Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Jean-Michel Basquiat


The only thing the art market likes better than a hot young artist is a dead hot young artist, and it got one in Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose working life of about nine years was truncated by a heroin overdose at the age of twenty-seven. His career in the mid 80’s, both actual and posthumous, appealed to a cluster of toxic vulgarities. First, the racist idea of the black as naif or rhythmic innocent, and of the black artist as "instinctual," someone outside "mainstream" culture and therefore not to be rated in its terms: a wild pet for the recently cultivated collector. Second, was a fetish about the freshness of youth, blooming among the discos of the East Side scene. Third, guilt and political correctness, which made curators and collectors nervous about judging the work of any black artist who could be presented as a "victim." And finally, art-investment mania!!!

Basquiat's career was incubated by the short-lived graffiti movement, which started on the streets and subway cars in the early 1970s, peaked, fell out of view, began all over again in the 1980s, peaked again, and finally receded, leaving Basquiat and the amusingly facile Keith Haring as its only memorable exponents. Unlike Haring, however, Basquiat never tagged the subways. Basquiat was born in
Brooklyn, New York. His mother, Matilde, was Puerto Rican and his father, Gerard Basquiat is of Haitian origin and a former Haitian Minister of the Interior. Because of his parents' nationalities, Basquiat was fluent in French, Spanish, and English from an early age. He read in these languages, including Symbolist poetry, mythology, and history.

At an early age, Basquiat displayed an aptitude for art and was encouraged by his mother to draw, paint and to participate in other art-related activities. He had a precocious success with his paintings from the start. The key was not that they were "primitive," but that they were so arty. Having no art training, he never tried to deal with the real world through drawing; he could only scribble and jot, rehearsing his own stereotypes, his pictorial nouns for "face" or "body" over and over again. Consequently, though Basquiat's images look quite vivid and sharp at first sight, and though from time to time he could bring off an intriguing passage of spiky marks or a brisk clash of blaring color, the work quickly settles into the visual monotony of arid overstyling.

By 1982, Basquiat was showing regularly, and alongside
Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi, became part of what was called the Neo-expressionist movement. He started dating an aspiring and then-unknown performer named Madonna in the fall of 1982. That same year, Basquiat met Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated extensively in 1984-6, forging a close, if strained, friendship. He was also briefly involved with artist David Bowes.

By 1984, many of Basquiat's friends were concerned about his excessive
drug use and increasingly erratic behavior, including signs of paranoia. Basquiat had developed a very serious cocaine and heroin habit by this point, which started from his early years living among the junkies and street artists in New York's underground. On February 10, 1985, Basquiat appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in a feature entitled "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist". As Basquiat's international success heightened, his works were shown in solo exhibitions across Europe and the USA.

Andy Warhol's death in 1987 was very distressing for Basquiat, and it is speculated by Phoebe Hoban, in her 1998 biography on the artist, that Warhol's death was a turning point for Basquiat, and that afterwards his drug addiction and depression began to spiral. Basquiat died accidentally of mixed-drug toxicity (he had been combining cocaine and heroin, often using cocaine to stay up all night painting and then using heroin in the morning to fall asleep) at his
57 Great Jones Street loft/studio in 1988, several days before what would have been Basquiat's second trip to the Côte d'Ivoire. Basquiat's paintings continue to influence modern-day artists and sell for high prices.

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