[Many thanks to Veerle Poupeye for bringing this item to our attention through Facebook at Critical.Caribbean.Art.] In “Basquiat’s Soundtrack,” Damon Krukowski (ArtNEWS) reviews “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” currently on non-view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. [See our previous post here.]
We’re not only locked down, we’re locked out of many galleries and museums. Artworks that took curators years to assemble into exhibitions are now hanging in the dark or sitting in crates. Still, the thought that went into preparing these exhibitions has been thought—catalogues written and published, websites launched, online materials gone live, publicity put into motion. It’s a season of shows with everything but the objects. Which makes for an excellent opportunity to encounter “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” currently on non-view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
This is not to discount the power of the objects in this exhibition, which the MFA currently plans to reopen at some point in the fall. On the contrary, the physical presence of Basquiat’s paintings can be overwhelming. Like the artist’s famous personal charisma, it tends to dominate the room. Which makes the burden of this exhibition taken on by the show’s curators—to take Basquiat’s painting out of the white cube and its overwhelmingly white world, and resituate it in the interdisciplinary and primarily Black milieu of early hip-hop—all the more difficult. As co-curator Liz Munsell writes in her catalogue essay, “While Basquiat’s friendships and artistic collaborations with Andy Warhol and Keith Haring have drawn much attention, his relationships with other young artists of color have largely been written out of his history.” Munsell’s argument isn’t about tracing Basquiat’s origins as an artist, or repeating a standard narrative about how graffiti and street art were formative experiences leading up to his masterpieces on canvas. Instead, Munsell makes a point of anchoring his complete career in this context: “As he presented sold-out solo exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, and Europe, he remained deeply involved with several of his African American and first-generation Caribbean and Latinx peers—visual artists, MCs, and DJs—with whom he worked on music-related projects, and of whom he painted over a dozen portraits.” For “Writing the Future,” Munsell and co-curator Greg Tate place Basquiat’s now familiar and extraordinarily expensive paintings in and among work that has largely been ignored by blue-chip galleries and auction houses. Featured artists include the trio of revered graffiti writers who emerged from the Mitchel Houses of the South Bronx, A-One, Kool Koor, and Toxic; spray paint virtuoso Futura; pop culture polymath Fab 5 Freddy; wunderkind of the allover calligraphic, LA2; icons of the heroic era of subway art (and romantic leads in the early hip-hop film Wild Style) Lee Quiñones and Lady Pink; and, perhaps most crucially, the Afrofuturist visionary, Rammellzee, whose time-blurring work—as Tate argues in his catalogue essay—may be the most contemporary of all, from our standpoint here in 2020.
How to pull this off in a museum, with all its attendant institutional presumptions and limitations? Basquiat’s canvases, scaled for gallery walls and populated with art historical references, have always been ready for their retrospective close-up. But much of the crucial work by Basquiat’s cohort cannot be placed on display in a museum. This challenge has existed ever since graffiti morphed into “post-graffiti” by entering the art market. Not everyone involved in that transformation felt it problematic, of course. As gallerist Sidney Janis put it, captured on video at the opening of his “Post-Graffiti” exhibition in December 1983: “These artists have graduated from that particular stage. That is to say, they’ve made the transition from subway surfaces to surfaces on canvas. And where they were arrested for doing one, now they’re getting paid for doing the other.” Capital has a way of cutting through complications simply by affixing a price tag. However, if you’re not selling or buying this work, but rather trying to understand it by coming to a gallery or museum . . . you might have missed the train. [. . .]
[Above : Jean-Michel Basquiat’s « Six Crimee, » 1982.© ESTATE OF JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT. LICENSED BY ARTESTAR, NEW YORK.]