so this is a post about the jean-michel basquiat exhibition i recently visited at the modern art museum of paris here in the 16th (which is just next to the must visit restaurant, tokyo eat at palais de tokyo). i studied his work briefly at university and at the time i remember being intrigued. to be honest my main thoughts were, ‘how could he have become so famous just by painting like a child?’ which i think might be a common thought when viewing his works and others of a similar style.
but famous he certainly was and still is, the evidence in plain sight upon trying to see this exhibition week after week, always with a queue halfway down the block.
i think a lot of the answer to this question may have something to do with his famous friends. some include blondie (whose music video he once starred in), david bowie (who later played the role of andy warhol in ‘basquiat’ the film) and madonna (who he briefly dated). in the later years of his career he collaborated for some time with andy warhol who became a close friend. it all goes a long way to reinforce the old saying about who you know as compared to what you know!
raw use of colour and ideas on the black/hispanic/african experience in north america, on consumerism and on the constraints of convention on the individual dominate much of his work (click here or here for more background info – it’s far too much for my little blog). basquiat’s background as a poor, black/hispanic, terribly intelligent child seems to have a lot to do with where he and his art ended up.
i believe that as a teenager and in his early 20s basquiat was a serious rebel but quite an intelligent one. the beginnings of his public art making was the graffiti he scrawled all over lower manhattan with a friend, al diaz. they called themselves SAMO and although basquiat moved from walls to canvas the style of the work changed little.
text was a common feature of all of his art. for me a lot of it didn’t make much sense and wasn’t totally coherent with the images presented. i would have loved the chance to speak with the artist himself! it is apparent that a great portion of the work was thrown out onto the canvas stream-of-consciousness style, my lovely man asked me towards the end of the exhibition, ‘was he schizophrenic?’
indeed the sheer quantity of work is overwhelming and it’s evident that this guy had a serious and sincere compulsion to express himself, to create. probably due to his visual style, one interviewer asked basquiat if there was anger in his work, to which he responded, ‘it’s about 80% anger’.
i felt this strongly while at the exhibition with many pieces that looked to me to be two-thirds finished with a plethora of paint drips on the canvasses and scribbled out text and images. some say this kind of process could be interpreted as a rejection of conventional, institutional or more rigid forms of art – even a casting off of conventional society in general.
it is no secret that the artist indulged in drug use throughout his life-time. perhaps inevitably basquiat developed a serious heroin habit which likely contributes to the “schizophrenic” scribbling evident in most of his work. a combination perhaps of the pain from his childhood, his struggle with fame and the fortune and certainly the drug use itself, the artist became intentionally more and more reclusive and eventually died of a heroin overdose at 27 years old in 1988.
somehow i find his life slightly more interesting than his work – maybe a nice little quote from the man himself which might best sum up his life:
i had some money, i made the best paintings ever. i was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. i was awful to people.
sounds like, sadly, a life half-lived to me. i don’t know how illuminated that is, besides the brightness of his spark that never quite reaching its optimum clarity.