Magazine | December 31, 2017, Issue

Basquiat’s Tragedy

Jean-Michel Basquiat (
How the world of Warhol failed an artist in making him

In 1986, just two years before his death, Jean-Michel Basquiat sat down for a long interview with his friend Tamra Davis. The footage shows the then-25-year-old artist in his best light, as his friends and admirers knew him. The sturdy wall that Basquiat kept up in other interviews — erected apparently through a mixture of shyness and resentment — is absent here. Instead the young artist is relaxed, knowing, attractive, and open: in a word, charming. It is a reminder of what was there before the art-industrial complex, sudden fortune, and drugs wasted him.

A portion of that video appears in Basquiat: Boom for Real, an exhibition that will be at the Barbican Centre in London until the end of January. One of the most comprehensive retrospectives of the artist’s work ever staged, it is also timely. In May of this year, at Sotheby’s in New York, a 1982 work by the artist — the son of a Puerto Rican mother and a Haitian father — sold for $110.5 million. That sale made Basquiat not only one of the two or three best-selling American artists of all time, but one of the highest-valued artists in history. An overheated Sotheby’s representative claimed after the sale of Untitled (1982) that Basquiat had “joined the pantheon of great, great artists.”

Dealers and auction-house salesmen around the world have made similar claims for years. They began during his lifetime and only accelerated after his overdose, with the prices rising accordingly. As with his friend Andy Warhol, and more recent artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, his work has become prized by — among others — people who do not prize art. Hedge funds seek out his work to hang in their offices. To have a Basquiat on the wall denotes something: mainly, the presence of cash.

It was not obvious that Basquiat would end up the producer of such trophies. Born in Brooklyn in 1960, he left school at 17 and first gained attention through his co-invention, with a friend, of a character called “SAMO.” Graffiti signed with this name cropped up in SoHo and on the Lower East Side in 1978. These cryptic semi-philosophical musings in spray paint caught the attention of some local media and soon the identity of the people behind SAMO got out, at which point — having done the job of bringing attention to the creators — SAMO was killed off.

Friends recall that Basquiat “always wanted to be famous,” and his other early assault on the public’s attention came after suggesting to a friend at a party that they should form a band. Basquiat couldn’t play the clarinet and the friend couldn’t play the drums. Nevertheless they played clarinet and drums respectively in a group called “Gray.” And here an oddity of the arts in the 20th century created an opening for someone able to seize opportunities where he saw them. By the late 20th century, perhaps the only art that still required years of dedication, practice, and training was music. Somebody who had not studied the clarinet could not just pick the instrument up and play it by instinct. Even if the person managed somewhat, it was not just unlikely but impossible that he could then be acclaimed as one of the great clarinetists or musicians of all time. Yet — and you may lay the blame at the feet of Duchamp or one of a number of other culprits — at some point in the last century, ability, skill, and practice were no longer required fitness tests for launching a career in the visual arts.

To his credit, Basquiat — who never had any formal training and who (as footage of him working, as well as the work, shows) could not hold a brush properly — saw this gigantic opening and ran for it. He had also learned from the New York nightclub scene, and the mix of people he watched there, that fame had become the gift from which all other gifts might flow.

When he decorated some postcards, he made sure to thrust himself in front of Andy Warhol at a restaurant and persuade the older artist to buy one. Being noticed was something that both men were good at and recognized in each other. Basquiat’s work soon moved on from graffiti on scrap metal and rudely doodled postcards. Diego Cortez, an early supporter, offered to sell the results if Basquiat bought some paints and painted some things. Cortez subsequently curated the 1981 New York/New Wave show that launched Basquiat. Much of the work from around this time is in the Barbican retrospective.

To see some of it, even on the walls of a gallery as urban, gritty, and indeed bleak as London’s Barbican Centre, is to feel an unmistakable stab of pity. Even the simplest frames around works such as Airplanes (1980) seem obscene, as — even more so — do the curatorial descriptions: Airplanes (1980) is characterized as “Oil stick on paper. Guarded by Bischofberger, Männedorf-Zurich, Switzerland.” All this to describe a large sheet of paper with seven airplanes poorly placed and poorly scrawled on it. The only thing missing is a signature in a corner saying “Age 5.”

Excuses must be made for such work. At the Barbican, I overheard two young women separately whisper to friends in awed tones as they surveyed this work, “Apparently he suffered from really bad depression.” Other reasons are more commonly given, and can be easily refuted. Although his origins were not privileged, Basquiat did not come from the poorest part of society. (His father was a middle-class accountant, a “blazer-type-wearing person,” according to a friend.) Yet he hit a moment of the sort that Cortez once summed up in an interview: “I was just tired of seeing white walls, with white people with white wine.” Others clearly felt the same. “Getting people in the art world to pay attention to his work wasn’t that hard, I’ll tell you,” says Cortez. Dealer Annina Nosei picked him up, and at the show of his work that she organized, everything sold out in one night.

Yet even at that early stage, it was clear that the work was about something other than art. One of the highlights of the show is Dos Cabezas (1982; “acrylic and oil stick on canvas with wooden supports”). In October 1982, the art dealer Bruno Bischofberger took Basquiat to Warhol’s Factory for the first time. After some Polaroid snapping, the younger artist dashed back to his studio and painted this cartoonish work (“a really great masterpiece,” according to Bischofberger) and had it delivered to Warhol a couple of hours later, the paint still wet. Given his prodigious output, and the amount of time he spent socializing, some people claim to wonder when Basquiat did all his painting. The simple answer, as Warhol learned, is that none of it took much time. On this occasion, receiving this new work, Warhol apparently complained, “Oh I’m so jealous. He’s faster than me.”

There were other things Warhol was clearly jealous of, too. Footage from his 1983–84 series Andy Warhol’s TV shows the elder artist with his arm possessively, uncomfortably draped around Basquiat while Warhol simpers through a conversation. Warhol might have struggled in the age of Weinstein. Yet the titanic cynicism of Warhol was not precisely mirrored in his young friend. Basquiat was clearly an earnest and thoughtful young man who attempted to engage with ideas. Only his inability to draw or paint presented a problem, though ever fewer collectors or curators were willing to identify this as any type of impediment. He did what he could with what he had. But it is the reaction of the world, and the art world in particular, that is the most fascinating element in his career.

Here the most elementary problems are passed over as though unimportant. For instance, again and again the sheer disposability and impermanence of these works makes itself felt. Throughout a retrospective as lovingly curated as this one, the viewer wonders whether Basquiat had anything like a similar regard for the work. Frames are tied together poorly and canvases loosely attached. Drips of something (coffee or paint?) splatter works that their subsequent holders have preserved and here presented as great. The feeling dawns that these works are not art but relics, and their frames — and the galleries they hang in — modern reliquaries.

Very occasionally there is a striking image. Self-portrait (1983) is one of the few such, the artist’s face all black with white, demonic eyes. It is one of the works that point to a still-subterranean fact about his career: Some early reception of Basquiat may have betrayed a certain racism, though not in the form of harsh criticism. Rather it came from people commenting on, for instance, the “primitivism” of his art. We know that this stung him, and he appeared to imagine that a white artist would not have had such attitudes attributed to him. He may have been right, or he may have been wrong, but basic, if not primitive, is what nearly all of his art remains. And the truth is that rather than an impediment, his skin color was the hugest possible boon to his career. A society in search of social harmony, examples, and role models, added to an art market aware of its elitist reputation in an anti-elitist age, had need of Basquiat or Basquiat-like figures.

Perhaps the over-egging of his place in art history comes from an effort to cover over this unpalatable truth. As with most overcompensation, it is an error. There is a whole section at the Barbican dedicated to “art history” and Basquiat’s claimed relationship with, and alleged place in, that cosmos. Amid stiff competition, stretching across two floors and 14 large rooms, it is the most desultory section of the whole show. The nadir is a work called “Untitled (Duchamp, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein),” from 1986–87, which consists of four pieces of brown paper, each framed, and each dedicated to one of these forebears. All consist only of a few words followed by Basquiat’s signature. The one honoring Duchamp reads (in its entirety), “Duchamp’s main contribution was the ready-made Fountain (1917). Jean-Michel Basquiat.” The one for Lichtenstein records that “Lichtenstein did comic strip images.”

Like Untitled (Titian) (1982), Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits (1982), and a smattering of books on art history that Basquiat owned, these are exhibited as evidence of the place Basquiat should be recognized as holding in the history of art, and the accompanying notes and catalogues make this argument explicitly. The company does not show Basquiat in a favorable light. One of the regular refrains of his admirers is that he never copied the work of other artists, but rather did a total revision of any work he referred to. Nothing could be more provably wrong. Basquiat could not have copied Leonardo even if he had wanted to. He could not even reflect the work of such greats: All he could do was refer to it. It takes a considerable amount of investment, and many of the biggest claims about Basquiat have always been made by people with a very serious investment, to see these works in any other way. Like the vast, pretentiously imagined triptychs that (along with framed pages from his notebooks) end the show, they reveal a person pitifully straining to achieve something with next to no technical ability.

Still, his admirers put him among the greatest artists. The art dealer Tony Shafrazi said in a recent film, “I put him in the highest place, like van Gogh, like Picasso.” Another work in the Barbican show is Untitled (Pablo Picasso) (1984). It consists of a sloppily attempted cartoon of a young Picasso with a number of red stripes beneath the face that vaguely suggest a Breton jumper. According to the exhibition notes, “By conflating these two parts of Picasso’s life Basquiat contemplates the entirety of the artist’s career.” Contemplates, possibly. But it is contemplation to no effect.

The truth is that there is more creativity in what dealers and critics say about Basquiat than there is in the work itself. It is they who have done the real work. The absurd claims and talking-up occurred while he was alive, famously catapulting him in a couple of years from poverty to exceptional riches. Perhaps it was inevitable that he should have tried to escape the situation that he and his wildest promoters had got him into. He tried first by escaping to California and then by escaping into heroin.

Friends claimed that Basquiat was famously independent of mind and that nobody could tell him what to do. They should at least have tried. If they had said at the outset that, instead of dealing his work, they would help him learn the skills needed to pursue it, then he might not have banged his head so visibly and continuously against his own limitations throughout his short career. Perhaps he understood that he was only getting away with something and worried when it might end. Far greater artists than he have had similar fears and been brought down by them.

Aided by his early death, the Basquiat industry has not seriously faltered yet. Indeed, owing to the price inflation of his works, today those who turned down his early work have had to deliver groveling mea culpas for missing the point. The chief curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art said, in a recent documentary interview, “When you first see brand-new work, chances are if it’s really significant it will be uncomfortable to somebody like myself, because I am so immersed in what painting up until now looked like. And with Basquiat, many art professionals had skepticism about what he was doing because the paintings didn’t necessarily fit their idea about museum painting. And yet of course that’s exactly what’s necessary in order to create the art of the future.”

But this is not so. What is necessary to create the art of the future is the same thing that was needed to create the art of the past: tremendous vision melded with exceptional ability. Watching the crowds of inner-city children pouring into the Barbican in the middle of the day on their school trips, I found it impossible to avoid the thought that the problem Basquiat suffered from was being posthumously exacerbated by his fawning curators. Here was an artist being shown to these children as gritty, real, rich, and vindicated — and who would therefore merely perpetuate the problem he could not escape: the fact that ambition without discipline is uncapturable and blows away like dreams.

– Mr. Murray is the author, most recently, of The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam.

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