My first thought upon flipping through a volume of Jean-Michel Basquiat works from a 2005 exhibit in Brooklyn was, “This is Basquiat?” He has such an exotic and dignified name. I assumed someone with that name would paint idylls and classical portraits. I expected he would be famous because his creations were moving works of beauty. Someone named Basquiat might even be a French master.
My second thought was, “This looks like garbage.” Angry childish scrawls. Gerald Scarfe when he was in boarding school. The cover of a Butthole Surfers album. An unabashedly amateurish webcomic. The scene when the protagonist flips through another character’s journal and discovers that character is totally insane. I don’t like this stuff. This is not the sort of thing I even understand.
So here is the exercise.
I’ve been tasked with finding my three favorite Basquiat works. Which I will now do, in as much as that’s possible. Then I’ll learn more about Basquiat besides the three facts I currently know: He was played by Jeffrey Wright in a biopic I’ve never seen. He is not a French master. He has a lot of vowels in his last name.
Once I know more about what he’s done, why he’s done it, who he was, and maybe even how and when he did it, I will revisit my three favorites. Will they change? Will they be the same favorites I first picked out? In the bewildering world of modernist art, how different is an informed opinion from an uninformed opinion? Will I still be able to say “I don’t like this stuff”? I might even have a response to the usual, “Yeah, but is it art?” objection.
So before I move on to the second stage of this experiment, I’ve flipped through a couple hundred of Basquiat’s works. I can see from references to Charlie Parker and Sugar Ray Robinson that he’s into jazz and boxing, both things I don’t understand. He’s also got a thing about colonialism, which is a thing I do understand. A lot of his works are concerned with the stain of racism on this country, which is a thing I hope to always strive to understand.
Some of Basquiat’s works are busier than others. Walls of text and doodles. I would need to peer closely to figure out what he’s getting at. Some of the paintings reference salt, sugar, or tobacco as colonial imports, but they just look like graffiti to me. The ones that jump out at me are simpler, or at least more focused. There’s a painting called Max Roach which I like for how a field of red is swallowing up a jazz drummer, but the topic is jazz, and that’s not something I get. I wish Irony of the Negro Policeman and Eyes and Eggs (pictured, above) weren’t so aggressively modernist, because I love the title and concept of both of them.
So I’m left with these as my top three Basquiat works:
Yes, this is one of his aggressively modernist paintings. But it’s also exploding with color and even character. It has hints of craft and deliberate style. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Philistines were a more technologically advanced people who arrived from Crete and fought wars with Israel. They often prevailed. But because the Philistines failed to survive history, they ultimately lost those wars. So their name has been Biblically retconned to be synonymous with uncouth people who don’t understand art. Are these three characters in Basquiat’s painting his critics? The figure in the middle looks like a skeleton. There’s a Haitian voodoo sensibility to him. The guy on the right looks like a short angel, or maybe saint, and he seems to be gagged, or muzzled. The guy on the left has a canine quality and he looks like he’s been beaten. Is that a black eye? Unlike his paintings on jazz or boxing, I feel like this relates to something I would understand. If I understood it.
2. Riding with Death
Simple and gruesome. What happened to the rider? What is he riding? Why all the wasted flesh and desiccation?
1. untitled 1980-81
The bleak urban grey, the smear of darkness, and the ineffectual cheer of the sun are all strong visuals. I can’t read what’s written on the building on the left, but maybe it’s for the better. Without a title, and without being able to read that writing, this painting is entirely open to my interpretation. Therefore, I declare this a bleak assessment of inequality. Some people get clean white homes and colorful cars. Most people live in a bleak urban grey, smeared with darkness, and untouched by sun. This is the only Basquiat painting that I would be interested in having in my house.
Check back next week for a slightly more informed opinion on Basquiat, along with my revised top three.
(Why am I reviewing a painter I don’t even like? Because it won the Patreon review request drawing! If you support my Patreon campaign for $10 or more, you’ll have the opportunity to assign me a review of anything you want. There’s no limit to what you request and I do drawings every month or so. Want me to do Picasso next? Andy Warhol? xkcd? Support me and cast your vote!)