a review of basquiat: a slam dance on canvas

October 13, 2010

The aesthetic is pure punk. A slam dance on canvas. Brush strokes that don’t bow to conformity or render creations anything less than wholly original. The colors, shapes and ideas suggest a disregard for expected paradigms. Traditional forms and styles are deconstructed and rendered over again, guerilla style. It’s not surprising that Jean-Michel Basquiat formed the noise band Grey in the late 1970’s, playing Max’s Kansas City and CBGB with fellow band mate, actor Vincent Gallo. Basquiat’s art is musical. There is a sound to the scribbles and color palate, redolent of yellow, red, black and blue. The singularity of this painter, squared off mistrustingly like a lone desperado of ideology and style is in your face, like punk ought to be.

A Review of Basquiat: A slam dance on Canvas
Words Camille Collins

Basquiat, the son of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, was raised in Brooklyn. From childhood he was an artist. As a teenager, he left a troubled home life before graduating high school, and first became visible through his graffiti. SAMO, an acronym for “same old shit,” became the tag which Basquiat used to sign off on his clever, philosophical slogans all over lower Manhattan. For example:

Basquiat did not appreciate being likened solely to graffiti. He was a painter in the classic sense, and refused to be considered anything less. The early 1980’s witnessed Basquiat’s rapid ascent to the heights of art world fame. A 1981 profile of the artist in Artforum entitled, The Radiant Child brought his work to the attention of a wide audience.

In 1983 he befriended and began to collaborate with Andy Warhol, in a partnership that pushed his profile even higher, and cleared the way for more opportunities to sell and promote his work. Each year of the eighties brought as much success as some people see in a decade—if ever. From ’81 to ’86 his star rapidly ascended. During this era, Basquiat headlined forty solo shows, and participated in one hundred collective exhibits. From his landmark opening at the prestigious Kestner-Gesellschaft gallery in Hanover, Germany, where he was the youngest artist to ever show, to his 1985 cover story in The New York Times magazine, he broke ground and achieved successes yet to be duplicated by any other black artist.

Whether playing a gig at CBGB or sipping champagne at exclusive galleries, Basquiat was ensconced in a primarily white world. Yet, his work demonstrates a strong black identity. His paintings pay homage to Charlie Parker, Jimmy Hendrix and Malcolm X. The triple spiked crown and halo are quintessential Basquiat symbols repeated in his narratives, in which he anoints his heroes with an angelic, mythic or martyr status. Social injustice, materialism and racism are addressed head on, with great irony and little subtlety in paintings such as Jim Crow, Irony of the Negro Policeman and Per Capita. In honoring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole and others, Basquiat drew a connection between an artistic iconography which he admired, and of which he himself eventually became a part.

It’s no secret that Basquiat relied heavily on drugs for escape, inspiration, and insulation from the predators who stole unfinished paintings from his studio at the height of his career. He died of a heroin overdose in 1988, at the age of twenty seven. Warhol had died unexpectedly the year before, and the loss of his friend and mentor hit Basquiat hard and increased his reliance on narcotics.

Like the lone black kid at a punk show that many of us have been at one point or another, Basquiat found a venue where he could scream his outrage, suspicion and rebellion towards a society which praised him as an artist, yet judged and criticized his right to spill paint on the Armani suits he liked to create in, and still made it impossible for him to hail a Manhattan cab.

Just like the seminal performers who forever changed music as we know it; Chuck Berry, Bob Marley, Jimmy Hendrix or Charlie Patton, Basquiat gave American art, and the aspirations of other brilliant black artists who wield paint brushes the way drug lords wield guns (with reckless precision and bravado), a new identity and aesthetic.

In his search for truth; about himself, about life and being black, we learn from him as we too search ourselves, and find the inspiration to pursue our own calling.