There can be no bigger cliché than saying the best career move for an artist is to die young at the height of fame and success. I think I heard this for the first time when I was a child, when my parents stated it as indisputable fact, a fundamental part of economics based on simple supply and demand, it was little disheartening for someone with a dream of being an artist and it didn’t take too long to see the obvious hole in it. Jean-Michel Basquiat pulled off the supply side solution by dying at the golden age of 27, joining a club whose other members include Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Winehouse, and Cobain all of whom can thank the cocktail of fame, disposable income and a love of hard drugs. He left behind a large volume of work on canvass, found materials, on paper (estimated to be about 600 paintings and 1,500 drawings) and a reputation that was even then already a little over blown but which has only continued to ferment over the last thirty years not despite his early death, but at least partly because of it. He lived and died the rock and roll life style, when Pete Townsend wrote, “I hope I die before I grow old” he articulated the care free bravado of creative youth everywhere, and Basquiat who was born in the same year as myself, never became old and grey or pessimistic and cynical, he and his work will always be frozen in a 1980’s time capsule and for that reason some of us may feel a sense of nostalgia and longing that can never be entirely disassociated with the work itself. But he also left behind an enigma, something that becomes increasingly hard to pin down in this forest of excess data and information that we now live with, I think it is true that most of us who care about these things have already formed opinions about the man himself but we also have to recognize that we have foraged them from multiple and sometimes highly unreliable sources.
I recently saw his show at the Brant Foundation on the Lower East Side a display of art collecting muscle from the paper entrepreneur and art enthusiast Peter Brant, who normally draws the art world up to his estate in Connecticut to show off his latest obsession. I’ve been up there several times and everything is in the best possible taste and the risks are few when it comes to his choices of artists, most of whom operate in the comfort of being already well established in the market place. Out of curiosity I google-searched him and read a few lines of his own colorful history; inherited a Paper business from his father and the purchases of paper mill production, ownership of key art magazines, multiple bankruptcies and even brief imprisonment for “keeping poor tax records”. When I read these notes on the internet they felt sadly the typical milestones for a successful business career, the road to truly incredible riches in the USA. Brants newly converted building in the lower East side of New York might have been well known to the artist in the 1980’s when these streets were the home of drug dens and rat infested apartments of workers and artists. One of my earliest memories of New York was helping a friend of my wife move into a small studio in this area in about 1993 when the last partially abandoned tenement holdouts of the drug dealers still existed and these men were a threatening presence as they patrolled and scrutinized the narrow, dark streets. Opening the kitchen cabinets we were appalled at the never to be forgotten sound and sight of roaches falling like black hailstones.
Today we wonder what Basquiat might have thought of his work from the last years, even months of his life, being displayed on mass at this former power station, now converted into elegant gallery on three floors. When Mary and I left the building and had perused the cynical merchandise we made the obvious observations: that the frenzied scribbled under surface of the paintings, when viewed close up, are the most New York thing imaginable; they are the filthy, graffiti strewn sidewalks, the over written corporate signage where a primal impulse to make a mark on the city, no matter how inconsequential was to seek a feeling of ownership of being part of this place like a signature on the largest of living canvasses. Looking very closely at the canvasses is how one can become entranced by the work, these drawn details and words tend to become lost in reproduction in books. The second was the cartoon like central image in many of his works, a portrait or skull made with an urgent directness of line, part Haiti part Africa, a reference to the primitivism of turn of the century and a nod to his parents, and therefore his own, cultural origins. And thirdly the variety of objects these marks were made on, not just canvass but doorways and other found scrap giving a street-wise, punk informality to several roughly executed pieces. He had a fascination with language, whether it was the corporate brands which he drew over or replicated as if they existed to be reinterpreted, re-appropriated and reclaimed or his own simple, the point of being almost puerile, poetical musings which were sometime crossed out multiple times as if he was working out a problem or carried the weight of self doubt.
These elements add up to a brand, an instantly recognizable work or object that could not be made by anyone else and that is largely what New York collectors seek. I feel that I have been in many apartments and townhouses where the paintings clamor for attention and seek acknowledgement so when a reasonably informed visitor arrives they might as well bring a check list, so they have one of those, one of those, and perform the quick mental arithmetic of what it is all worth.
Looking at the work itself you are struck with contradictory thoughts about how they are totally unique while at the same time are composites of several great artists, of Twombly, Kline and Picasso. When I circulated around the show the repetitiveness of the work becomes less rather than more interesting. When you think of the market value of this product I imagine myself and the others in the gallery somewhat like cartoon characters of my youth, Bugs Bunnies with slot machine dollar signs revolving in our eye sockets. Mary and I move at a different pace through the show. She interrogates and compares, takes a long time to draw in what she is seeing and make a judgment, the same is true when she reads a good novel which can take many weeks and endures the same critical scrutiny. I on the other hand treat viewing some art like looking at a menu in a diner, make a quick decision and stick with it. I am quickly overwhelmed by a sense of sadness with the volume of work…..and all around the same period. I see the formulas, the re-occurring imagery a production line sameness, the industrialization of chic and think of Vermeer who painted only thirty four paintings throughout his lifetime. What exactly is my problem with it all? Neo-expressionist painting, for me is difficult to fully embrace for complex reasons, it feels a reactionary backward step from the more forward thinking art movements like minimalism, Pop, abstract expressionism who have a more positive authenticity. It was a backlash against the cold and the formal but I smell the sulfurous scent of commerciality behind it; artist love to paint and collectors love to collect painting, but in the future when art historians attempt to describe the linear, if iterative, progress of art in those times, will painting really be that crucial? especially the idea of expressing social political sentiments and inequitable power structures, as the ironies of his life, and of those times, will be all too transparent and all too depressing.
In the 1980’s the drift to big cities and the tangled, perplexing aesthetic of the street was very much in the air. Culture was shifting from the idea of a “salon”, where high minded ideas were exchanged, to the roughness of urban cities. Its roots were partly in the Punk movement where the young became participants in the amphitheatre of the city and occupied each nook and cranny, taking it back in a way from the establishment; the institutions and corporations that formerly defined them. In London the socialist idea of a squat was a high ideal, the notion of legally occupying an empty apartment without paying rent was the most noble socially minded goal. I had friends who would transform themselves through the peacock costume of highly studded leather jackets, brightly colored hair sometimes cut in a Mohawk, the predictable Dr Martin boots and set forth on the streets giving it a new sense of theatre and a scene that would burn into the memory of those bystanders for years to come. Part mating ritual, part reclamation of the environment this street wisdom was both sexy and to my mind very brave, in London there would be a strong chance of being beaten up dressed like this at night and that was the main reason why I found myself only half on board with the idea, a spectator in every sense, when I would go and see bands like the Clash play in Hammersmith Palais, I took cowardly refuge with the Rasta’s smoking weed at the back laughing at the punks bouncing and pogo-ing at the front of the stage. In a way this moment was best encapsulated by Basquiat’s one time girlfriend Madonna who played the tough street urchin in the movie “Desperately seeking Susan”. The pre-Disney-fied streets in New York in the mid-1980’s were a different place then. Learned defensive mechanisms and strategies were required in order to survive, their rawness could be frightening and the likelihood of running into some seriously bad people and unpoliced area’s was much higher than it is today, particularly in the downtown neighborhoods that we all run to now for entertainment; the same ones where we would constantly be fearfully looking behind, crossing the street in avoidance, seeking the brightly lite passages on dark evenings.
When I mentioned to my wife what I was writing about this week I saw an immediate warning in her eyes and heard caution in her voice, as if to say take great care. It was understandable because there are a multitude of Basquiat scholars who examine every throw away scribble, every cartoon reference, search for profound meaning in these energetic, highly charged paintings and I have little to nothing to add to this almost fetishized literature. She said most people see a show at least three times before they write about it, but I write in the hope of learning something small, both about the artist and myself I had hoped that was obvious, having the luxury and defense of the amateur, free of the true critic’s twin burdens, of examining in depth while at the same time looking over my shoulder.
If you have lived in New York long enough you may have met art world people who knew him, or in the case of one of Mary’s friends had a relationship with him. She is someone who was in the vortex of the downtown scene at that time and has a Nubian beauty, elegantly tall with a shaved head, which paradoxically makes her more, rather than less, integral to the tapestry of this multicultural City. A host of famous rock stars chased her without success, their names are occasionally revealed like water drops from a leaking faucet. Twenty years ago when I first met her, had I not been happily married I might have done the same, less for the promise of love but more in the spirit of an adventurer, like an addict of extreme sports, hang gliding or swimming with sharks. There is something intimidating about her un-compromising good looks and exoticism even now, it must be a huge burden to walk down a street and be a center of attention, but I have the feeling that she is used to this and it is the norm. So much so that the times I do see her, always with Mary, I detect irritation fringing on hostility now, she senses I’m bored with conversations about clothes, and maybe I don’t pay her the attention she expects. In the past she has talked guardedly about her time with Jean Michel, about his generosity and about his adolescent abandonment, cycling through the downtown cobbled streets on an old bicycle, scoring drugs, flirting. These slight oral histories, anecdotes are how real information is gained, how well was he portrayed in the film I might ask her? The things he gave her and the things withheld. Not to mention the things that were stolen. Early in the 1990’s there was a guy who would circulate the art world with a portfolio of works on paper from Basquiet, to be more precise from the trash bags left out of his loft Great Jones Street and taken late at night. That gives inkling on how famous he was becoming, before joining the 27 club he had joined another exclusive one, where even a scribble had value, it was like Picasso drawing an outline of a dove on a napkin to pay for his meal. If you look hard at these slight ephemeral sketches you might see something profound if you have a material interest in them, in other words, if you are rich or poor enough to care. For the rest of us they are enigmatic marks, are they the voice of a generation or is the joke on us?
The film by Schnabel in my view was an exercise in conceit and self-aggrandizement, leaving me without sympathy for either artist. But some things and some images stick, and I cannot help thinking of Basquiat without seeing the rather weedy and overly cool actor, Jeffrey Wright, who misplayed him. This wasn’t an artist who allowed the world of fame overrule him, to treat it with an indifference or lack of pride as the movie suggested . Something tells me he was more strategical and ambitious, the names in his loose circle towards the end of his life, Bowie, Gagosian, Madonna, Dietch, Nosei, Bisholberger, O’Brian, Boone were a Who’s-Who of the art world in the 1980’s, it required a lot of hard labor to be this cool.