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Art & artists

Street cred – the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat

— September 2015

Associated media

Jean-Michel Basquiat, page 147 of Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks  Collection of Larry Warsh/© Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved/Licensed by Artestar

Alexander Adams looks at a selection of books about one of America’s most distinctive artists

The current enthusiasm for, and market recognition of, Street Art is not new. By 1980, New York City had a new art star who was blurring the boundary between graffiti and fine art: Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–88). Four recent publications cover different aspects of Basquiat’s prodigious output of over 600 paintings and 1,500 drawings (or 1,000 and 2,000 respectively, according to whose tally you trust), all produced in a career of less than ten years.

Basquiat was a child of middle-class Haitian and Puerto Rican parents and had a dislocated childhood and adolescence. Living in Brooklyn, Basquiat dropped out of school and gravitated to the underground music scene in New York clubs, where he performed as a musician and DJ. He began as an artist by customizing clothing and making small pieces that combined graffiti, Pop art and fine art in a distinctive type of folk art. He was part of the graffiti scene, using the moniker ‘SAMO©’ appended to droll non-sequiturs and disconcerting silhouettes, though this period as a maker of ‘unauthorised public art’ ended as soon as Basquiat’s art started attracting the attention of  collectors, critics and gallerists in 1980. From that point on he spent more time in the studio than on the street. A whirlwind international career and great riches ended with a death caused by a drug overdose in 1988. Basquiat was 27 years old.

Basquiat’s life was so mythologized during his lifetime and after his death that it is sometimes hard to view his art honestly. Basquiat was an intelligent and streetwise individual who knew how to market himself. Anecdotes about his turning up to vernissages in paint-spattered Armani suits and battered sneakers, pockets stuffed with $100 bills, were not solely the result of a chaotic private life; they sold the artist as a genuinely distinctive figure. Basquiat knew about and to some degree participated in the myth-making.  

The collision of paint, drawn lines, writing and collage echo the riotous imagery and juxtaposition of disparate references. The written word plays an important role in not only conveying meaning but also acting as visual pattern. Words become marks. Hence lists and diagrams become pictorial components divorced from their verbal components. Among references to popular culture, brands and music, there appear fragments of science, history and maps. Precisely how much of this knowledge was internalized and synthesized, and how much simply plucked at random from books to hand, is impossible to say. So much of the art is deadpan and that leaves us guessing about how literally to take the references. While that ability to keep viewers wrong-footed is stimulating, it can also distract us and undermine Basquiat’s more heartfelt efforts to communicate non-ironically. Racial politics was a central theme in his art.

In attempting to consider Basquiat as a serious artist, it is too easy for writers to fall into the trap of treating all Basquiat’s art in an equally solemn tone. One of Basquiat’s strengths was his range not only of reference but also of register. In his art, Basquiat is often laconic, punning, meditative and outright funny. When we see the grit and the gravity we can respond to it, but to seek it in even the most frivolous of pieces diminishes his art by simplifying it. Taking Basquiat seriously does not mean reducing his art to a single anguished howl.  

Now is the Time is a catalogue for an exhibition in the Art Gallery of Ontario, held in 2015. Of the four titles in this review, it is the best general survey of Basquiat. It includes work from 1980 up until Riding with Death (1988), a majestic, sparse masterpiece of his last months. Included are drawings, collages and screenprints, all on a variety of supports. Basquiat worked not only on traditional paper and canvas, but also gimcrack constructions of planks and batons stretched with tarpaulin. He used any and every available surface: walls, doors, sheets, foam rubber, tyres, refrigerators… 

The catalogue is divided thematically. Each section deals with a different aspect of Basquiat’s artistic character: ‘Heroes’, ‘Provocations’, ‘Mirrors’, ‘Dualities’, etc. As these definitions are so fluid – and Basquiat’s art so dense and elusive – the selected works could be subdivided many different ways, which is one of the pleasures of his art. It is impossible to fix exact meanings to his paintings because they contain so much, all the time submitting to the demands of the painter’s aesthetic concerns and proclivities. A thoughtful introduction by Dieter Burchhart is followed by extensive illustrations, short essays by other writers and a handy chronology. There is no bibliography.

Basquiat and the Bayou presents art that connects the artist to the black American culture of the Deep South and is a catalogue for a 2014 exhibition held at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans. Food, culture, sport and especially the jazz music of New Orleans influenced the artist, though he only made one visit to New Orleans. Record sleeves feature in Basquiat’s paintings and reflect the fact he listened to jazz while painting. Two essays examine Basquiat’s art in the context of the pervasive black culture that emanated from the southern states. Though the exhibition consisted of only 25 paintings, they are very strong paintings – perhaps the boldest and most dramatic of all of the illustrations in these four volumes. 

Two publications cover Basquiat’s notebooks – and these are notebooks rather than sketchbooks. Readers expecting to encounter studies, sketches and scribbles will be disappointed. The notebooks, cheap school exercise books purchased from drugstores, are filled with writing and have almost no drawings. In stylized handwriting, the artist recorded random thoughts, snatches of conversation, pithy tales of city life, in a manner that could be called prose poems and street aphorisms. Some of the phrases made appearances in his paintings.

The Notebooks (Princeton University Press) reproduces in one volume eight books and a few loose pages in the collection of Larry Warsh. It is in facsimile, unpaginated, at a size  identical to the originals, and with rounded corners. Paper stock is similar to exercise-book paper and even blank pages are included. It gives the uncanny impression of handling the originals.

The Unknown Notebooks (Skira Rizzoli) is the catalogue for Brooklyn Museum display of these notebooks. In addition to reproducing a selection of pages, the book includes independent drawings and paintings featuring words tangentially related to the notebooks. One essay discusses Basquiat’s writing as a modernist/Beat poetry. The repetition of words is the visual equivalent of record scratching by a DJ or of song lyrics, as a number of writers note.

For information, context and comparative illustrations the Skira Rizzoli publication is best; for the experience of handling the original books the Princeton UP publication is best. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time edited by Dieter Burchhart is published by DelMonico Books/Prestel/Art Gallery of Ontario, 2015. 228pp., 150 illus, £29.99/$49.95. ISBN 978 3 7913 5457 6

Basquiat and the Bayou  by Franklin Sirmans is published by  DelMonico Books/Prestel/Prospect New Orleans/Helis Foundation, 2014. 112pp, 58 illus, £22.50/$34.95 (hbk). ISBN 978 3 7913 5404 0

Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks  edited by Dieter Burchhart and Tricia Laughlin Bloom is published by  Skira Rizzoli/Brooklyn Museum, 2015, HB/PB, 246pp, fully illus. + 1 fold-out, $50.00 (hbk)/$39.95 (pbk). ISBN 978 0 8478 4582 8 (hbk)

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks  edited by Larry Warsh is published by Princeton University Press, 2015, HB, 304pp, 160 illus, £19.95/$29.95. ISBN 97806 911 67893



Alexander Adams
Writer and artist

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