Jean Michel Basquiat: Mass Productions

“Basquiat has absorbed every trick in contemporary painting's book at an astoundingly early age. He's so precocious he's practically old before his time”


Mass Productions
March 23, 1982

OPEC isn’t the only world community with an oil glut these days. To anyone walking through Soho this week, the sense of overproduction is overwhelming. Maybe artists with waiting lists should have their paintbrushes taken away for a while. David Salle, certainly one of the best artists of his generation, is distracting us from this fact with an endless three-ring show at Castelli South and Mary Boones East and West. Surprisingly short on really good paintings, it seems more a statement of territoriality than anything else. I don’t even mind the lapses in quality — it’s interesting to see an artist as good as Salle push at his ideas and not be afraid to flounder. But I do mind the scale of pres­entation, which verges on the corporate. Discretion isn’t only the better part of valor.

Of course, where production figures in, shows which don’t make any mistakes can be even more boring. Jean-Michel Bas­quiat first made his name as the graffiti artist-poet Samo, whose observations about the state of the world have amused and provoked New Yorkers, at least down­town ones, for the last few years. I always thought Samo was some frustrated older artist who hadn’t made it in the system and was taking his revenge with his excep­tional graphic and verbal skill. Wrong, or at least partly wrong.

Basquiat is only 22 years old and, hav­ing turned from masonry to canvas sur­faces, he seems to be having little trouble joining the system. But in a way I was right: Basquiat has absorbed every trick in contemporary painting’s book at an astoundingly early age. He’s so precocious he’s practically old before his time and his sensibility seems very European, also in an old vein. In a word, it turns out that graffiti art can have the hell domesticated out of it. This art seems made for a museum — it has the same imitative primitiveness that I associate with Art Brut, the same roughed-up perfection that comes from savvy imitation.

The paintings are large, usually with big apelike heads or figures — King Kong/Space Man hieroglyphs fraught with echo­ing outlines — rising from a dense rubble of scumbled paint, drips and scribbles, most of which remain largely decorative. It’s hard to dislike them, but I keep coming back to how old and tame and well-put-­together they seem. Almost every canvas offers a seven-course painting that is done to perfection. The sense that they couldn’t take another mark, word, or smear looks at first fascinating, then calcifying, for it becomes an aspect of their illustrational stylishness. They’re too perfect to be as raw as they pretend. Plus, the drawing and colors get really monotonous. After a while, it all starts to look like great graphic design — trompe l’oeil graffiti meets trompe l’oeil painting, as effective on a billboard as in a spread of New York maga­zine.

Finally, we do come up against Bas­quiat’s youth in the assumption that sheer graphic talent, driving, streetwise belief in self-expression, and a working knowledge of painting’s many wonderful tricks are all that is required. These have gotten him someplace, but, so far, not far enough.

(Annina Nosei, 100 Prince Street, 431-9253, through March 31)