina Chow, and her sister, Adele Lutz, David Byrne's wife. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.
It was the perfect send-off for the eighties art star; part opening, part wake. Basquiat's life spanned an historic shift in the art world, from Pop to Neo-Expressionism, from hip to hype. It was personified by Andy Warhol, the man who was to celebrity what Freud was to the unconscious. When Basquiat was born in December 1960, the Pop decade had just begun. In December 1961, Claes Oldenburg was showing household items in "The Store" down on East Second Street; the following summer Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup cans poured into America's consciousness when they were put on display in the window of Bonwit Teller and in the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Comic books, television, advertising itself; they all became fodder for the new movement. Mass media was both the new art's subject and its method of dissemination. Even America's landscape--with its Technicolor billboards--was innately Pop. "Pop art took the inside and put it outside, took the outside and put it inside," Warhol wrote in his bible of the era, POPism. At Leo Castelli's gallery, a bastion of Abstract Expressionism, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann, and Jasper Johns were showing paintings of modern detritus; bathroom fixtures, Ben Day-dotted bimbos talking in air balloons, American flags, Coke bottles. The Museum of Modern Art's symposium on Pop art, held in December 1962, included an early champion; Metropolitan Museum curator Henry Geldzahler, a Warhol intimate who would become Mayor Ed Koch's cultural commissioner of New York. Geldzahler would also be instrumental in helping launch Jean-Michel Basquiat's career.
The sixties also brought a whole new breed of collectors into the forefront. Cab-fleet owner Robert Scull and his wife, Ethel, became avid collectors of the new art. One of Scull's passions was to discover the work on his own, buying right out of the artist's studio. The Sculls also liked to socialize with the, artists they collected, throwing huge parties at their home on Long Island. This would also be a favorite activity of the nouveau riche collectors of the eighties, who seemed to crave the kind of high produced by being in close proximity to the Artist. Pop art planted the seeds of the Neo-Expressionist art of the eighties--spawning its aesthetics and hype. Pop is "doing the easiest thing," Warhol had written. "Anybody could do anything." But art was also "just another job," one that could be turned, he soon demonstrated, into a moneymaking machine. Warhol took an American classic, the assembly-line, and applied it to art. He made no bones about it; he called his studio the Factory. Thousands of kids pouring out of art school with Bachelor of Fine Art degrees in the 1970s followed his lead.
They flooded into New York from all over the country in the middle to late 1970s, a new generation of would-be rock stars, artists, dancers, and actors. It was still possible to find cheap apartments in Alphabet City and lower Manhattan. There were few homeless. AIDS didn't exist. The city was an urban frontier, theirs for the taking. Before long, influenced by the Punk movement in England, wildly coiffed young people with multicolored Mohawks and safety-pinned clothes seemed to have taken over the East Village--then still a scary neighborhood full of shooting galleries. CBGB's on the Bowery became a mecca for the new bands: the Ramones, Television, the Talking Heads. Punk-rock boutiques began popping up around St. Mark's Place.
A new Bohemia was in the making, a wild nexus of music, fashion, and art that created a distinctive downtown aesthetic. Punk and the subsequent New Wave movements that quickly took over were a welcome antidote to the sterile Conceptual and Minimalist art that had numbed the art scene during the post-Pop decade, boring both critics and collectors. Even slam-dancing was preferable to the mindless throb of Saturday Night Fever music pulsing in the discos. Like the sixties, this was a multimedia event, amplified by an English invasion of fashion and music that crisscrossed the Atlantic and was transmuted in Manhattan. It had its drugs of choice; instead of getting stoned on marijuana, speeding on amphetamines, or tripping on LSD, people snorted coke the way the stars in Godard films sucked on cigarettes, or got into cool, strung out heroin. The Sex Pistols replaced the Beatles; cute Paul McCartney became decadent Johnny Rotten, dressed in torn, black rags instead of psychedelic tie-dye. Johnny Rotten gave way to the robotic Devo and Klaus Nomi and the jubilant B-52's.
But there was another, more profound difference. Unlike the sixties, the new cultural movement had no real ideology, no revolution at its core. It was as if the veiled commercialism of such historic sold-out events as the rock musical Hair or Woodstock had been stripped of any pretext of politics. No one raised an eyebrow when ex-radical and Chicago 7 kingpin Jerry Rubin became a stockbroker and began to throw networking parties at the Underground.
There was also no generation gap: from the start, adults began to exploit the obvious possibilities. The late seventies paved the way for the eighties, which celebrated the materialism the sixties had rebelled against. New Wave everything from fashion to graphics was soon inundating Madison Avenue. Fiorucci, on Fifty-seventh Street, became the first uptown boutique to combine the new fashion, music, and art. And anything and everything was considered art. Perhaps the most blatant exploitation by uptown of the downtown art scene was the marketing of the graffiti movement, which galvanized the art world in the late seventies and was completely passe by 1983. For a brief moment the inner-city artists, whose work had been followed for years by transit cops, not critics, were the darlings of Fifty-seventh Street and SoHo. But the "limousine liberals"--upscale dealers and pseudo radical collectors--soon got bored with baby-sitting and found some new neo movement to market.
Real estate played a major role in the new Bohemia and its shifting boundaries; as one area became gentrified, artists migrated to the next new place. At this point, SoHo, the industrial area south of Houston Street, was still full of textile outlets, floor-sanding companies, and riveters--and lofts that artists could live in under the Artist in Residence (A.I.R.) rental regulations. There were few, if any, residential amenities--Dean and DeLuca was just a tiny little gourmet store. And despite the growing artist population, by Fifty-seventh Street gallery standards, the neighborhood was still practically the Wild West. But by 1979, when Julian Schnabel, one of the first Neo-Expressionist art stars, had his first show at the Mary Boone Gallery on West Broadway, the cross-pollination between the East Village and SoHo was in full bloom. Within the next few years, SoHo would evolve into the Madison Avenue of the downtown scene.
By the end the seventies, a whole group of downtown clubs had sprung up--from the Mudd Club on White Street in TriBeCa to Club 57 on St. Mark's Place, to Danceteria on Twenty-third Street, raunchy parodies of the fabulous Studio 54 where Warhol and his celebrity cronies--Bianca and Halston and Calvin and Brooke--were hanging out, with one big difference. People didn't just dance and do drugs and hob-nob in these clubs: they were venues for performance art, underground films, New Wave music. The Talking Heads--art students turned musicians--were paradigmatic of the scene. Artists were mixing up their media; music, film, painting, and fashion were recombining in innovative ways. From fashion to music, television was a central reference point for this burgeoning baby-boomer culture.
By early 1979, Jean-Michel Basquiat had established himself as an artistic persona: SAMO, the author of cryptic sayings scrawled on public spaces all over Manhattan--including, strategically, near SoHo's newest galleries. It was the beginning of his art career, and it segued neatly with the "discovery" of graffiti. At the time, it was convenient, but Basquiat had no intention of being lumped into a category with a bunch of kids who bombed trains. In fact, Basquiat was not a true graffiti artist; he didn't work up through ranks as a "toy," earning the right to leave his tag on certain turf, and he never drew on subways; certainly the stars of Wild Style, Charlie Ahearn's graffiti film of the time, didn't consider Basquiat a real member of their group. Ultimately, Basquiat would be the only black artist to survive the graffiti label, and find a permanent place as a black painter in a white art world.
Basquiat's nascent career coincided with the advent of a major art-world revival, from the tiny storefront galleries of the East Village to SoHo's expansionist West Broadway to the suddenly crowded auction houses. For the first time in a over a decade, a new art movement, Neo-Expressionism, had seduced both critics and collectors. Painting was back; from Julian Schnabel to Susan Rothenberg, artists were reveling in the return of figurativism.
But what radically changed the art world by the time Basquiat entered the scene was money. In the early 1980s, Wall Street's bull market engendered an interesting offspring: SoHo's bull market. The new money of the eighties was increasingly invested into art. By 1983, the art market in New York alone, was estimated at $2 billion. Gallery dealers became power players, barely distinguishable in lingo and lifestyle from their Wall Street clientele. Banks began accepting art as collateral for loans. Corporations began stockpiling important contemporary-art collections. Every weekend, SoHo was clogged with a parade of art lovers slumming at openings. At auction houses, packed rooms applauded as records were set for everything from van Gogh's "Irises"--$53.9 million--to $17 million for "False Start" by Jasper Johns.
Chauffeured cars disgorged fur-coated women into tiny storefront galleries in the bowels of the East Village. Eugene and Barbara Schwartz epitomized the new collectors. A wealthy publisher of how-to books, Schwartz and his wife spent most of the mid-eighties shopping for art every Saturday, hitting the hottest galleries in the East Village and SoHo. Collectors like Charles Saatchi, head of the multinational advertising conglomerate Saatchi & Saatchi, acquired a dreadful power: the ability to make and break an artist overnight, as the advertising baron did with the work of Italian painter Sandro Chia, first buying up and then dumping his paintings en masse.
The art boom created a crop of suddenly famous young careerist-artists; Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente, Eric Fischl, Keith Haring, Robert Longo, Mark Kostabi, and Kenny Scharf. The Whitney's Biennial became a launching pad for the latest stars. Collectors like Don and Mera Rubell soon developed a ritual: hundreds crowded into their art-filled Upper East Side town house for their Biennial opening-night party.
In the eighties, the bifurcated role of art as a vehicle for stardom and art as raw commodity reached its zenith. For the contemporary artist, success meant instant recognition; magazine covers and Gap ads, not just museum shows. And the new art collectors, unlike those who invested in junk bonds, could at least pretend they had put their money into something of value. Warhol, a wigged-out psychic, had presaged the whole thing. In POPism, he spelled it out tot the next generation: "To be successful as an artist, you have to have your work shown by a good gallery for the same reason, say, that Dior never sold his originals from a counter in Woolworth's. It's a matter of marketing, among other things. If a guy has, say, a few thousand dollars to spend on a painting . . . He wants to buy something that's going to go up and up in value, and the only way that can happen is with a good gallery, one that looks out for the artist, promotes him, and sees to it that his work is shown in the right way to the right people. Because if the artist were to fade away, so would this guy's investment ... No matter how good you are, if you are not promoted right, you won't be one of those remembered names."
Fame and Greed: the Twin Peaks of the eighties art world. The career of Jean-Michel Basquiat cashed in on both. Not surprisingly, he managed to become Warhol's protege along the way. As an added bonus, a kind of historical footnote to the cynical decade, Jean-Michel Basquiat was black--the first contemporary African-American artist to become an international star. Basquiat's black identity is manifest throughout his art. Not overtly political, his sense of what it means to be a black man in contemporary America couldn't be more clearly conveyed, whether it's in the grinning heads in "Hollywood Africans," or the poignant tribute to his idol Charlie Parker, "Charles the First" or the ironic "Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta."
Many of his stylistic trademarks are themselves a recognizable part of the continuum of well-established African-American aesthetic traditions, from the iterated drumbeat brought here by men sold into slavery, to the call and response of gospel, the repeated blues refrain, jazz's improvisational rifting, and the sampling technique of rap. Basquiat's work, with its ironic use of text--and particularly its erasure--is the visual equivalent of "signifying." As Henry Gates elucidates in his analysis of black literature, Figures in Black, "the black rhetorical tropes, subsumed under signifying, would include marking, loud-talking, testifying, calling out of one's name, sounding, rapping, playing the dozens, and so on ... Signifying is a technique of indirect argument or persuasion, a language of implication ... Repetition of a form and then inversion of the same through a process of variation...."
In Basquiat's paintings, boys never become men, they become skeletons and skulls. Presence is expressed as absence--whether it's in the spectral bodies and disembodied skulls he paints or the words he crosses out. Basquiat is obsessed with deconstructing the images and language of his fragmented world. His work is the ultimate expression of a profound sense of "no there there," a deep hole in the soul.
He had few black friends, even fewer black peers. No wonder he found his heroes in jazz geniuses like Charlie Parker. His repeated use of the copyright sign probably owes as much to Parker as to the cartoons he obsessively watched on television. (As with numerous other black musicians who were taken advantage of by the white music industry, Parker's failure to copyright his brilliant compositions cost him his royalties; the record companies profited from work which he did for the price of a recording session.) Basquiat always said he wanted to design a tombstone for Billie Holiday.
Despite the pointed racial references in his work, Basquiat was more in touch with white than with black culture. Like his father, he rarely went out with black women. His generosity toward a group of young graffiti writers was, perhaps, one way to assuage his guilt. During his lifetime, he was not embraced by African-American critics. In an essay in the Whitney catalogue for the Black Male show, Greg Tate wrote, "I remember myself and Vernon Reid being invited to Jean-Michel Basquiat's loft for a party in 1984, and not even wanting to meet the man, because he was surrounded by white people."
Like many middle-class blacks who came of age during the Civil Rights movement, Basquiat was stuck in the crack between two worlds. With the exception of being bused to one primarily white school, he never experienced racial segregation. The racism he constantly encountered was more subtle. He suffered the indignity of never being able to get a cab. He'd make a ritual act of it, jumping up and down in the street, ensuring that the driver would stop only if the artist were accompanied, as he often was, by a well-dressed white.
Basquiat felt like a bum. He pretended he came from the street, and in the end he went back to the street--for drugs. It was his way of perpetuating his feelings as a disenfranchised person--as a son, as a citizen, and as an artist. If the art world wanted to cast him as its wild child, Basquiat was happy to oblige. It is significant that one of his favorite source books included a dictionary of hobo signs--and from it he took not only symbols but poetry. ("Nothing to be gained here.") His life and career strongly parallel those of Robert Thompson, a prodigiously talented black artist who died in 1966 at the age of twenty-nine. Like Basquiat, Thompson lived for a while in the East Village, had notoriously excessive appetites, adored jazz, and was a longtime heroin addict. After his first one-man show, writes Stanley Crouch, he became "the black enfant terrible of the art world." Crouch brings him vividly to life in his essay "Meteor in a Black Hat":
His behavior, aesthetic achievements, and career successes amused, shocked, entertained, scandalized, inspired, made jealous and awed. Some describe his exoticism as contrived, his high-powered, loud and rowdy behavior as no more than a ploy... he was known for taking over places when he arrived ... and for charming his way through situations where racial animosity bucked against a short leash. Thompson is recalled as an innocent, a big kid run down on the fast track he travelled
To place Basquiat in the historical arc of African-American art, from the 1700s through the extraordinary Harlem Renaissance, from Jacob Lawrence to such outstanding contemporary artists as Marvin Puryear and David Hammons, is, in a sense, to do him the ultimate disservice. According to a friend, painter Arden Scott, "Basquiat was intent upon being a mainstream artist. He didn't want to be a black artist. He wanted to be a famous artist."
But Basquiat's celebrity owes more than a little to an almost institutionalized reverse-racism that set him apart from his peers as an art-world novelty. Says Kinshasha Conwill, director of the Studio Museum of Harlem, "Race will remain into the foreseeable future a major and usually unfortunate, issue. The fact is, it was anomalous to be an African-American and get that kind of attention for his art. Other people did exploit his race and try to make him an exotic figure."
Like all artists whose work mirrors their worlds, Basquiat reflected his--that of a black man in twentieth-century America. Few have done it as successfully. For better or worse, Jean-Michel Basquiat has become the world's most famous black artist. To take off on his painting "Famous Negro Athletes," Basquiat himself has become an icon: Famous Negro Artist. Take someone with the emotional maturity of a child who aspires to be the Charlie Parker of painting. Place him in a pressure-cooker art world where quantity matters more than quality, aggressive art dealers push prices through the roof, avaricious new collectors speculate wildly, auction houses create instant inflation, and the media magnifies the entire circus through a hyperbolic lens. Add the race card, drugs, and promiscuity at every level. Then call it the burnout of an art star.
In fact, Basquiat's brief life as an artist was a little bang that attracted its own temporary universe of powerful planets, whose orbits were in every way more constant than his own. He was, in a sense, a cipher; a black hole too dense to penetrate, whose strange gravitational pull ultimately--and predictably--caused it to implode.
The players who instantly recognized the phenomenon of Jean-Michel Basquiat and knew how to market it were older, more cynical, and ultimately easier to analyze than the lonely, alienated, and disenfranchised artist whose constant need to produce--out of his own untrammeled creativity, deep-seated desire for approval, and insatiable demand for the cash that would buy him drugs--became their ready source of profit. Basquiat was a canny, coked-out art-world Candide, with a revolving set of Panglosses, including the Ur-Pangloss of them all, Warhol. For Basquiat, dying was a way of never growing up.
The story of Jean-Michel Basquiat is not so much the study of a life as the study of a life style at a particular moment in the latter half of the twentieth century. Basquiat's life and death tread that peculiarly American line where tabloid meets tragedy. Precisely what energized his art made it impossible for him to survive the system. We live in a culture that continually cannibalizes itself; Basquiat's life is a modern-day version of Nathanael West's classic tales of culture run amok, The Day of the Locust, and, even more to the point, A Cool Million, in which Lemuel Pitkin, the American Boy who seeks success in a wildly capitalistic world, becomes a martyr when he is assassinated--after first being virtually tom limb from limb. Ironically, given his obsession with anatomy, Basquiat deconstructed himself. Perhaps his trademark erasures were his most heartfelt artistic gesture.
There will never be another artist like Basquiat. He was the last great American artist, a Hip-Hop super-hero and social bard - a Rimbaud of his time. Thankfully Reebok has issued a series of fresh shoes dedicated to his work and with his art fetching record prices he has become once again the darling enfant terrible of the art world. Only this time the rich white assholes that originally snubbed him are paying tens of millions of dollars for his work!
As Julian Schnabel wrote in his beautiful screenplay based on Basquiat's life...
"Your audience hasn't even been born yet."
Little have they known that Basquiat's work has secretly and subconsciously influenced two generations of American artists. primarily through Hip-Hop culture, a scene that Basquiat helped to create.
Hopefully his meteoric re-emergence in the art world sparks the strokes of the next great black artist.
The youth could sure use one right bout now...
Below are essential clips that illustrate how amazing Basquiat truly was. Especially his lead performance in the short film 'Downtown 81' Basquiat was only 19 at the time...
After a failed invasion of Northern Florida the Spanish conqueror and explorer Pánfilo de Nárvaez retreated back to port...
Jon-Erik Hexum was the most groundbreaking actor that you never heard of. He was discovered the old fashioned way - from struggling wai...
On a recent episode of the History channel series 'America Unearthed' forensic geologist Scott Wolter examined famous explorer M...
A MYSTERIOUS ‘giant staircase’ discovered in the Antarctic could be proof of an alien invasion, according to conspiracy theorists. Sat...
For Phil the disintegration of Thin Lizzy and the sudden separation of his wife and kids was the beginning of the end. Not that Phil was ...
Ah, the loss of the family pet is a tough one. Sam, the most kick-ass dog ever passed away this morning. He lived a long fourteen year...
Before we begin to analyze whether or not Michael Jackson faked his own death, let’s start at the beginning with his relationship with...
When NASA landed on Saturn's largest moon, Titan, it became the farthest space landing in history. Here are the actual images from th...
In the third chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses recalls how God helped the Israelites defeat Og king of Bashan and his people. The narra...
A Petroglyph that resembles the Alien from the movie E.T. the Extraterrestrial... Here are some other strange Petroglyph's from ...