Basquiat: A dar­ling of pop cul­ture, but not mu­se­ums

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Jean-Michel Basquiat en­joys a strato­spheric fol­lowingear­lier this year, a 1982 oil paint­ing by the late 20th cen­tury great be­came the most ex­pen­sive work by a US artist ever sold at auc­tion. But 29 years af­ter his death, his legacy is largely a tri­umph of pop­u­lar cul­ture over mu­se­ums, which have been ac­cused of down­play­ing his stature.

New York is where the black artist-son of a Haitian fa­ther and Puerto Ri­can mother-was born and raised, spent most of his life and drew most of his in­spi­ra­tion. On May 18, it was in the Big Ap­ple that one of his paint­ings fetched $110.5 mil­lion at Sotheby's, jet­ti­son­ing him into a pan­theon of high-sell­ing greats like Pi­casso. Yet Amer­ica's cul­tural cap­i­tal has no public mon­u­ment to him, no in­sti­tu­tion named af­ter him and has pre­served none of his fa­mous graf­fiti-signed "SAMO".

Other than a plaque nailed to his for­mer ate­lier in a NoHo back street, his sim­ple grave­stone in Green-Wood ceme­tery is per­haps the only place that tourists, ad­mir­ers and bud­ding artists can visit in trib­ute. "There's a lot of in­ter­est," says Lisa Alpert, vice pres­i­dent of de­vel­op­ment and pro­gram­ming at Green-Wood. "They leave things on his grave."

'White priv­i­lege'?

Out of the more than 2,000 works of art that Basquiat pro­duced, New York's Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art (MoMA) has just 10 draw­ings and silkscreens, the Whit­ney has six, the Metropoli­tan two, the Brooklyn Mu­seum an­other two and the Guggen­heim one. Much of his work fused draw­ing with paint­ing-it was ab­stract and fig­u­ra­tive, of­fer­ing bit­ing po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary on so­cial prob­lems such as poverty, seg­re­ga­tion, racism and class di­vides. Com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful in his short life, be­fore his death from an over­dose at 27, mu­se­ums were none­the­less un­con­vinced that his work had weighty artis­tic merit.

Friend and artist Michael Hol­man re­mem­bers, for ex­am­ple, an of­fer by col­lec­tors Lenore and Her­bert Schorr to do­nate Basquiats to MoMA and the Whit­ney in the 1980s, but says the mu­se­ums de­clined, not even want­ing them for stor­age. "There's a lot of racism and a lot of white priv­i­lege in the idea that only white peo­ple are im­por­tant artists," says Hol­man.

Celebrity fa­vorite

Un­like his con­tem­po­raries, Basquiat never re­ceived a large solo ex­hi­bi­tion at a New York mu­seum dur­ing his life­time, says Jor­dana Moore Saggese, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Cal­i­for­nia Col­lege of the Arts, and the au­thor of the only art his­tory mono­graph of Basquiat. " His­tor­i­cally there has also been a lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tions for non-white artists in main­stream in­sti­tu­tions," says Saggese, who notes that few un­der­grad­u­ates are even taught much about him. But many crit­ics in the late 1970s and 1980s also cham­pi­oned min­i­mal­ism and fret­ted that art in the 80s was too closely aligned to cap­i­tal­ism, she says.

They were "deeply di­vided over the ques­tion of whether an artist could be both com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful and crit­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant," she told AFP. Dur­ing his life­time and even more so now, few mu­se­ums can af­ford to ac­quire Basquiat's work. In­stead their best hope is to wait for wealthy col­lec­tors to per­haps be­queath his work in the com­ing decades. Be­yond block­buster ex­hi­bi­tions in cities such as Basel, Paris, Rio de Janeiro and Toronto, Saggese es­ti­mates that 85 to 90 per­cent of Basquiat's work is in the hands of pri­vate col­lec­tors.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Bono, Jay-Z, Johnny Depp and Tommy Hil­figer are just some of the celebri­ties to own or have owned a Basquiat. While some New York gal­leries have bought and sold his work, that is more rare now that his paint­ings sell for such dizzy­ing sums at auc­tion. Rick Rounick, owner of New York gallery Soho Con­tem­po­rary Art, said he had nine paint­ings just a few months ago, but now has only two left. Yet Basquiat's ap­peal lies far be­yond the hal­lowed in­sti­tu­tions of fine art. "With the rapid cir­cu­la­tion of im­ages and ideas via so­cial me­dia net­works, artists like Basquiat are no longer as de­pen­dent on the tra­di­tional im­age ma­chine of art crit­i­cism or art his­tory for vis­i­bil­ity," ven­tured Saggese.

Pop­u­lar cul­ture

Ja­panese cloth­ing brand Uniqlo has re­pro­duced Basquiat imagery on T-shirts, sneak­ers, watches and tote bags in col­lab­o­ra­tion with MoMA. Ur­ban De­cay has also re­leased a set of makeup and ac­ces­sories with li­censed Basquiat imagery. Jay-Z, Kanye West and A$AP Rocky rap about him. Cana­dian singer The Weeknd used to sport his hair in Basquiat-style dread­locks. There are movies and doc­u­men­taries about him in­clud­ing "Down­town 81," in which the young charis­matic artist played him­self aged 20.

"One could ar­gue that in the years since his death, Basquiat's pres­ence is more em­phatic in pop­u­lar cul­ture and mass me­dia than in art mu­se­ums," said Saggese. There's even a chil­dren's book, writ­ten by Javaka Step­toe and called "The Ra­di­ant Child," to in­tro­duce him to the next gen­er­a­tion. "Chil­dren love him be­cause his art­work and their art­work is sim­i­lar," says Step­toe. "He gives them per­mis­sion to be what they are." Hol­man says his friend changed not only the art world, but street art and fash­ion. "He's given so many young peo­ple, es­pe­cially young peo­ple of color, in this city the li­cense to be­lieve that they could be im­por­tant artists," he said. "He's a hero to young peo­ple the way Warhol was to my gen­er­a­tion." — AFP Em­ploy­ees pose with an art­work by US artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, ‘un­ti­tled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face)’, with an es­ti­mated price of 14-18 mil­lion GBP (17-21 mil­lion EUR; 17-22 mil­lion USD), dur­ing a pho­to­call ahead of the Im­pres­sion­ist & Mod­ern, Sur­re­al­ist and Con­tem­po­rary Art sale at Sotheby’s in Lon­don.

A street art de­pict­ing artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is pic­tured in Brooklyn, New York.— AFP pho­tos

A woman poses for photo next to a plaque honor­ing artist Jean-Michel Basquiat out­side the stu­dio where he used to work.

A Sotheby’s of­fi­cial speaks about an un­ti­tled paint­ing by Jean-Michel Basquiat dur­ing a me­dia pre­view.

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