I've always been unsure about Jean-Michel Basquiat, the subject of a current large retrospective at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel
When I stated introducing modern art into my teaching, Basquiat was one of the first artists I used because it seemed to me he illustrated the head-on collision between pop culture and the art of the past. I was intrigued by his use of such renaissance giants as Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dűrer, who certainly influenced him. According to another NY artist, Rick Prol, Basquiat had " a Leonardo book open" when he did the skeletal figure for what might be a statement about AIDS, 'Riding with Death'- Prol did the red background- and I can't help thinking of Dűrer's drawing of King Death riding on an anatomised nag when I look at this.
Although I wouldn't go as far as to place him up there with Picasso and Matisse, I do think his art deserves to be in more museums, which studiously avoided purchasing his works after his death. Basquiat's cultural significance was that he epitomised the excesses of the art boom and the move away from social inclusivity towards a more fractured and isolated experience. We're talking the decade of Ronald Reagan here: public sector cuts, increased militarism, corporate funding of art, and the emergence of the art pop star buoyed up by the cult of celebrity. Sound familiar?
An art movement that had all of these qualities was Neo-Expressionism which had its origins in the New York art scene of the 1980s, including Julian Schnabel (b. 1951) who actually made a biopic of JMB in 1996, and is enjoying shows in Canada. The neo-expressionists were scavengers plundering from a variety of styles and sources including graffiti art, graphic design handbooks, magazines, and the literary and art historical canon. Interestingly, Schnabel felt drawn to the baroque and developed a style that fused saintly subjects with a gestural technique: his painting surfaces were encrusted with bits of crockery designed to give the look of a new painting aesthetic.
Yet, broken crockery aside, Schnabel's art was essentially derivative. In one of his paintings, Exile, Schnabel plays the quotation game himself by citing Caravaggio's Boy with Basket of Fruit presumably to draw parallels between the Italian artist's isolation and his own in downtown NY. In reality, Schnabel preferred crowds; his first show in 1979, masterminded by the go-getting Mary Boone- later to become Basquiat's agent-sold out before it had even opened; and by the mid 1980s, Schnabel's paintings were fetching such amounts as $65,000- 90,000. Basquiat first started producing paintings in a NY cellar for $19,000 a throw, and although he eventually became rich, within 5 years he was dead of a heroin overdose. Robert Hughes memorably dubbed him Jean-Michel Basket case.
Like Schnabel, Basquiat's success and fame earned him censure from critics who deplored how the hyped art market had taken over from the real purpose of art, to provoke intellectual and cultural debate, the fuel of the culture wars. Although Basquiat's art has points of interest, it is difficult to evaluate when it comes to the cultural issue. If culture wars in art appeared in response to the dominance of the art history canon which squeezed out issues like ethnicity, race, feminism and hybridity, then JMB does not really figure in those ranks.
Does his 'Skull' really represent the African diaspora in symbolic form, as some critics have maintained? His art may contain allusions to the black experience- Puerto Rican immigrants, street and graffiti art, jazz artists lik\e Charlie Parker and Miles Davis- but it could equally be argued that Basquiat's art merely functions as a kind of consumerist montage picking up images and experiences rather like the random channel-hopping of our own times.
There's a good discussion of this in Phoebe Hoban's Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art. Basquiat's art is 'post-modern' in its rich welter of background cultural noise; but this is culture wars for the post-literate, short attention span consumer "experiencing" cultural 'protest' via T.V. or the Internet. The Live Aid phenomenon; the art market meets MTV; Marshall McLuhan meets The Simpsons. Choose your own cultural frame of reference.
I don't expect this exhibition is going to rehabilitate Basquiat, canonise him, or move him out of art history's equivalent of the intensive care unit, but it's intriguing that someone thinks the artist is ripe for rehabilitation. Resurrection won't be easy though.