Mark Dery on “everything, all at once” the art and life of Jean-Michel Basquiat
There are few reading experiences I enjoy more than cultural critic Mark Dery when his mind is on fire. Mark normally warms his pen in the Twainian hellfire (which I always enjoy), but I especially love when he’s inspired to rhapsody by art and music. Such was the case recently with his Hyperallergic pieces from the surreal Met show and Winslow Homer’s gripping masterpiece ‘The Gulf Stream’.
Mark was recently “filled to the brim” by King Pleasure, Jean-Michael Basquiat’s show at the Starrett-Lehigh building in Chelsea, lovingly organized by the Basquiat family. Mark was so inspired by “the self-made Afro-punk, the Afro-surrealist, the code-changing Afrofuturist, the cultural cryptographer, the guerrilla semiotician and the hip-hop deconstructionist” that he wrote two beautiful essays after his visit to the show, one for Hyperallergic and one for Medium.
From “How Jean-Michel Basquiat Became the King of the Art World” on Hyperallergic:
The color black is in the spotlight in Basquiat’s work. On occasion it dominates our field of vision, engulfing most of the canvas (as in the painting “Cabeza” from 1982), an aesthetic choice that is hard not to see as a radical politics with a brush. “Black people are never realistically represented — not even represented enough in modern art,” he told an interviewer. “I use ‘black’ as the protagonist because I’m black, and that’s why I use him as the main character in all the paintings.”
It’s a manifesto for a black-centric body of art that inverts the social order of white supremacy — and denounces the representational racism of Western art history while it’s at it. Basquiat was never apolitical, but while he was capable of such scathing social commentary as anything from the wild pen of George Grosz, he preferred punk mockery and black humor (“Irony of Negro Policeman” , 1981; “Hollywood Africans in Front of the Chinese Theater with Footprints of Movie Stars,” 1983) to energetically sincere slogans.
Red, too, returns in his work. Sometimes it’s the luscious crimson of televised ketchup, other times the eerie brown of dried blood, like the drips and splatters that nearly obliterate the figure’s cranial head in “Untitled” (1984). White critics, at the time, would have read these splatter patterns into art history as references to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Black and brown viewers – those intrepid few who entered the Soho gallery sanctuaries known, unironically, as “white cubes” – would have been shaken by their visual echoes of the brutal murder, a year earlier, of Michael Stewart.
And “Visible Blackness: Jean-Michel Basquiat” on Medium:
Too often, life blocks our view of work. We can’t see past the myth: his rock star fame; the names in bold in its orbit (Andy Warhol, Madonna, Debbie Harry, Julian Schnabel, Keith Haring, William S. Burroughs); his fatal embrace of the demon lover, the heroine.
This is why, in front of him, his art leaves you speechless. Of course, the show has its disappointing moments: there are pieces that feel sloppy, superficial, as if, running out of inspiration, it’s relying on well-worn gimmicks from the bag of signs, symbols and shtick of his handyman. (Francis Bacon, another self-taught polymath who had no technique to fall back on, also fell into self-parody when inspiration left him.)
But when he’s good, he’s incredibly good. His line is deliciously expressive, as virtuoso as Charlie Parker’s saxophone solo on “Ko Ko”. (Basquiat, who adored Parker’s Altar, often painted to his music, working on several canvases at once, dancing as he moved.) I had also forgotten what a masterful colorist he was: the oversaturated colors, everything straight out of the tube, stunning like the plumage of a West Indies party costume, coated like icing, impasto style. This perfect palette, its daring harmonies reminiscent of African flags (red, black and yellow from Angola, red, white, black and green from Kenya), but also the Pop Art of the 60s and the Saturday morning cartoons he loved, and the “child labor”, glowing with the primary colors of Crayolas, Magic Markers and Play-Doh, which he loved “more than the work of real artists every day” . (He intentionally held his paint sticks awkwardly, like a kindergartener. “I want to do paintings that look like they were done by a child,” he told his friend, graffiti artist Fab Five Freddy. fluent child Jean Dubuffet and Cy Twombly, rather.)
Read more here and here.