In front of Jean-Michel’s work we are clearly in front of an unhappy aesthetic expression, we travel the roads of restlessness, we observe the ugly.
A blatant objectivity and extrinsically annoying, edgy, because it actually shows us what is inherent in humanity especially when it is far from civil coexistence and ethics.
A film of an everyday film that takes place in the urban dimension, in the reality of modernity, we are faced with means, tools, men who are part of the cosmos of the city par excellence, the mirror of the anthropology of the streets of New York.
The eyes are those of a boy with his fears, his dreams, his deep and ancestral ancestry as a black person.
He is a black man Basquiat who lives in a civilized context where he observes the attitudes and distinguishes the features representing them through a simple and fast technique but of great expressive effectiveness. An extremely ideographic painting, which brings back to the puerile exemplification of drawing or primitive art.
Ultimately, the works of this young New Yorker are full of life that is also manifested in the drafting of the strong and full-bodied brushstrokes, an introspective vocation that exudes energy and that turns over the observer to push him to review the deepest concepts of his humanity.
Basquiat is a witness and denouncer of a world that runs on the basis of the power expressed by the social classes, in function of an evolution that prescinds from itself and from the consumption of humanity, from the sizing of a crumbling collective consciousness, essentially degraded and dead in a culturally and technologically advanced society.
Jean-Michel Basquiat in his art sees and expresses the oxymoron of human civilization democratically developed on the foundations of racism.
He was an omnivorous devourer of reality that reported directly in his existential works, that is expressive of a deep feeling, following instinctively everything that attracted him.
He was the first black artist to conquer the most important art galleries in the world, a very speculative art at the end of the ’70s that had left the conceptual to turn its attention to the personality, to a new expressionism.
Basquiat remains an example of “gentle exploitation” for which a certain economically well-to-do “radical chic” universe considered him as an ostentation of good values so as to feel good about his conscience and keep the flame of racial discrimination low.
Basquiat is the poet of social anger and injustice who struggles to win and to become famous, to raise that crown which is one of his most repeated symbols, he is the artist who leaves us the collapse on himself as the warning of the collapse of an egocentric western world in which culture cannot discriminate, overwhelm, but must include diversity.
Yesterday, having a Basquiat painting was like owning a trophy at home to show off, like an obsessive collection piece of a momentary fashion, today it is a value of art history, a social storytelling, it is collective memory and also a financial investment, but as a subject of art, not as mere exhibitionism.
Those were the years in which “the Big Apple” was coming out of the crisis of the sixties that had led rents to fall and in which murders and robberies had doubled in the seventies, in which artists could find their own new dimension by living on art alone. Came the period of ostentation that coincided with Reagan’s first term, the economic stagnation receded and America saw a class of new entrepreneurs running towards a new exhibitionism and consumerism in which art was an integral part.
A bulimic collecting developed where people bought not only to have a work of art that they liked, but because they had to have it and make a number, hence a new concept of investment, they bought to have quick profits in a market gone crazy.
Art became a financial bargaining chip, banks gave out loans to those who owned a collection as collateral.
The artists themselves entered a hellish machine that saw them as social climbers, eager for fame and wealth.
Basquiat represented the freshness and anger of youth in a world obsessively pressing with its rituals of power that encompasses everything until you lose reason, self-respect and emphasize the alienation of diversity for domination.
To understand contemporary art is to ask ourselves fundamental questions about the concept of beauty, which repeatedly returns in the face of the amazement we feel when observing works or performances where aesthetics has desecrating accents.
The rhetoric of taste and the contemplation of balanced forms are perhaps today a missing piece on which to re-propose the concept of art, but certainly we have come to understand that the beauty of things is what we inwardly perceive.
The individual perception cannot be exempt and separated from the collective conditions, from those that are the canons of everyday life.
Beauty is a set of positive values that we have and that come together to have a proactive, balanced, ethically mature Weltanschauung (worldview).
Contemporaneity passes through the infinite dark layer of human brutality to make us understand the most abstruse facets, to give us beauty even where it might not be found.
Basquiat is a thunderbolt in the story that gives us both the time of genius and its fall, shows us the most vivid and exciting color but surrounded by death, which unfolds the all and nothing when a life brings its ghosts, when you just want to run and win at all costs.
Jean Michel’s art is biting, he wrote with his brushstrokes his ego which he represented with distorted figures, primordial drawings, essential words, tribal signs.
An art that at first sight is ugly and terrifying, an art that carries within it the restlessness of contemporary man, of his incommunicability, seemingly subdued by his technological evolution.
Basquiat shows us the monster of division that is inside men, that lives like a deadly virus ready to explode, that is visceral and that the same step of modernity hides, the bestiality of racism, the fear of the different.
His signs, his icons want to bring the white culture to reflect on the problems of racial marginalization, immigration, the condition of the poor.
Basquiat does not know the culture of atavistic ancestry because he has never lived in Africa, but he feels it as a vital and driving force of his existence, of his condition as a black man, he feels he belongs to it and therefore claims the strength of his dignity and the right to be respected.
He said: “Blacks are never represented realistically […] they are not portrayed enough in modern art and I am happy to do so. I use black as the main character, because I am black, and that is why I use it as the main character in all the paintings.”
This great artist is the most immediate symbol of the expressionist art of contemporary multiculturalism, he is the poet, in figurative art, of the interaction of diversity, he is the consciousness of true globalization, of a truly free world.
He denounces abuse and violence as in “defacement” of 1983, where two policemen hit a black silhouette, a damned actual picture after 30 years! That silhouette is real life, it’s a broken life, it’s the sad story of the death of Michael Stewart, a graffiti artist who was beaten to death by the New York police.
And again he is in search of his own identity in “Undiscovered Genius” 1982/1983 in which we see a slave ship next to the Statue of Liberty and a musician holding a guitar, in which he is ironic about the artists of the ’20s who considered themselves avant-garde but in reality sold the blues as race music.
Or again it deals with racial difference and hatred through the irony that occurs in a painting, “Irony of negro policeman”, in which the oppressed puts on the clothes of the oppressor almost to indicate another facet, that of the greater tragedy and that is the betrayal and complicity of blacks who make themselves servile to the black cause, a bit ‘like the figure of the butler Stephen in the film Django Unchained, or the struggle for existence that leads to the figures of infamy as that of the Kapo’ of the Nazi concentration camps.
Basquiat was the son of a Haitian accountant, he came from a middle class family, his mother used to take him to museums from where he always brought the desire to assimilate, to learn. He wasn’t born an artist, he became one by chance after a bad accident that forced him into the hospital and here his mother gave him a book of anatomy, Gray’s Anatomy, to explain what had happened to his body. This book played an important role in his early paintings where the body parts with scientific names would reappear.
He is a rebellious young man who drops out of school, starts living in parks, at friends’ houses, going to nightclubs Mudd Club or Club 57. He follows rappers and new writers, the street is his universe, he follows hip hop music.
In a very few years he pursued his dream of revenge to become a king, the crown being one of his most painted symbols like black celebrities in sports or music, Cassius Clay, Charlie Parker. It was necessary to reach the top quickly without forgetting the road.
That road where you see flashes of happiness in its colors of cars or children.
He signed SAMO, with a former classmate of his, Al Diaz, when he was a graffiti artist for the walls of the neighborhood. Acronym derived from “same old, same old shit”. He signed with this name until his first solo exhibition in Italy, in 1981 in Modena at the Mazzoleni Gallery.
He made a first collective in 1980 Time Square Show where critics recognized him as a promising young man, but it was in 1981 that Diego Cortez, one of the founders of the Mudd Club invited him to the collective New York/New Wave. An exhibition where he exhibited 20 works and that was derided by many critics of the time but where he was noticed by Annina Nosei, the talent scout who launched him into the Olympus, who brought him from the street to the most prestigious galleries of the city.
Annina Nosei was the real discoverer of Basquiat, it is to her that we owe the launch of the young artist in the cultural and commercial scene of NY. She made his debut in a collective of social issues, Public Address, in 1981. The Italian gallerist gave him a basement at his disposal, something that also provoked criticism because she accused him of being exploited by the artist, where he produced a lot for collectors who went to disturb him all the time. In 1982 Basquiat had his first solo exhibition in the United States (after the one in Italy) and had a whole series of articles from the critics that counted.
Jeanne Silverthorne wrote in the pages of Artforum: “Painting after painting shows boxers, winners and losers. The repeated gesture of the incredulous champion raising his arm above his head holding aloft the flashlight […] While only one of the contenders wears a crown, the loser is often a saint boasting a halo, as skulls often do. To lose is to be holy; what is to be dead? This is empty boxing; it is the fighting of a person who has climbed into the ring of Basquiat’s Social Darwinism, and the desire to win culminates in the destruction of that most noble possible Doppelganger. Any victory is a betrayal.”
Basquiat had a very intense creative life and also manifested changes in style, in fact Richard Marshall in his essay written for the catalog of the first retrospective 4 years after the death of the artist at the Whitney Museum, divides his production into three periods:
- 1980-1982 – pictorial gestures on canvas with skeletal figures, obsession with themes of mortality, imagery of street life.
- 1982-1985 – large compositions with the use of words that become structure and interact with the figures.
- 1986- 1988 – influence and collaboration with Andy Warhol, stronger colors, wider backgrounds.
In 1979, when he was still selling t-shirts and postcards in the streets, he managed to sell a couple of them to Andy Warhol who was having lunch in a restaurant, and after 4 years he would have collaborated with the great artist with whom he started a very important friendship. When Warhol died, Basquiat cried and asked Annina Nosei who he would talk to from then on, he felt alone and destroyed.
A year and a half after Warhol died Basquiat also lost in the fog of drugs and despair died of overdose. At 27 years old a young star died, victim of modern incommunicability and of his own success!