Short life, big impact: Basquiat

When the streetwise, self-taught former graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat burst onto the established art scene of the early 1980s, he quickly earned the reputation of being the bad boy of contemporary art. He gathered images of anything and everything, from religious symbols to advertising slogans to political phrases, and defaced and reframed them in wild colors with what many called a primitive energy and passion. His career was short (he died of a heroin overdose at age 27) and his vision was still emerging as he experimented with different styles and techniques. But his impact has been enormous and long-lived.

"He was the voice of a generation," says Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum, which organized the touring retrospective of this youthful, though influential artist, titled simply, "Basquiat." Among other accomplishments, says Mr. Lehman, "Basquiat single-handedly brought the black and Hispanic experience into the white art-world establishment."

The show has just opened in Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). This retrospective is the first major look at Basquiat's career since 1992, when the Whitney Museum in New York mounted an overview of his work. It contains some of the key examples of Basquiat's restless experimentation with different mediums and visual references, most notably an entire portfolio of 32 drawings known as the "Daros Suite."

Basquiat lived and worked in southern California during a two-year period that MOCA curator Fred Hoffman calls a seminal period in his emergence as a potent force in the national art scene. The curator says that nearly one-fifth of the 65 paintings and 50 works on paper that fill MOCA's white-walled galleries were created or exhibited for the first time during that period. "Basquiat liked this city," says Hoffman, and he responded to the city's openness to new ideas, which allowed him to go more deeply into concepts that concerned him for most of his explosive career.

The central theme that underlies nearly all his work, says Hoffman, "is a concern with his identity as a young black man in a white art world." Beyond that, he says, Basquiat explored other dichotomies he saw in the world, such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and the tension between the inner and the outer experience of an individual in a society. He had the same preoccupations with color and line of many early 20th-century artists and was willing to short-circuit what Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight calls the "beige" good taste of the formal art world.

"Basquiat had this incredible ability to process the external world," says Hoffman, who knew the artist during his heyday. "He was always 'on' and he had this almost childlike desire to observe the entire world and make his work a commentary on the world."

Born in Brooklyn to a Haitian-American father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat first gained notoriety as a graffiti artist, working under the name of SAMO. His style has been likened to that of a hip-hop DJ, in which he combines recognizable language, familiar visual icons, and artistic styles to create something new. During his short career, Basquiat looked up to numerous heroes, most notably the pop artist Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated. He also looked to towering black legends in jazz and sports, such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Joe Louis, and Sugar Ray Robinson. In the recently completed film biography which premières with this exhibition, "A Conversation with Jean-Michel Basquiat," the artist talks about his motivation for scavenging through and redefining so many aspects of modern life.

"I have to have some materials around me," Basquiat says in what is thought to be the only recorded interview. Anything will do, he says, from magazines to textbooks or the television. He did not relate to the extreme minimalism of the art world of the late '70s and early '80s. "It's too minimal," he says, "it's so alienating, it takes a college education to even understand it."

He had what he calls a typical love-hate relationship with the commercial art world. While he appreciated what money allowed him to do, ("I was selling postcards for a dollar," he says in the film, describing his early days as "a bum"), he also felt that gallery owners and others wanted to use him. "They're all mercenaries, they're just trying to make as much money as they can."

At the same time, Basquiat was able to remain what he called pure about his art. "I still feel naive," he says, adding "I don't think that you should be cynical about the art world, because it's like being cynical about yourself."

It's this determination to find his own voice that made Basquiat's art so important, says MOCA director Jeremy Strick. "He is fiercely original," says the director, adding that Basquiat's work is "emotionally complex and it challenges all our understandings and assumptions about modern life and art."

'Basquiat' continues in Los Angeles through Oct. 10, and then travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Nov. 20 through Feb. 12, 2006.

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