THE ART OF JEAN-MI­CHEL BAS­QUIAT

Iti­né­raire et oeuvre de Jean-Mi­chel Bas­quiat

Vocable (Anglais) - - Peinture - OLI­VIA LAING

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.”

RUP­TURES

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).

AN­DY WA­RHOL

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?

(The Times/News Syn­di­ca­tion/SI­PA)

Jean-Mi­chel Bas­quiat at the I.C.A. gal­le­ry ahead of his first Lon­don show, De­cem­ber 1984.

Un­tit­led (1982) by Jean-Mi­chel Bas­quiat. (Es­tate of Jean-Mi­chel Bas­quiat. Li­cen­sed by Ar­tes­tart, New York.)

(Es­tate of Jean-Mi­chel Bas­quiat. Li­cen­sed by Ar­tes­tart, New York)

Un­tit­led (1982) by Bas­quiat, the most ex­pen­sive art­work by an Ame­ri­can ar­tist at auc­tion.

Un­tit­led (Boxer) (1982) by Bas­quiat. (Es­tate of Jean-Mi­chel Bas­quiat. Li­cen­sed by Ar­tes­tart, New York)

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