A review by Holly Bass for The New York Times.
In the American historical imagination, the North (even beyond our borders into Canada) symbolizes freedom, individual expression and progress, while the South conjures a mix of hospitality, religious fervor and persistent racial prejudice. It’s a cultural civil war that in some ways enables us to sidestep the more complicated realities of our national identity.
Two recent exhibition catalogs ably situate the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat within these potent cultural poles. Each monograph speaks to the impact of place on both the creation of work and the viewing of said work. In this case, the French influences in New Orleans and Toronto’s remarkable ethnic diversity echo the artist’s own culturally hybrid background.
A comparatively slim volume, “Basquiat and the Bayou” draws from an exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art presented during the Prospect Biennial under the artistic direction of Franklin Sirmans. While Basquiat spent little time in the South, Sirmans argues persuasively that his work grappled with “an overall tradition of synergy in the Afro-Atlantic space.” “The Mississippi River . . . is a defining psychological space in American history, one that is recognized around the world,” he writes. “The river represents the country in all its muddy complexity.” We learn the artist took the painter Ouattara Watts to see the great river during their 1988 visit to Jazz Fest. The word “Mississippi” shows up in more than one painting and in multiplicate, as do other Southern references: “Mark Twain,” “catfish,” “zydeco.” The selected works also address religion, spirituality, music and black resilience.
The contributor Robert G. O’Meally offers a fascinating comparative study of Basquiat’s work in relation to the collagist Romare Bearden and the collages Louis Armstrong made to adorn the boxes in which he stored his recordings. O’Meally also devotes significant energy to finding the source material and specific influences in the signature work “King Zulu,” which graces the cover. While this painting-as-coded-message approach has its merits, there is something to be said of Robert Farris Thompson’s essay, which combines insightful perspectives on the work with personal memories. In sharing recollections of the music Basquiat kept in heavy rotation, Thompson offers a glimpse into the person behind the art.
“Jean-Michel Basquiat” is an expansive survey produced in conjunction with the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the first major retrospective of Basquiat’s work in Canada. In the foreword, Matthew Teitelbaum, who steps down as the gallery’s director after June 26, writes that the exhibition arrives “at a key moment in Toronto’s history.” Referring to “submerged political issues . . . bubbling to the surface,” an oblique allusion to the city’s issues with racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and economic disparity, Teitelbaum states that “Toronto today is not so unlike New York in the 1980s.” Here we find an über-Northern city grappling with what might be deemed “Southern” problems.
The curator Dieter Buchhart has organized the illustrations into eight thematic sections, such as “Street,” “Heroes” and “Provocations.” The works span Basquiat’s professional career until his death in 1988. The five essays that conclude the volume are bookended by striking photographic portraits of the artist, many by Tseng Kwong Chi, a fellow downtown artist who died two years after Basquiat.
The subtitle, “Now’s the Time,” comes from a 1985 Basquiat painting that pays homage to a 1945 composition by Charlie Parker. This collection illustrates how the works retain a sense of the “now,” their relevance deriving not only from the subject matter but also from the urgency contained within Basquiat’s visual aesthetic. As Glenn O’Brien writes, “he was ahead of his time in that the work not only retains its power, it actually seems to gain in power as time goes on.”
Basquiat’s 1983 work “The Death of Michael Stewart” shows a floating silhouetted black figure, a kind of Everyman angel, attacked on both sides by police officers bearing billy clubs. That the death of Stewart, a New York graffiti artist, at the hands of the police in 1983 echoes the recent death of Freddie Gray, a Baltimore resident, doesn’t make Basquiat prescient so much as a chronicler of an American culture of police brutality that sadly hasn’t changed much in 30 years. On hearing the news, Basquiat reportedly said: “It could have been me. It could have been me.” President Obama used the same phrase in a 2013 speech regarding the death of Trayvon Martin.
Images of the police are present throughout, including a detail of “Irony of a Negro Policeman” that seems nearly to consume the cover. Two different versions of the full work appear in the catalog, offering an astute snapshot into the artist’s process of layering and scratching out, which Francesco Pellizzi describes in his essay as “carefully cultivated spontaneity.”
It’s unfortunate that even after volumes of critical scholarship, curators still feel the need to defend Basquiat’s artistry from biases against “self-taught” artists, young artists, black artists. Buchhart includes a quotation by Basquiat saying he used pentimento, then goes on to describe the process: “The artist must have made the narrow scratches in ‘Irony of a Negro Policeman’ very quickly during the short period it takes acrylic to dry. He thus mobilized pentimento as a conscious stylistic technique,” as if to silence invisible critics who believe Basquiat could have used pentimento unconsciously.
While scholarly responses present valuable frameworks for viewing Basquiat’s oeuvre, in both volumes the essays by artists and personal friends win the day. In “Jean-Michel Basquiat,” Christian Campbell, a Caribbean poet, offers adroit exegeses on recurring visual motifs like the large skull in one of the many works called “Untitled”: “It is utterly gorgeous even as it is hurt — beaten, skinned, cracked and gouged by History. It has gorged on the city in return. Basquiat’s miracle of color — carefully arranged patterns of life-giving turquoise, orange and yellow — commemorates its survival.”
Basquiat first gained fame in New York for his graffiti alter ego, SAMO, a reference to the idiom “same old, same old.” More than simply spray painting his name, SAMO was known for writing pithy critiques of the art world and consumer culture. Campbell — invoking the voice of Basquiat’s canvases — calls out the Art Gallery of Ontario on the collection space and exhibitions it offers black Canadian artists, asking, “Will it just stay the SAMO SAMO?” Basquiat’s canvases continue to speak, gibing at us, inspiring us — all those halos and crowns. The canvases demand our attention, all the while insisting we can do better and reminding us there’s no time to waste. h
BASQUIAT AND THE BAYOU
By Franklin Sirmans
Illustrated. 112 pp. DelMonico Books/Prestel. $34.95.
Now’s the Time
Edited by Dieter Buchhart
Illustrated. 227 pp. Art Gallery of Ontario/DelMonico Books/Prestel. $49.95.