Live Fast, Die Young, Leave Good-Looking Art

The MFAH highlights 1980s art-world sensation Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat burst onto the New York art scene at the beginning of the '80s, the decade of the overnight art star. These were the Reagan years: Greed was good, and Wall Street was booming, distributing buckets of disposable income and fueling new collectors. Organized by the Brooklyn Museum, a retrospective of the artist's work is on view in "Basquiat" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The 1980 "Times Square Show" was the spark that ignited Basquiat's career. His work, which combined bold color-saturated paint with emphatically drawn lines, yanked ideas and images from popular culture and used text in lists and snippets. His earliest paintings were done on found surfaces -- old doors and windows, a castoff football helmet; when he began to make money, he expanded to include traditional materials like canvas and paper. Twenty-year-old Basquiat's art was fresh and vibrant. But critics placed his persona and biography front and center, before discussions of his work.

Basquiat was described as a graffiti artist, a completely self-taught black kid living on the streets. This characterization made for dramatic copy and intriguing biography that added cachet to sales. The idea of a gritty street kid with untutored, innate talent who was discovered and nurtured by munificent white benefactors appealed to the art world. But Basquiat never considered himself a graffiti artist and in a 1986 interview, he characterized the obsession with his persona over his art as racist.

Basquiat painted Untitled (Head) -- an incredibly 
masterful work -- when he was just 21.
Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Basquiat painted Untitled (Head) -- an incredibly masterful work -- when he was just 21.


Through February 12
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300

In reality, Basquiat was a middle-class kid whose dad was an accountant. His father was Haitian-American, his mother Puerto Rican-American, and Basquiat spoke and read English, Spanish and possibly French from an early age. His mother encouraged cultural activities and took him to New York museums, enrolling him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum at age six. Such was Basquiat's art-world savvy that at 17, he gathered his courage and showed his drawings to Henry Geldzahler, the head of the twentieth-century art department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Geldzahler told him he was "too young.")

Basquiat left high school at 17 after putting a box of shaving cream in a principal's face. He left home and lived on the streets for a time -- a particularly grim, drug-saturated period for the artist. When he moved off the streets, he stayed with a series of friends, joined the club scene, formed a band, and made and sold T-shirts. He also tagged buildings; his graffiti consisted of the moniker SAMO© (an abbreviation for "same old shit") with a crown over it, often paired with phrases like "NOTHING TO BE GAINED HERE" or "COWARDS WILL GIVE TO GET RID OF YOU." Basquiat strategically placed them in arts areas; it was more a project to establish name recognition than a commitment to graffiti art.

On the heels of the "Times Square Show" of June 1980, Basquiat had his first solo European show in May 1981. He got his first studio when dealer Annina Nosei invited him to paint in the basement of her gallery. Things took off from there, with Nosei bringing collectors to the basement to buy work as he painted it and Basquiat later moving on through a host of other dealers. He became the quintessential '80s art star, briefly dating Madonna in 1983 and collaborating with Warhol, the king of pop and an artistic hero, in 1984. Basquiat was frighteningly productive, exhibiting all over the world. Drugs increasingly became a factor in his life, and in 1988, he died of a heroin overdose. He was 27.

"Basquiat" presents a retrospective of the artist's work in chronological order, from 1980 on. The most identifiable elements in his work are there in the earliest pieces: swatches of vibrant, expressively painted color, drawing, text and figures. But when you look at many of them in the context of the artist's later creative output, they look like the efforts of a kid trying to make Basquiats. The elements are there, but they haven't really coalesced.

For Jimmy Best…(1981), Basquiat created text using graffiti-esque spray paint on metal for a pretty unremarkable painting. The text might work in situ on a wall, but the framed version doesn't hold up. An untitled 1980 work depicts a car crash on a largely blank swatch of canvas. The cars are briefly indicated with a couple brushy, arty strokes of color. The image is spare and the text loose and crude, with widely spaced letters à la Cy Twombly. But Basquiat quickly digested any early influences, something that takes most young artists quite a while to do. He internalized everything -- from Alfred E. Neuman and Mad Magazine to Franz Kline -- and produced work in his own voice with a distinctive visual style.

In spite of his talent, Basquiat's work is uneven, particularly in the case of some of the earliest pieces. They serve more as artifacts of Basquiat's development than as successful art. This show could have been made stronger with editing; how many artists want all the stuff they made as a 20-year-old to see the light of day? But that's one of the downsides of the art machine that sucked up Basquiat. It all sold -- good, bad and mediocre -- and it's hard to edit your own work if someone is standing by with a check before the paint is even dry.

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