THE ART OF JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT
Itinéraire et oeuvre de Jean-Michel Basquiat
Ce mois-ci, la Fondation Louis Vuitton accueille l’un des évènements les plus attendus de cette année : l’exposition Jean-Michel Basquiat. Artiste emblématique du New York underground décédé à seulement vingt-sept ans à l’apogée de sa gloire, Basquiat a marqué l’art contemporain avec ses tableaux avant-gardistes – jusqu’à devenir l’un des artistes les plus chers de l’histoire aux côtés de Picasso. Portrait d’une icône au destin fulgurant.
In the spring of 1982, a rumour started swilling around New York. The gallerist Annina Nosei had some kind of boy genius locked in her basement, a black kid, wild and inscrutable as Kaspar Hauser, making masterpieces out of nowhere to the accompaniment of Ravel’s Boléro. “Oh Christ”, Jean-Michel Basquiat said when he heard. “If I was white, they would just call it an artist-in-residence.”
2. These were the kind of rumours he had to work against, but also the deliberate myth he constructed about himself, part canny bid for stardom, part protective veil. Basquiat was 22 by then, and could make up out of the whole cloth of his childhood experience all kinds of patchworked, piecemeal selves, playing off people’s expectations of what a grubby, dreadlocked, half-Haitian, half-Puerto Rican young man might be capable of.
A GRAFFITI ARTIST
3. He had come to prominence as a graffiti artist, part of the duo SAMO, short for same old shit, who bombed the doors and walls of the Lower East Side with enigmatic phrases. The paintings started coming right at the moment that the East Village transformed from a burned-out wasteland inhabited by heroin addicts to the epicentre of a startling art boom. There was a marketable glamour to being a down-and-out prodigy then, but it was an act for Basquiat.
4. He was a street kid, true, a teen runaway who had slept on benches in Tompkins Square Park, but he was also a handsome privileged boy from a Park Slope brownstone who had
gone to private school, followed by a stint at City-As-School, a destination for gifted children. Though he didn’t have a formal art education, he and his mother Matilde had been frequenting museums since he was a toddler. As his girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk recalled of a trip to MoMA, “Jean knew every inch of that museum, every painting, every room. I was astonished at his knowledge and intelligence and at how twisted and unexpected his observations could be.”
5. All the same, there were ruptures. His parents separated when he was eight. That year, a car hit him while he was playing basketball in the street. He spent a month in hospital with a broken arm and internal injuries so severe his spleen had to be removed. As a boy he made cartoons of Hitchcock films, but in 1977 he graduated to making his mark on the skin of New York itself.
6. A bebop insurgent, he travelled the nocturnal city with a spray-can in his overcoat pocket, attacking in particular the high art zone of Soho and the Lower East Side. “ORIGIN OF COTTON,” he wrote on a wall in front of a factory in his distinctively loose-jointed capitals; “SAMO AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO PLASTIC FOOD STANDS”. The statements were so totally poised in their assault on art-world inanities that observers believed they were by a disaffected conceptual artist, someone already famous. In 1980, a boom year, he was mostly homeless and penniless, picking up girls from clubs so he had somewhere to spend the night. He showed his work for the first time in the scene-defining Times Square Show, which also featured Kenny Scharf, Jenny Holzer and Kiki Smith.
AN ATTACK ON RACISM
7. “Everything he did was an attack on racism and I loved him for this,” Mallouk says in Widow Basquiat, the poetic account of their
shared life by Jennifer Clement. After Basquiat, Mallouk became involved with another young artist, Michael Stewart, who in 1983 was arrested and beaten into a coma by three police officers after graffitiing a subway station wall. He died 13 days later. The officers, who claimed Stewart had a heart attack, were charged with criminally negligent homicide, assault and perjury but found not guilty by an all-white jury. “It could have been me,” Basquiat said, and set about painting Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart).
8. All the time, Basquiat was becoming more successful, more wealthy and famous. And yet he still couldn’t reliably hail a cab in the street. Fine: limos instead. He bought expensive wines, Armani suits to paint in, like any artist who has suddenly made it big, yet the anecdotes about his spending were passed on with a casual glaze of racism, as if there was something unusually revealing about his appetites. It was lonely, he was lonely, the only black man in the room, his prodigy status like that of a toy. “They’re just racist, most of those people,” he’s quoted as saying in Dieter Buchhart’s Now’s the Time (Prestel).
9. One of his closest friends in the years of his success was Andy Warhol. The first time Warhol mentioned Basquiat in his diary, on 4 October 1982, was as “one of those kids who drive me crazy”. It didn’t take long, though, before they were embroiled in a full-blown friend-romance, among the most intimate and lasting of both their lives. They collaborated on more than 140 paintings (this fertile partnership ended in 1985, after Basquiat was stung by a bad review of their joint show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery), worked out and went to parties, had manicures and talked on the phone for hours.
10. There was nothing heroic or glamorous about Basquiat’s addiction. It came with the usual detritus: hitting girlfriends, accruing debts, falling out with beloved friends. He tried to stop but couldn’t, and in the end he died in the apartment he rented from Warhol on Great Jones Street, of acute mixed drug intoxication. In its obituary, the New York Times observed that Warhol’s death the preceding year “removed one of the few reins on Mr Basquiat’s mercurial behaviour and appetite for narcotics”.
11. These days Basquiat is among the most expensive artists in the world; these days his images are franchised, replicated everywhere from Urban Decay blusher pots to Reebok trainers. You could scorn the commercialisation, but isn’t it what he wanted, to colour every surface with his runes?
Jean-Michel Basquiat at the I.C.A. gallery ahead of his first London show, December 1984.
Untitled (1982) by Basquiat, the most expensive artwork by an American artist at auction.