Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s The Time…

Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1986

Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1986

In conjunction with a retrospective exhibition opening this week at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada…

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) was a “shooting-star” phenomenon of the New York City art scene during the 1980s. In less than a decade he zoomed from teenage magic-marker-on-walls graffiti punk – from 1977 to 1980 – under the name SAMO © (Same Old Shit Copyright) with fellow high-schoolers Al Diaz, Shannon Dawson, and Matt Kelly – to major Manhattan trendy. The enigmatic poetic thoughts and slogans of SAMO found their way onto Basquiat’s canvases, and his SAMO “tagging” years in SoHo and Lower Manhattan can be viewed as a kind of early advertisement for himself as an Artist.
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One of three children born to Gérard Basquiat, from Haiti, and Matilde Andrades, Brooklyn-born but of Puerto-Rican descent, Jean-Michel’s home life was unstable, his mother being institutionalized from the time he was 11 years old, and his father banishing him from about the age of 15 after he dropped out of school following Grade 10. However, his mother’s gift to him of a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, the 1858 illustrated encylopaedia of the human body, before he was ten years old, planted in him the seed of ambition for future artistic expression.
SAMO graffiti photographed by Henry Flynt in 1979

SAMO graffiti photographed by Henry Flynt in 1979

Jean Michel Basquiat_1960 to 1988
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The late 1970s-early 1980s New York City confluence of street culture with art, via the emerging rap (later “hip-hop”) and graffiti scenes, plus his interest in a “serious” art career, helped to position Basquiat for stardom; he was, in fact, in the right place at the right time.
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Keith Haring, two and a half years older, would take the NYC graffiti phenomenon in a whole other Street Meets the PopArt World direction during the 1980s, whereas Basquiat aimed for a more painterly self-expression, fashioning a synthesis of Primitivism and Neo-Expressionism on canvas initiated through his graffiti and “tagging” origins.
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In February of 1985, Basquiat appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in a feature titled “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist”.

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http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/08/09/specials/basquiat-mag.html

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He was both successful and very “Now” by then, yet his growing appetite for heroin use was beginning to interfere with his friendships and professional obligations. Though he did attempt to kick his heroin habit, he ultimately died of an overdose in his Great Jones Street studio in August of 1988. He was 27 years old.
At the artist’s funeral, rap/hiphop pioneer Fab Five Freddy read the following poem:
“Genius Child” by Langston Hughes
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This is a song for the genius child,
Sing it softly, for the song is wild.
Sing it softly as ever you can,
Lest the song get out of hand.
Nobody loves a genius child,
Can you love an eagle,
Tame or wild?
Can you love an eagle,
Wild or tame?
Can you love a monster
Of frightening name?
Nobody loves a genius child.
Kill him – and let his soul run wild.
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Of Basquiat’s worldview, artist Lydia Lee has said:
“Like a DJ, he adeptly reworked the clichéd language of gesture, freedom, and angst in Neo-Expressionism, and redirected Pop Art’s strategy of appropriation, in order to produce a body of work that at times celebrated Black culture and history, yet also revealed its complexity and contradictions.”
All Colored Cast Part 3 by Jean-Michel Basquiat_1982_acrylic paint and crayon on canvas

All Colored Cast Part 3 by Jean-Michel Basquiat_1982_acrylic paint and crayon on canvas

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In 2005, Marc Mayer, a curator and art historian, wrote of Basquiat the artist:
“Basquiat speaks articulately while dodging the full impact of clarity like a matador. We can read his pictures without strenuous effort—the words, the images, the colours and the construction—but we cannot quite fathom the point they belabour. Keeping us in this state of half-knowing, of mystery-within-familiarity, had been the core technique of his brand of communication since his adolescent days as a graffiti poet with SAMO©. To enjoy them, we are not meant to analyze the pictures too carefully. Quantifying the encyclopedic breadth of his research certainly results in an interesting inventory, but the sum cannot adequately explain his pictures, which require an effort outside the purview of iconography… He painted a calculated incoherence, calibrating the mystery of what such apparently meaning-laden pictures might ultimately mean.”
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ZP Editor’s Note:
Basquiat’s painting Defacement: The Death of Michael Stewart, references the 1983 beating-into-unconsciousness-then-cardiac-arrest-after-two-weeks-in-a-coma death of a 25-year-old Black graffiti artist (born in Brooklyn in 1958). Though Stewart had resisted arrest for illegal spray-painting, it was significant that he was unarmed, yet eleven White police officers had participated in his “take-down”. An all-White jury later acquitted them.
Recent “racial” happenings indicate – unfortunately – that Basquiat’s painting Defacement still resonates powerfully; occurrences in Ferguson, Ohio, and Staten Island, New York City, both in 2014, are prime examples.
Between 1970 and 2000, the racial demographics of Ferguson, Ohio, shifted dramatically: from 99 percent White to approximately 45 percent White; from 1 percent Black to approximately 52 percent Black. Yet the Ferguson Police Department’s force has remained overwhelmingly White.
In August of 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was Black, was fatally shot by a White Ferguson police officer, and the use of lethal force was roundly felt to be unwarranted. Looting and riots – yet also peaceful demonstrations – followed, but in November 2014 the police officer responsible was not indicted in the shooting death of the teen. Brown’s death, and the chain of events that followed, have brought to international attention the simmering resentments and inequalities that persist in some American towns and cities.
In July 2014, on Staten Island in New York City, Eric Garner, a Black man, had also died – as a result of a choke-hold around his neck – from a White police officer. Illegally selling cigarettes, yet Garner too was unarmed, and he did not resist arrest; in fact he raised his hands in the air to show that he carried no weapon. Still, he was tackled to the ground, face down, and choke-held. Garner, obese and asthmatic, died. This death was ruled a homicide – yet the impulse by a White police officer to use excessive force on a Black person remains a heated topic, and has sparked a range of national discussions in the U.S.A.
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