Jean-Michel Basquiat’s life has all the makings of a VH1 Behind the Music special. Rumor has it, Julian Schnabel even made a pretty good one. A brilliant ghetto child slums through the hothouse of New York’s art scene in the 1980s. Discovered, he showcases in Mary Boone’s gallery and then across Europe by the time he is in his mid-20s. Before he reaches the sun, the wings of this young Icarus are cut. He dies of a drug overdose at the age of 27.
Morality tales aside, Basquiat’s work resists kitsch. Indeed, the retrospective of his paintings currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum confirms Basquiat as one of the last great painters of the 20th century. His art worked through the crafting of intense contradictions with an overarching simplicity. His oilstick and acrylic figurative drawings suggest an almost fragile one-dimensionality while simultaneously glimpsing the inner view of his subjects. The painting Untitled (Head) is a skull marked by dozens of scars and downward cast eyes representing the bruised ego. The viewer is both repulsed and attracted to this figure, like Frankenstein’s monster, so much like us it’s scary.
The crown tag and surrealist writing characteristic of his painting and constructions speaks to the influence of graffiti in Basquiat’s work. But unlike subway bombers and political artists such as Glenn Ligon and Adrian Piper, Basquiat rejects didacticism. By crossing out text and repeating words, Basquiat fucks with meaning in a unique signifying style that constantly works against itself, a syncopated contretemps.
His personal intersection as Afro-Caribbean smacked into 80s Soho positions the tension in the retrospective between originality and appropriation. The Brooklyn’s curators see Basquiat as appropriating Modern art, particularly Picasso. True, Picasso and Basquiat neatly bookend 20th century painting, especially in regards to the influence of the West African aesthetic. But where Picasso came to West African art through the “opening” of Africa by French imperialism, Basquiat engaged in an organic process Amilcar Cabral called “returning to the source.”
In Basquiat’s beautification, or “crowning,” of historical black figures like Charlie Parker and Joe Lewis, there’s a clear nod to the Haitian Loa replacement of Catholic saints with Yoruba gods. Basquiat’s paintings are devoid of the militant markers found in the earlier Black Arts Movement. Less an apolitical poser, Basquiat created a coded resistance by “pulling the wool over master’s eyes,” as seen in Natives Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari.
As a black man in a mighty white art establishment, he played Elegba, the trickster, canvassing a space of contemplation and playfulness by polyglotting Voodoo, Santería, rap, jazz, blues and the street corner. Basquiat is both blacker-than-thou and easy for a global audience.
The Brooklyn Museum retrospective is another hit from its gambling curators. To see Basquiat juxtaposed with the vast collection of African art he had visited as a youth underscores the principles of Sankofa. “We must look to the past to understand the present and prepare for the future.”