To Hell and Back


Call it a seventh sense. Certain artists intuit that they’re going to die young, so they produce large bodies of work in condensed periods of time. They catch fire quickly, blaze brightly, then are gone. Neither Eva Hesse nor Robert Smithson, Gordon Matta-Clark nor Keith Haring lived past 35. Jean-Michel Basquiat died at 27. No one has yet determined the speed of art. Basquiat’s was lightning.

But fast and furious by themselves are not enough when it comes to art. There has to be an unexplained and original edge to this velocity and ferocity, an element that transforms desperation and desire into something new and compelling. Basquiat had this element. He didn’t want painting to only be looked at. He wanted it to function in the ways that it did a thousand years ago: as a sacramental or talismanic object, something that had the shamanic power to change lives, protect cities, or perform magic. This sounds like pseudo-religious romantic claptrap, but it’s borne out in the uneasy ways his bumpy paintings adorn walls, occupy space, and are constructed. Made on doors, fences, and other supports, they are presented not as paintings so much as banners, standards, and shields, things meant to be carried into battle, posted as warnings, or planted in graveyards.

Critics have disparaged Basquiat’s work as “neoconservative” and “juvenile” and implied that he was overly interested in history. But Basquiat wasn’t just interested in history—he wanted to breed with, butcher, and avenge it. Engaged in a ritualistic act of historical restitution, he crossed the black diaspora with pop culture, religion, and drugs. Basquiat emerged at a time when many artists engaged in regressive painting strategies, and his art has many earmarks of ’80s neo-expressionism. His paintings can be grating and garish. In the otherwise excellent catalog for this show, disingenuous attempts are made to separate Basquiat from his peers. Basquiat did not act alone. His art was a collision of ’80s ideas, ’70s conceptualism, graffiti, Twombly, and Dubuffet. Disturbingly, Basquiat is often branded with the “primitive” label. This is nothing less than the “noble savage” myth retold by new white bwanas. Basquiat was precocious and black, not “primitive.”

He was also wildly uneven. Some of his work looks like junk. Yet to me he’s less about individual works than an overarching “voice.” In the same way that you can hear pain in every note that Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, or Roy Orbison sang, or in everything that Miles Davis or Charlie Parker played, you can discern a stinging aspiration in every inch of Basquiat’s work. Like Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday, neither of whom possessed technically accomplished voices, Basquiat’s voice was limited but extraordinarily expressive and individualistic.

The Brooklyn Museum’s outstanding two-floor retrospective doesn’t capture the full drama of that voice. Instead, it lays out his work systematically and spaciously. As told here, Basquiat emerged rough but ready, not fully formed but fully loaded. Then he rapidly mutated, developing continually. From the start he had his own pictorial ideas, a distinctive graphic sensibility, an astute if gaudy sense of color, a way with words, and a genius for materials. By the time he died, his hand-built surfaces vibrated with energy and something prophetic. Received wisdom says he peaked in 1982. This year and 1983 were years of artistic grace for Basquiat. But the work from 1987 and ’88 is more integrated and probing. In these “later” pieces, words and pictures form seamless intoxicating wholes and feel like the last will and testament of a frenzied poet-historian-alchemist.

Julian Schnabel’s schmaltzy Basquiat gets the bio right. He was born in Brooklyn in 1960 to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother. He drew as a child and read English, Spanish, and French by the time he was seven. At eight he made cartoon books based on Hitchcock films. At 16 he created a persona named Samo and began writing poems. In 1977 he started painting these on the D train. When he was 18 an article about Samo appeared in this paper. In 1981 he had his first one-man show and Rene Ricard wrote an article in Artforum about him (and Keith Haring) titled “The Radiant Child.” Less than seven years later he died of a heroin overdose in the building he rented from his sometime painting partner and longtime admirer Andy Warhol. In eight years Basquiat had gone from street kid to art star to the grave.

Good or bad, Basquiat was a shot of adrenaline into the then shriveled art world. He was a pioneering architect of hip-hop culture and a stiletto to the heart of the white establishment. Ricard hyperbolically called him “the soul of the art world.” Whatever he was, his paintings of words are words of warning; his pictures are mystic proclamations about past black champions and heroes. Hip-hop founder Afrika Bambaataa has talked about “setting history on fire by adding a fifth element.” That’s what Basquiat did in his short time on earth and why he still matters.

[email protected]