Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Aug 14, 2005 11:31 pm 
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"Basquiat on view at the Brooklyn Museum March 11 through June 5, 2005

with Over 100 Works By Celebrated Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

Sponsored by JPMorgan Chase

Media preview Thursday, March 10, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m."



The show was what I was most looking forward on this March-to-April 2005 trip to New York, and it was even better than I might have thought.

I don't know what I can really say... The first thing to say is that the impact of the show blew me away, because I've never seen more than a handful of Basquiats at once, and here were two big floors of a big museum, and Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker this show's missing some of Basquiat's best paintings, but there are a lot of big ones, and they 're brilliant paintings, with a lot of depth, wonderful color, completely original (while embodying, and transcending, many of the traditions of twentieth-century art -- primitivism, art brut, African art, cubism, expressionism, conceptual art, painting-as sculpture and sculpture-as-painting), and above all -- overwhelming most of the competition in this as in genius and fertility of imagination and sheer volcanic creative energy -- passionate, angry, committed, and saturated in the artist's highly personal sense of identity -- while also transcending that identity and moving into the world of the universal.

Why has it taken eighteen years since Basquiat's death to mount such a full-scale exhibition in his hometown -- and home borough?

As usual, though I've been a big fan for years now, though I knew of Basquiat's existence since the early Eighties when he first became famous, and I remember in the mid-Eighties an artist friend saying she liked him (and wondering snobbishly if that meant his work was just eye candy), I really had no idea of his importance. This exhibition, which will travel on afterward to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (July 17-October 10, 2005) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (November 18, 2005-February 12, 2006), declares that Basquiat has emerged as one of the major artists of the twentieth century, and they're right. The power of his work grows with time. One sees the dynamism of his talent. Schjeldahl says he peaked in 1982 (at twenty-two!). But the show proves that in '83, '84, on to '88 when he died at 27, he was continuing to do fabulous work. It's true that personal problems and drugs (which exacerbated them) were pulling him down, and Andy Warhol's death shocked him, but it's just romantic mythologizing to insist that he was like Rimbaud and was burnt out at twenty-seven. A painter of Basquiat's level of genius and energy could have gone on till his old age, like Picasso.

A genius artist is an artist of great, unique talent. It's also a person with an extraordinary calling, focus, energy. Basquiat had all that. He had an aura about him. Everyone confirms this. He was possessed; he was elsewhere; he was driven. At the same time he was handsome, sexy, charming and charismatic. That doesn't hurt either.

The paintings reproduce well, but you have to see them in person to fully appreciate how beautiful and rich as paintings they are. It also helps to see a lot of Basquiat's drawings at the same time to see the extraordinary way he integrated drawing into painting. Children draw. Boys especially draw jokes, figures, airplanes, robots, monsters, playing with intricate lines. There's no step when Basquiat became a "grownup" artist, setting aside boyish images. He integrated the boyish images into his way of seeing as an adult, remaining completely in touch with his origins in childhood emotions and imagination. This is one of the chief sources of his strength as an artist. There are no disconnects. It's all there. There's no sense of a selected style or persona: he just expresses himself, skillfully "stealing" whatever he needed along the way from other artists.

Because Basquiat looks like a graffiti artist and an obsessive, didactic draftsman, it comes as a surprise with great impact in a big show like this to realize that he's a fantastic colorist, and over a huge range so it's hard to pin down. He can be original and tricky with neutral grays, his blacks are velvety, dramatic, and rich, many of his images dance across big white fields, his use of earth tones and reds is beautiful, and he has a wonderful feel for blues. With his color Basquiat shows typically how his work is both harsh and pleasing. His images provide delight because they're funny, puzzling, intricate, unique. And to the linearity in the paintings is added a considerable depth, so there's an interplay of colors and planes.

But however sophisticated and ironic his "messages" are, they're also a challenge to colonizers, western capitalists, and white people. The social and political issues, the stories of Jim Crow exploitation or murder, countries exploited for their oil, sugar, cotton, gold, the celebration of great black boxers, or jazz musicians, the anger, anger, anger -- all that is the currency Basquiat deals in, because his work is never abstract or pure aesthetics, but passion and a sense of wrong. But again, it's also always a record of joyful exploration of visual possibilities: freedom. Each drawing or painting is a discovery of something new to see and touch. His works are glorious tactile objects, dripping, bristling, rocking, dangling before us with chunks of wood, frayed edges of canvas, thick wedged nails, big panels of doors, crates or boxes, collage, silk screen, oil stick lines, shapes drawn and words etched deep with sure hand in a thick layer of paint. There's no richer physicality in the paintings of any other twentieth-century artist in the sheer variety of textures and gestures. These objects jump out at you, but they're also ultimately pleasing. They're not what you imagined you'd want to have in your bedroom or living room, but you wish you could take them home. Isn't it the fact that it's a joy and a pleasure to own and thereby be able to live with a Basquiat that partly explains why the prices paid for his paintings keep climbing up and up?

Yet it's also humbling and a bit depressing for an artist to see that you're not Basquiat any more than you're Magic Johnson or Muhammad Ali or Bill Rogers: this guy was on a whole other level that it's impossible even to imagine. If you try to imagine how to be Basqiuat, you can't, and it seems maybe like a trick, a fraud. But it's not: it's genius, and the proof is this show in 2005 at the Brooklyn Museum.

--Wednesday, March 30, 2005.

Brooklyn Museum Exhibition introduction.
"untitled (skull)," 1984 from Wikipedia

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