On August 12th 1988, the neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in his studio in Manhattan. He was already famous, a bright young star whose raw, colourful and emotionally-charged aesthetic offered a fresh take on contemporary art. The imagery he presented was hard to shake. It still is.
Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Jean-Michel Basquiat and in that time his reputation has been utterly transformed. He is now mythology and legend, high brow and pop – Jay-Z awkwardly alludes to himself as the new Basquiat in his song Picasso baby – and very, very bankable at auction.
Would all this have happened had he lived? Most probably – his stock was certainly rising and his work has the intelligence and depth of a genius. We could perhaps argue, though it is a pointless discussion that, in the absence of death, he would not have earned the moniker of legend so early on. It’s a moot point: Basquiat exists elsewhere in spirit.
His universal appeal is, in part, thanks to his ability to bridge street art/graffiti with the technical authority of a luminary. He was a precious individual, a purveyor of colourful palates and a critic of the world he found himself in. The outcome was astonishing and his work shone vibrantly against everything else. Nobody was doing what he was doing. Nobody could. The delivery of art through expressionism is, after all, a personal journey. Sometimes even the artist cannot fully grasp the product of his imagination and the outcome of the subconscious can be a chaos of poetry.
In his brilliant book on Basquiat, the author Mark Mayer, who is also director of the National Gallery of Canada, said that one of the exquisite things about the artist is his ability to articulate an idea with deft expression while also “dodging the full impact of clarity like a matador”.
“We can read his pictures without strenuous effort—the words, the images, the colours and the construction—but we cannot quite fathom the point they belabour,” Mr Mayer wrote.
“Keeping us in this state of half-knowing, of mystery-within-familiarity, had been the core technique of his brand of communication since his adolescent days as the graffiti poet SAMO.”
In a similar way we enjoy or understand a work of art by the titans of American abstract expressionism Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, the best way of approaching a work by Basquiat – such as Untitled [Skull] (1981) and Profit I (1982) – is to linger in its presence and absorb.
Mr Mayer explains further: Quantifying the encyclopaedic breadth of his research certainly results in an interesting inventory, but the sum cannot adequately explain his pictures, which requires an effort outside the purview of iconography … he painted a calculated incoherence, calibrating the mystery of what such apparently meaning-laden pictures might ultimately mean.”
Maybe it is that innately human quality about his work that captivates us, the same way in which prehistoric art resonates with us, irrespective of the many years that have elapsed since they were conceived. His style has, after all, been described as belonging to primitivism, which is primordial, archaic and instinctive.
Though it hasn’t been part of our mainstream visual vocabulary for many, many years, there is an almost biological understanding of the history of it. It reminds us of something, as if the coding of an ancestral memory has just resurfaced.
That’s the beauty of what Basquiat did.
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