The Bizarre World of Art Merchandise

[Many thanks to Veerle Poupeye (Critical.Caribbean.Art) for bringing this item to our attention.] In his opinion piece, Marc Recinto (ArtReview) asks, “What would Jean-Michel Basquiat have thought of the line of easy-care rugs produced in his name?”

Recently I was perusing the Ruggable website. They sell washable rugs that come in handy when you’ve got a naughty pup. Browsing happily through a series of browns and taupes, a sea of jute, the Persian section, the Scandinavian section, the Disney section and the Delphina Delft Blue rug (which looks like a piece of traditional pottery in carpet form), I suddenly recognised some familiar scrawls. My scrolling froze. ‘Is that…?’ I wondered as my cursor hovered over the company’s newest and most gaudy offering.

[. . .] It was blue with some patches of white and green, and with stick-figure birds that had the look of having been designed by a prison tattooist in something of a rush to render a patriotic collection of bald eagles. This was not, however, the work of an overworked inmate; rather, it was the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Or more precisely, the late artist’s estate.

The aforementioned is Ruggable’s ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat City of Angels Blue Multicolour Rug’, a cropping of Untitled (L.A. Painting)’s upper-right corner (1982) that features some of Basquiat’s hit imagery – angels, arrows and blobs of colour. It’s one of 19 options that are either ‘inspired’ by Basquiat, as the website claims, or are direct rug-editions of Basquiat’s paintings. Works like Untitled (Head) (1982), Pegasus (1987), Palm Springs Jump (1982) and Apologia (1981) are literally printed onto these rugs. But others operate in a manner unlike an artwork. You can select a colour scheme to suit your fancy. (Although perhaps you can do that at an art fair, where it’s called a ‘commission’.) You can also choose Basquiat rugs that have multiplied and arranged a square painting into a chequerboard pattern, or that have been picked apart so that choice emblems are enlarged and made into signature graphics for a washable doormat.

This ruggery is among the more recent of the seemingly infinite merchandising collaborations that Basquiat has entered into posthumously. The artist died in 1988 at the age of twenty seven; the estate is currently run by his sisters, Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux. They are not the architects of these pervasive commercial campaigns, however. No, they passed along all exclusive licensing responsibilities to the consultancy and licensing agency Artestar. While agencies like Artists Rights Society in the US or DACS in the UK will handle licensing agreements (for print, TV and occasional merchandising), Artestar seems to have taken this to an entirely new level. Everywhere you look, it’s like Basquiat follows! [. . .]

[. . .] Basquiat embraced celebrity, and the commercial artworld following his inclusion in the 1980 exhibition The Times Square Show, joining first Annina Nosei Gallery then Bruno Bischofberger. Let’s also not forget that his close mentor, collaborator and friend was the fame and capitalism-obsessed Andy Warhol. As for licensing today, I look to Keith Haring – Basquiat’s contemporary and fellow Artestar representee – who is perhaps even more ubiquitous than Basquiat in terms of merchandising and was actually Ruggabled before Basquiat. The Keith Haring Foundation deliberately seeks to make as much money as possible to fund its philanthropic efforts, which include supporting underprivileged youth and HIV/AIDS organisations ‘in accordance with Keith Haring’s wishes’, as is stated on the website.

In the case of Basquiat, his intentions for his estate (which notably remains an estate and not a foundation) are not known publicly. Some have wondered whether these commercial campaigns are what he would have wanted: Thom Waite speculated that Basquiat might be disillusioned but also entranced by this omnipresence. [. . .]

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