Jean-Michel Basquiat

The Brant Foundation March 6 – May 14, 2019 o-o-o-o-o

Earlier this year I showed a painting at Moniker Art Fair (NYC) within which I paid tribute to some of my greatest artistic influence, most prominently was a depiction of Jean-Michel Basquiat. More than once I was approached by visitors asking me to tell them what the big deal with Basquiat is all about. A position that is at once surprising and completely understandable, which is part of what makes Basquiat's work so great. It's a surprising stance because you would think that with the number of things written about Basquiat's work, the many exhibitions featuring his work, or heck the films made about him, you'd think that that would pretty much eliminate all doubt regarding his genius. But of course equally understandable because we live in a society that still largely assumes that what separates artists from not-artists comes down to the ability to draw; the better you draw, the better of an artist you are. And what tends to constitute as “better” seems to be the accuracy of said artist's depiction of things; the more close to reality it is, the better – the more “accurate” the perspective is, the better, and so on.

Prior to ever seeing a Basquiat, my idea of art was more or less limited to: a) the great oil paintings of renaissance masters b) comic books and cartoons

This was before I'd ever become an artist myself and always wondered whether or not I'd ever be as good as those guys. The gulf between what that “professional” output looked like, be it realistic or cartoonish, and whatever was coming out of my hand felt too big to wrap my head around. I never understood how or if I'd ever be able to do anything even remotely close to what they did.

But then I saw a Basquiat and everything changed. For one, it was like nothing I'd ever seen before, nothing! Yet, its components were very familiar. And I'm not strictly referring to what was depicted, I'm referring to what makes up these depictions: the lines, the strokes, the shapes, the colors. It was all very familiar, very “doable” if you will. It's as if I'd heard someone speak a language I could understand for the very for time, while simultaneously putting that language to great expressive use. I'd never seen compositions like it before, I'd never seen an overlapping of scribbles and text and imagery done that way before, I'd never seen... such freedom before!

And in a rather surprising way, Basquiat's work demystified the artwork of all the other masters I'd looked up to before. It helped me realize that most works of art are more or less comprised of units, and no one unit is “better” than any other. The unit may very well be an elegant brush stroke or crosshatching or dots or haphazard scribbles. Whatever it is, as long you honor the unit and apply it earnestly you can very well achieve a very good painting. Basquiat also made clear the immense importance of composition. Instantly I could discern that certainly I'd seen artworks that were rendered with far more “skill” and “expertise” than his paintings, yet the compositions of these crafty masterpieces had very obviously lacked any of the inventiveness and vision I'd witnessed in the madness that was Basquiat.

And therein lies the true difference between an artist and a not-artist. It certainly isn't a matter of drawing well or not; what it truly is... is a matter of vision. If depicting the world accurately was the epitome of artistry, then all manner of photography would be admired equally. Then Ancient Egyptian Heiroglyphs would not still be seen with such reverence. Seeing a Basquiat makes that more obvious than anything, because what you see is his particularly unique view of the world he lived in.

David Bowie once said of Basquiat, “There was something dogmatically figurative about what Basquiat did which at that particular time I think was having kind of a renaissance, the idea that the figurative was coming back was very much part of the vocabulary of new art.”

I agree with that, but I would add to it that what's really great about Basquiat is that his paintings were both figurative and abstract expressionist! A feud between abstract expressionism and figurative art had severed American art for decades (with its echoes still very much in effect to this very day), but here was an American artist who was uniquely combining both and thereby bridging the gap that was cause for so much toxicity for so so long. Indeed, Basquiat is one of the very few artists you'll find who is so readily loved by expressionists, abstrasctists, traditionalists, popists, and graffiti heads alike.

Although the Brant's retrospective didn't showcase the entirety of the artist's work (which would be close to impossible), it provided for a very good overview with some 70 drawings and paintings created over the 7-year period of 1980-1987, a commendable look at Basquiat's varied output⁠—including some of the doors and found objects he painted on when unable to afford buying canvas⁠—in a location not too far from the artist's very stomping grounds. A breathtaking location at that, but a far from conspicuous one that doesn't stick out like a sore thumb as art palaces tend to do. It might as well be just another East Village apartment building, deceptively blending in with the neighborhood's somewhat humble surrounding, only revealing itself to be anything but once inside⁠—perhaps not unlike Basquiat himself.