Staggering Output, Then Death

Brooklyn’s Basquiat retrospective makes it clear the artist knew he was was due better

“It’s about 80% anger.” But there’s also humor? “People laugh when you fall on your ass. What’s humor?” Jean-Michel Basquiat, Interview magazine 1983

It seems hard to believe that it was only 20-odd years ago that the incendiary figure Jean-Michel Basquiat burst onto the very happening downtown arts scene.

Barely in his 20s, a son of Brooklyn’s middle class with both black and Puerto Rican lineage, Basquiat was a no-wave jazz musician (the band Gray), an independent film star (“Downtown 81”), an incredibly talented international art sensation (among the youngest artists shown at “Documenta 7” in Kassel, Germany), a night club habitué and a functioning drug addict.

Basquiat’s neo-expressionist paintings illuminated the art world. No cool New York minimalism, here was bright, fast, frantic, confident painting. I remember the impact this insolent young man’s work left on me. He dealt with the black experience, discrimination, questions of value and social mores; his amazing talent and energy were instantly recognizable as a new voice in the art world. He had a punk disregard for the art object; walking on the paintings, smoking on the work, doing coke while scratching on the surface with a stick. Dirt, footprints, blood—the disregard with which he treated his work can today be seen as a metaphor for his life.

The sheer quantity of his artistic output in the years 1981 –1983 is staggering.

Along with the instant recognition of the art world came the trappings of fame in the ‘80s—cash, excess, greed, cynicism. By 22, he was best friends with Andy Warhol, who, recognizing the new energy and needing him to stay current, latched on to Basquiat, who in turn was star-struck. Their artistic collaborations were less than stellar. For Basquiat, the world was now Mr. Chow’s, Cristal Champagne, tens of thousands of dollars worth of cocaine and reefer, Armani suits, SoHo lofts and magazine covers.

The current retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum (there was one at the Whitney soon after his death) covers his entire painting career, here dated from 1980 to 1988. The hundred-plus art works are simply astounding—and tragic—to view today. His work that once seemed so new has become part of our visual vocabulary and some stasis has set in. His indebtedness to Cy Twombly is evident throughout his career, particularly in the early work. His way of investing marks with much deeper meaning by including ambiguous text is everywhere apparent. His originality and his ideas about the black experience in the white art world, mistreatment of African Americans and discrimination make clear that Basquiat always realized he deserved better.

By the mid 80s, as his drug use turned increasingly to heroin, the alienation and isolation of addiction set in. His output was lower, the quality faltered. By 27, he was dead, putting him in the rock star league of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, who also died prematurely. This was a tragic end for an artist whose outstanding talent and raw emotional power distinguish his work from most others of his generation.

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