Jean-Michel Basquiat, the quintessential ’80s neo-expressionist painter
whose retrospective opens at MOCA Grand Avenue this weekend, was the closest thing
to a bona fide dyed-in-the-wool art star to appear since his friend and collaborator
Andy Warhol turned celebrity into a medium unto itself and rendered the whole
concept of fame for fame’s sake an automatic cliché. All Basquiat had to do was
die a rock-star death, OD’ing on heroin in 1988 at the age of 27. Since then —
despite wild fluctuations in the art market as well as his critical reputation
— Basquiat’s star has continued to rise, with auction prices in the gazillions,
street cred out the wazoo, and a star-studded and surprisingly well-received biopic
that incidentally transformed Julian Schnabel from art-world pariah to indie auteur.
It didn’t hurt that the artist left behind a massive body of work in the hands
of ’80s art-boom collectors eager to protect their investment, but any finger-pointing
cries of exploitation have to take into account Basquiat’s relentless self-commodification.
Luck and timing had a lot to do with it. By the late ’70s, the New York art world
had grown tired of graphite grids of numbers (not to mention such zany notions
as feminism, rent control and artists’ health-insurance collectives) and was actively
working to reinstate a star system based on decadent flamboyance and rebelliously
accessible picture-making. At the same time, the pale white skin and ivory-tower
isolation of the blue-chip population became increasingly glaring — enter Mr.
Basquiat, a token waiting to be validated. Young, black and gifted, an exotic
Creole blend of Haitian and Puerto Rican ancestry, Basquiat first gained notoriety
as half of the opaquely literate graffiti crew known as SAMO, deploying messages
like “SAMO as an alternative 2 playing art with the ‘radical chic’ sect on Daddy’s
$ funds.”
At times, he was said to be living in a cardboard box in Tompkins Square Park,
or indentured in his white female dealer’s cellar. At the same time, he could
be seen deejaying in trendy East Village clubs, running with Warhol’s stripped-down
post-gutter Factory crowd, playing in a no-wave band with Vincent Gallo, consuming
superhuman quantities of pharmaceuticals, and dating a large chunk of Manhattan
including pre-fame Madonna — though if everyone who claims to have slept with
Basquiat actually had, there wouldn’t have been much time left for actual painting.
Which clearly there was. All of Basquiat’s careering would have amounted to so much social frittering if he hadn’t produced something of substance, and in fact part of his legend consists of his enormous productivity over the brief span of his barely eight-year-long career. What hasn’t been clear is the significance of the work apart from the salacious tabloid gossip and the smoke and mirrors of market-driven canonization. Major critics like Robert Hughes and Hilton Kramer have dismissed Basquiat as an outright fraud, while others have gushed romantical over the artist’s heroic journey from the dark side and back. More often, writers have straddled the fence or switched their story with the prevailing wisdom. Thankfully, Angelenos who didn’t see the show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, where I did, finally have a chance to form their own opinions with the generous sampling — more than 100 paintings and drawings — on display at MOCA beginning Sunday.
One of the first things to strike the viewer is the awkward fit of the “graffiti
art” label. Although his SAMO epigrams were — technically speaking — graffiti,
they were almost entirely textual and rendered in completely legible block lettering,
owing nothing to the calligraphic traditions of Wildstyle piecework. And while
Basquiat’s — ahem —mature art objects incorporate the immediacy of illegal
street art, they actually display considerably greater visual spontaneity than
the often carefully rehearsed graffiti bombing patterns, recalling some combination
of the Lascaux cave and the whiteboards of Dr. Gene Scott as much as a handball
court decorated by the artist Futura 2000. Conversely, in his most elaborate paintings
Notary, for example, or Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta,
or any of the other multipanel works from 1983 — Basquiat achieves a density of
graphic information similar to a graffiti wall built up over time by many artists.
This is a disquieting insight if you realize such works amount to heavily marked
scorecards of aggressive territorial pissing contests — with only one pisser.
Untitled (Two Headson Gold) (1982)

The sense of almost schizophrenic conflict is a continuous motif throughout
Basquiat’s oeuvre. His relationship to the art establishment and European art
history — as a black man and an artist with allegiances to the collective urban
visual language of the disenfranchised — only grew more complex and unwieldy with
his astronomical success. Ironically, the more he tried to disrupt his remarkable
formal facility in color, line and composition with the incorporation of crappy
supports and materials, aggressive street primitivism, and overt references to
slavery and racist stereotypes, the more successful the work became. This exhibit,
which originated at the Brooklyn Museum, embodies an even more complicated degree
of assimilation than the 1993 Whitney retrospective. Basquiat — who encouraged
his own portrayal as a naive ghetto savant — was the middle-class son of a thriving
Brooklyn accountant, and his mother enrolled him as a junior member of the Brooklyn
Museum at the age of 6.
Given the outcome, it’s tempting to interpret Basquiat’s crash and burn as the
logical outcome of these escalating schisms. But there are other, less obvious
conflicts at play in the work — the recurring obsessive cataloging of parts (anatomical
fragments, electronic components, fractional vocabularies) to a never-completed
whole, and — certainly not least — the artist’s seething love-hate relationship
with words and pictorial symbols. These are more fundamentally human — less politically
and socially mediated — contradictions that don’t translate easily into victimization
With a biography as mythically charged as Basquiat’s, it’s too easy to
lose sight of the actual art. That’s why it’s so important to see the work in
person — not only for the tremendous amount of visual subtleties that only reveal
themselves to the naked eye, but to experience the falling away of analysis and
speculation in the face of such a powerful record of willed creative activity.
Even with late works like Pegasus (1987), in which verbal language seems
to have obliterated human imagery, or Riding With Death (1988), where the
opposite is true, Basquiat seems to have been able to acknowledge and transform
— if not resolve — his many inconsistencies into a fundamental affirmation of
life. And it doesn’t matter if you’re weaving kente cloth or painting Guernica,
that’s what great art is all about.
BASQUIAT | MOCA Grand Avenue, 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown | July 17 – October 10 | Members’ opening July 16 includes a performance by DJ Grandmaster Flash | Extended hours: MOCA open Saturdays until midnight through October 10

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