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Basquiat Paperback – Import, 2003
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Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988) was an American artist. Born in Brooklyn to a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat first achieved fame as part of SAMO©, an informal graffiti duo who wrote enigmatic epigrams in the cultural hotbed of the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the late 1970s where the hip hop, post-punk, and street art movements had coalesced. By the 1980s, he was exhibiting his neo-expressionist paintings in galleries and museums internationally. The Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of his art in 1992. Basquiat's art focused on "suggestive dichotomies", such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience. He appropriated poetry, drawing, and painting, and married text and image, abstraction, figuration, and historical information mixed with contemporary critique. Basquiat used social commentary in his paintings as a "springboard to deeper truths about the individual", as well as attacks on power structures and systems of racism, while his poetics were acutely political and direct in their criticism of colonialism and support for class struggle. He died of a heroin overdose at his art studio at age 27.
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Like Keith Haring, another graffiti artist, Basquiat had a canny sense of design, and a far better sense of color. His work is immediately recognizable; it sells for millions. By OD'ing on heroin, Basquiat immortalized himself Like Lautrec and Van Gogh, as a "bad boy" outsider whose too-short life took a tragic trajectory.
When his works become so expensive, his life so tabloid-worthy, very few critics dare suggest his output is like any other artist's--uneven! Not that Superman wears no clothes at all, but too often he throws on a familiar flashy cape he's worn before and expects his viewers to imagine the rest of his outfit. Robert Hughes made the memorable observation that Milton Avery's slapdash anatomy "punched holes" in his compositions. With such "critical" criticism all too rare, this book might have made a truly useful contribution by daring to explain where, how, and why Basquiat's work fails.
Like Picasso, Basquiat fell victim to media hype. Knowing that trendy collectors would pay for anything he dashed off, he became a sorry example of Gresham's law, with his mediocre works elbowing aside his better ones. (His VERY early drawings, not illustrated here, are breathtakingly deft and finished.) Like Picasso, he left much to dislike: hermetic scrawlings and thumb-your-nose messiness that this book would have us applaud as uniformly brilliant. How did heroin alter or impair his work? Which are his best paintings, and which are too off-hand to bother with? The book ignores such questions. One of the book's final illustrations--a sketchy 3-minute knock-off of a Renaissance image---is hyped in terms that would make Raphael blush.
Until collectors quit buying art as they do designer clothes, for the label/signature alone (Gucci/Dali, Picasso) or the store/gallery where they was bought it (A&F/Gagosian, Pace), why should art books bother to instruct readers in discrimination, as the "Good, Better, Best" volumes do for American furniture?
I bought this book after attending the fantastic Basquiat retrospective exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. I had not been a fan of the artist before seeing this show. Somehow, wandering through the almost 200 pieces brought a cumulative power to the work that I had never noticed when viewed singly. Basquiat's arcane use of phrases, text and esoteric symbols fascinated me and I wanted to know more. This book was just the ticket.
The book is a fast read. The highlights of Basquiat's career are present; his time on the streets, his early struggles as an artist, his lionization by Rene Ricard and Diego Cortez, his contentious relationships with his agents and promoters, the strange relationship with Warhol, and his final dissolution. But what comes through is the seriousness in Basquiat. Rather than just a drug-addled idiot savant, a characterization that is immortalized in Julian Schabel's deeply flawed bio-pic, we get the impression of Basquiat as a deeply intellectual painter who hides profound social insights under an almost child-like surface.
Emmerling takes Basquiat very seriously. He traces the main themes of the painter's work; heroism, death, and racial injustice; and decodes the hidden meanings in many of the paintings. His draws attention to Basquiat's excellence as a draughtsman, something that was often ignored during his lifetime, and to his debt to older painters. He demonstrates the influence of Cy Twombley on Basquiat but also draws deeper connections between the painter and older abstract expressionists like Clyfford Still. The artist who emerges from this book is something much more comlex and interesting than the Basquiat the myth. He is rather an accomplished painter with something profound to say about life and society who died, not in decline, but at the height of his powers.
The book is lavishly illustrated with many of Basquiat's most important paintings. All are in color and most are big enough to help one appreciate the details in the work. The only paintings that don't come across well in this book are the massive text paintings such as the late Pegasus, which is dominated by a plethora of tiny, precisely laid out text items. In the gallery this work is one of the most hermetic and paradoxically profound pieces, but much of the power is lost on the small page.
Still, with this small caveat, which could be raised against any artist catalogue, this book is highly recommended for anyone who wants to gain a greater appreciation for this important and yet much misunderstood painter.
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