A more personal vision of Basquiat
Editor’s note: The following article is an editorial, and the opinions expressed are those of the author. Read more opinions on the Grio.
Jean-Michel Basquiat has been one of my favorite visual artists for over 20 years because there are so many ways I feel a kinship with him. He was just a decade older than me. He was born in 1960, so I can see him as a big brother. He was a New Yorker, so I see him as a kindred spirit. He was an artist whose work commented on many of my favorite subjects – high art, the street, hip-hop aesthetics, jazz legends and the pain of police brutality. All of this makes me feel like we could have been friends.
Over the years, I’ve attended many of Basquiat’s major and minor exhibitions in America and Europe, read the books and seen the documentaries, and thought I’d seen all of his paintings that I could ever see ( all except those in the private collections of the mega-rich and the coffers of various museums). So when I went to see the new show, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure©,” at the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Manhattan, I took some skepticism with me. Would I see something that I hadn’t seen before? I’m happy to report that, yes, there are several things Basquiat superfans probably haven’t seen before, making “King Pleasure” a valuable destination for longtime fans and people just getting started. to know his work.
“King Pleasure” depicts his family’s trick of telling us who Basquiat was and showing the work they still own and possibly selling us trinkets based on his work. There’s a more personal touch to this show – the voices of his sisters welcoming you, there are videos of them telling stories about him, and there’s a recreation of the living room he grew up in. They’re beautiful sets, but for me, the most exciting set comes when they recreate his studio.
There are paintings on the floor, on the wall and scattered paint, suggesting the frantic pace of his production. Miles Davis plays on John Hughes’ iconic stereo and film, The Breakfast Club, works on a TV. A packet of Marlboro lies on the floor next to a black Comme des Garçons jacket. You feel like you’re really inside his artistic sanctuary, and it’s like he might be walking in at any moment.
The work that the family must put in is, of course, extraordinary. We get Basquiat’s large, bold paintings filled with striking colors, crossed out words and crowns. We see him working in his signature naive style, bringing up painting as a child to talk about his joy in making art and how African Americans are underappreciated. If you think his work is primitive because he chose to play with a primitive style, then you’ve fallen into the trap.
He also sometimes paints in the smallest detail, as if coming out of a medical textbook, evoking the complexity of his mind and his eye. His work speaks of African history, art history, cartoons and graffiti, putting high and low on the same plane. Seems like it’s all being done by an expansive, brilliant mind that’s collected so much information that his brain must be jam-packed. Basquiat’s work often seems simple on the surface. You may feel like you have the paint right away, but there are so many little additions and changes and things going on that it rewards you for watching longer and thinking about what’s going on. other.
For Basquiat lovers, there are pieces you may not have seen before. There’s a big, thrilling portrait of Charlie Parker, all hands and horn with much of his face covered or unpainted, but the feeling that he’s in the middle of a musical explosion erupts. There’s a fridge door with lots of stickers on it and the word love painted on it. There’s a painting called “Jailbirds” which shows two dark figures holding clubs and beating a smaller figure as stars fly out of his body. There is more…
Basquiat only lived 27 years. He died in 1988, but his career remains important for many reasons. His paintings are superb. We always want to see them. His images and style remain striking and unique – you know him right away even if you don’t know much about art, but he’s smart enough to surprise us visually again and again. Its emergence in the 80s proved that the hip-hop aesthetic was not purely musical but something artistically powerful enough to be translated into many forms. His rise to the elite level of the art world in the 90s proved that black people could conquer the art world too. In 2017, one of his paintings went for more than 110 million dollars, a record for an American artist. He’s one of the most compelling artists of all time, and seeing his work and life presented through the eyes of his family is a great way to gain some perspective on his incredible career.
Touré is the host of the “Touré Show” podcast and the “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.
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