by Christian Kile
‘Following the fashionable lead of his time (epitomized by the Prince of Wales) he dissipated his talents and his life (1763-1804). Debts forced up his output – during the last eight years of his life he produced at least 100 canvasses a year; whilst drink and false stimulation of every sort made his work even more automatic and repetitive than it might otherwise have been.’
The above is quoted from John Berger’s essay on the Georgian artist George Morland, renowned for his prolific output and problems with dealers, and it could well be applied to the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
More often than not, when I hear Basquiat’s name mentioned it is in relation to the sensational aspects of his life rather than his work: his relations with Andy Warhol and Madonna, the exorbitant praise from dealers and hangers on, the brief period of success, followed by the collapse into drug addiction and death. He personified the excesses of the 1980s New York art scene. Which makes Basquiat all the more appealing to dealers and the star struck. And today his prices continue to soar.
It has been almost 30 years since his death and the hype shows no signs of abating. He first gained attention in the downtown New York scene of the late 70s and early 80s with graffiti that was markedly different from his contemporaries. It involved more than tagging a name; more singular, Basquiat’s graffiti was littered with witty words or symbols – and there were plenty of them – that later found their way into his drawings and paintings.
During my last visit to the Whitney Museum, his work, ‘Hollywood Africans’ attracted crowds of visitors, dominated by those in their late teens and 20s, who appeared fascinated by his life and times and 1980s fashion, and full of admiration for his work that clearly struck a chord.
He achieved success quickly in his career and his output was sizeable. His early and late styles concertinaed within a decade and by 27 he was dead. He worked intuitively, drawing from a vast pool of stimulus: such as Dubuffet, Twombly; Picasso and Rauschenberg without the eroticism; television and radio; his experience as a young black man, and eclectic musical influences, including classical and jazz.
This is the first time a substantial Basquiat show has been held in the UK. Perhaps even now insufficient time has passed to override those critics determined to view his work as a symbol for the degradation of art history and the triumph of the art market over works of quality.
However, he is original enough to figure in the canon of art history, and for good reason. He was able to spell out and successfully communicate to us what he, young and black, perceived in the world around him and within himself through his work.
It seems to me that he is one of the last significant 20th century artists capable of creating good paintings, which hang in major museums and galleries, and will continue to do so. I do not find a Basquiat painting in New York’s Museum of Modern Art out of place.
Nonetheless, it is clear that much of his popularity is down to fashion and the market. That he emerged from a graffiti background is significant – it helped him to attract and connect with his public, whom he later secured in his transition to painting.
It could also legitimately be argued that in some quarters his contribution is overestimated, particularly if we compare him to another 20th century artist who too died early: Egon Schiele far and away surpassed him as draughtsman and painter, and his work possessed great psychological depth.
But while Basquiat may not be the genius some claim, it is also true that the financial success he enjoyed in his lifetime and excessive commercialism surrounding his work should not be used to discredit and dismiss his artistic achievements. If exploitative dealers, hangers on and drugs had not dragged him down, there is every chance his work would have continued to develop well and matured.
For now we can count ourselves fortunate to see such a comprehensive exhibition of his works in this country – it’s been a long time coming.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Glenn 1984/5
The Barbican, London (21 September 2017 – 28 January 2018)