As I have often mentioned here, and even talked about in the “About” page on this website, art is about how we interact with our world. Or, it should be. Otherwise, it’s a completely mechanical endeavor. You can tell when that’s the case, e.g. stock photos which are technically competent but lifeless.
So real art is about the artist. How the artist sees the world. To me, that means not the way it is “seen” by someone, but how it affects them. Not how they choose to shape their art, but how they are themselves shaped by the world. So let’s talk about Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Born in 1960 to Haitian immigrant parents, Jean-Michel grew up on the streets, tough, but not really so tough as all that. He spent TIME on the streets, and his father denied that he beat the child, or that they were disadvantaged or that they lived in an inner-city ghetto. “I drove a Mercedes”, he explained.
But Jean-Michel ran wild, and from a young age wanted to be a cartoonist. (Who knows that about themselves when they are 6 years old?). Once when ill, he got his hands on a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, and was deeply affected by it. If you look at his art, it often featured skeletal creatures, and this is surely where that inspiration came from.
Basquiat’s brief life has been documented many places: a film (reference here); a biography (reference here); a coffee table book of his work (reference here). His influences were such renowned artists as Picasso, Pollack, (others). But it was when he was befriended by Andy Warhol that he moved from being a street artists, who essentially drew cartoon figures and quotes that were signed “SAMO”, to being “famous”. Famous for being famous, as so many of the denizens of Warhol’s Factory. For most, their art consisted of living as famous people. It was all experimental and for the most part it’s hard for me to believe that even THEY took it seriously.
But this was the milieu that Basquiat found himself in, and Warhol actually had spotted something unique and valuable in the young black man. His creativity was utterly new, and fearless, and unselfconscious. He had the world in front of him, at his feet, he was the toast of the town. Dealers snapped up his increasingly daring and provocative works, which became both more profound and more dramatic. You look at one of these paintings, and you are drawn into a world of half-fantastical creatures — wolves wearing crowns, huge skulls with dogs in their mouths, slogans brutalizing a society of rich privilege (ironically, these were his patrons). Each painting was a glimpse into a mind both tortured and unbridled. Utterly original.
And so, inevitably, the story gets both predictable and deeply sad. Such a common story — a young person with huge talents gets exploited, is made the toast of the town, has power and money and hangers-on for the first time, and is too young to have any way of dealing with it all, except extravagance and dissolution. So he became a heroin addict. Of course lots of people become addicts, it’s not reserved for exceptionally talented people. But, a young and beautiful boy like Basquiat, hanging around with the infinitely more siphsticated Warholians, never had a chance. The details aren’t important here, but he died of an overdose, and left behind paintings which in the space of an hour became priceless and were snatched out of his studio before many of them could even be cataloged. Carried off by collectors and speculators.
Why is it that living artists, those of amazing talents who continually reinvent themselves and demonstrate a bottomless creativity, do not command high prices for their work while they are still alive? Sure, when an artist dies, the supply is suddenly finite. But when the artist still lives, they still evolve and grow, and what they might produce next week or next year, from that prodigious talent, isn’t that something that would be deeply interesting to invest in? Instead, it seems that “investors” of these young talents are NOT interested in how they develop, and it the fodder of fiction that such vultures passively allow young talents to drink themselves to death, or shoot up or hang with the wrong crowd … rather than fearing that their protege will meet his demise, they will rejoice that their vision has paid off.
But this is not a new story, is it? What was new was Samo’s work, and Basquiat’s work, and a young man whose lifestyle became the art form. Again, not new. So commonplace that it might barely register as tragic. But if you look at those paintings, they draw your breath out of you. The complexity, the sheer inventiveness, the manic quality, the social commentary … I never tire of probing them, seeing new symbolism, new iron, and a humor, and a love of the physical battle which is life.
To see more of Basquiat’s work: http://www.wikiart.org/en/jean-michel-basquiat
Vanity Fair article by Anthony Haydon-Guest
Basquiat’s bitterly ironic cliché of a death—the young black on dope belongs with the drunken Indian, the thrifty Scot—will surely focus attention where it actually belongs, on his work, some of the best of which was never hung in his relatively few shows. “They were taken straight out of his studio,” says Jeffrey Deitch. “They were never catalogued. Some of the most incredible work went straight to Europe. The art world never got a chance to see them.” Much of this can now be expected to change. “I suppose he’ll get a Whitney show at last,” says Fred Brathwaite. “And all that shit he never got when he was alive. Motherfuckers!”