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Live Fast, Die Young, Leave Good-Looking Art

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

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.

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.

Untitled (Head) (1981) is spectacular, painted with conviction and concentration; Basquiat uncharacteristically worked on it off and on over a period of months. It depicts a giant head, emphasizing the shape of the skull. Part of the Basquiat myth is the story of his mother bringing him a copy of Gray's Anatomy when he was seven and recovering from a spleen operation after a car accident. He developed a fascination with underlying anatomy that would later pervade his art. In Head, the eyes stare out, and parts of the teeth are exposed, as is the structure of the jawbone. Basquiat has layered in patches of strong color cut with black and dark brown. His graphic lines of paint create patterns over the features and delineate them. Radiating energy and angst, it's an incredibly masterful work by an artist who was only 21.

Basquiat used text in English and Spanish; his work channels pop culture, politics, music and history -- African-American, in particular. He created works that lionized Charlie Parker. Basquiat loved bebop and memorialized Parker's untimely death in his painting Charles the First (1982). Another "Parker" work, a giant, record-shaped painting on plywood cut in an irregular black circle, has a label drawn in the middle that reads "NOW'S THE TIME© PRKR" in white letters. With its wonky eight-foot shape and earnestly printed letters, it's an amusing and loving work. Basquiat also made paintings about other heroes, such as Joe Louis, Dizzy Gillespie and Sugar Ray Robinson.

One of the most interesting things in the show is the untitled Daros Suite of drawings from 1982 to 1983. Here is Basquiat at his most direct. The 32 color drawings encompass wide-ranging images and eclectic text. There are the iconic heads, a drawing of Aphrodite, Napoleon as a duck. There are references to Greek and Roman history, diagrams of teeth, the digestive system, a slave ship. Text reads, "UNDISCOVERED GENIUS OF THE MISSISSIPPI" and "SELL GRIT." Basquiat's writing serves as both a graphic and a conceptual element. His printing is neat and emphatic; there's nothing affected or "arty" about it.

Some of Basquiat's most satisfying works are later paintings like Pegasus (1987). Working on the floor, Basquiat densely and obsessively filled the seven-foot swath of white paper with black text. The surface is totally covered with words, phrases and simple schematic drawings. From Pablo Picasso to zinc oxide to Stonehenge, the text is like the concentrated markings of someone randomly downloading the contents of his brain onto the page.

The museum is also screening a 1986 interview with Basquiat. It's homemade and has terrible audio quality, but it's nice to see, as it helps cut through all the media characterizations of the artist. He looks impossibly young, and comes off as a sharp, funny and engaging kid. In two years he would be dead. You want to step into the screen and warn him.

While the hype of the '80s seems even more ridiculous in retrospect, it did create the climate that launched Jean-Michel Basquiat onto the art scene. The strength of Basquiat's works bears out the hype infinitely better than some other '80s icons, like, say, Julian Schnabel. (Incidentally, Schnabel wrote and directed the movie Basquiat, which essentially depicted the artist as a zit-picking idiot savant and Schnabel himself as a wise and magnanimous elder statesman.)

The '80s glut of galleries and collectors constantly clamoring for work created an environment that demanded frantic creation. The coke-encrusted Bright Lights, Big City era was always headed for burnout, and one wonders if Basquiat might have lived longer had he debuted in a less frenetic time. Maybe the frenzy -- and the drugs -- fueled his art-making, or maybe, just maybe, he would still be around making work. That would be something to see.


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