Jean-Michel Basquiat was my favourite artist for years. I was a teenager with pretensions of being an artist; Basquiat was a dead-by-heroin-overdose-at-the-age-of-27, famous, rich and successful, cool, handsome, well dressed, genius; the epitome of cool to a stoned teenager who likes drawing and doesn’t have a girlfriend. Plus there was a movie made about his life, starring David Bowie as Andy Warhol, showing mesmerising scenes of painting and getting mashed to the sounds of The Pogues, Public Image Ltd., Grandmaster Flash, and Tom Waits. If ever the word awesome was needed, it is to describe this awesome man and his awesome art. (Awesome.) (Plenty of YouTube links there to keep the click-happy music/awesome fans happy.)
Like all rock-star geniuses Basquiat got famous before he was ready, couldn’t cope with it, fucked up his life as those around him abused his talent, and died too young before he could really mature as an artist. Neil Young sang it, and Kurt Cobain quoted it in his suicide note, but is it really better to burn out than to fade away? (Hey, Hey, My, My.) I don’t know. Certain artists I could mention prove otherwise; Frank Zappa, Cy Twombly, William Burroughs, Isaac Asimov, Henry Darger, Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart, and a hundred thousand others all had long, varied and creative lives, many producing their best work later in life.
In fact if you look at Basquiat’s early drawings where he was attempting to copy graffiti styles, they are utterly dreadful, and merely appear as a footnote in books about him. As his life went on the quality and substance of his work improved dramatically (except for his collaborations with Warhol), and Riding With Death (created in 1988, the year he died) is perhaps his masterpiece. Had he lived a little longer, he might have ruined it by splashing white paint all over it and scrawling words dressage, chess or outerspace etcetera, etc, &c. That, or the quality of his output may have increased; he may have put drugs behind him, escaped from the dealers (art/drug) who ravaged him, moved to Europe and gently, quietly, healthily produced his best work ever. Work we will never see; unless those bloody scientists stop messing about with worms and mice and ice cream, and finish that trans-dimensional jump-box I’m waiting for.
Basquiat shamelessly played up to a stereotype of what the poncy, elitist New York art world thought a black artist should be. They wanted primitive, Creole, spear-waving; art about black. See the way it works is this: black artists make art about being black for white audiences, gay or lesbian artists make art about being gay or lesbian, disabled artists make art about being disabled, untrained artists make art about hot chicks and motorbikes, female artists make art about feminist issues, and white male artists make art about art. To a large extent Chris Ofili fell into this trap, with his elephant dung, and his cunts, and his intricate patterns like brightly coloured cloth. There is no doubt he did it on purpose, but what’s the point? I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud.
So Basquiat played up to a stereotype and became the edgy darling of the 1980s New York art scene. Andy Warhol had to have him for his collection. Art snobs thought Basquiat was a real graffiti artist. He wasn’t, he was a ‘proper’ artist with a gimmick, an image. Fortunately his art was cool. For me it just looks great; it makes me happy when I look at it. Other people like to try and find meanings in it by interpreting the disparate words and images. If that makes them happy then good for them, but I just likes me dem pretty lookin picturz.
All images taken from Basquiat, written by Leonhard Emmerling, published by Taschen. (c) TASCHEN GmbH, Hohenzollernring 53, D-50672 Koln. (c) The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.