Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Thinking About Life: The Basquiat Revolution

I've been struggling to figure out what to write for this second blog entry since the day I uploaded my first post. Because I was so invested in the work of Gainsbourg and have been dead-set on the subject of my final post since the beginning of the semester (stay tuned folks), I decided to wait until something struck my fancy for this interim post rather than prematurely settle on a safe bet. And lo and behold, I found my muse in the most unexpected of places: last week, a student in my statistics class presented on what influences the increase in price of artwork sales in the United States and chose to focus on the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The moment his photo came up on the projector, I knew I had found my man.

Whether it was his eye-catching hairdo (The Weeknd himself claims it inspired his own unique coif) or the gritty ambition of his artwork that first pulled me in, I was immediately struck by the magnetism of both his art as well as his very being. Much like my discovery of Gainsbourg, I felt rather sheepish to have just now stumbled upon Basquiat so late in the game, but eagerly fell down the rabbit hole of art blogs, scores of devotional Instagram accounts, and even lists of name-drops by various hip-hop artists to find out what made this guy such a legend.

Basquiat was born in 1960 in Brooklyn, New York to Haitian and Puerto Rican parents. His rich cultural heritage allowed him to effortlessly come of age in 1970s multicultural New York; the allure of the city and his precocious artistic talent led him to leave high school and become a graffiti poet, signing his semi-surreal, neo-expressionist work with the tag SAMO – an abbreviation of “Same Old Shit.” By the late 70s he had achieved cult status among the East Village hipsters. It’s easy to see why – his wide array of interests ranged from French poetry to hip hop to baseball to modernist art and allowed him to tap into a vast expanse of ideas and thoughts regarding poverty, violence, history, and his own existence. He eventually moved toward fine art in the 80s which led to an even greater following and increased critical acclaim, most notably in the form of admiration from friends such as Andy Warhol and Madonna.

His art can best be described as individualistic paintings that utilized words, dabs of color, and crudely drawn cartoons to convey his thoughts and feelings of his own life and place in the world. This was a radical departure from the artwork of the day which instead focused on a minimalist, almost inhuman approach. He often gave his own interpretation of the classic works of Picasso, Da Vinci, and Van Gogh and made them distinctly his own. Basquiat's work is one of the few examples of how an early 1980s counter-cultural practice could become a fully recognized, critically embraced, and popularly celebrated artistic phenomenon, which can be seen as a parallel to the rise of hip-hop in that same decade. The youthful intensity and prolific nature of both his innate talent and seemingly natural gift to effortlessly draw upon a variety of influences and genres strongly echoes the early creative rise of Picasso. As Howard Gardner explains, this type of prodigiousness provides a beautiful example of the "Mozart enigma," or how such dazzling beginnings allow the artist to achieve even greater achievement and recognition as they mature (10).

The best example of this is his 1983 figurative painting "Notary." The canvas isn't stretched across a frame, but instead clings to three huge wood panels. According to Basquiat, this was his idea of a triptych: three interrelating stories spread across 13 demented, colorful feet. The raw impact of the work highlights his lack of formal training, but that is precisely what makes it such a masterpiece. It was as if he intuitively knew that any demonstration of formal technique – in other words, something learned and therefore copied – would create a barrier that impeded in the otherwise pure communication of his consciousness. The work also demonstrates evidence of the influence of the work of Matisse, Picasso, Miro, de Kooning, and Rauchenberg, as well as his use of African motifs in relation to his own genealogy.

Despite his untimely death from a heroin overdose at age 27 in 1988, his legacy lives on in pop culture and the art world at large. Most recently, the documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child was screened at the 2010 Sundance Film festival and is now available to view on Netflix. His swift rise to fame, artistic themes, and sudden death personify the intensity of the hyper-commercialized way of life of the times; such immense ingenuity in such intense circumstances cannot sustain itself forever. As Will Gompertz wrote, “the impressionists made real life their central subject. Basquiat made his life the central subject.” And as the saying goes, far too often, life imitates art.

Gardner, Howard. "Chance Encounters in Wartime Zurich. Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi. New York: Basic, 1993. 10. Print.

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