How Jean-Michel Basquiat Rose to Be King of the Art World

Mark Dery
His art was about “80 percent anger,” Jean-Michel Basquiat said, but that rage inspired a mad love that reclaimed and proclaimed the Black history white supremacy downplays or erases.  In King Pleasure, the dazzling show at the Starrett-Lehigh building in Chelsea, he pays tribute to Black heroes (jazz musicians, especially his bebop god, Charlie Parker; boxers like Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson, Sugar Ray Robinson); and exalts what the cultural critic Lisa Kennedy calls the Black Familiar — the “symbolically rich” texture of Black culture as represented and received by Black people when they feel free “to be black without trying to explain blackness (to whites).”   The crown is one of Basquiat’s master metaphors, conferring regal status on Black icons but ennobling everyday lives as well. Asked, by the legendary curator and art-world kingmaker Henry Geldzahler, “What is your subject matter?” he replied, “Royalty, heroism, and the streets.” The color black has pride of place in Basquiat’s work. On occasion, it dominates our field of vision, engulfing most of the canvas (as it does in the 1982 painting “Cabeza”), an aesthetic choice that’s hard not to see as radical politics with a paintstick. “Black people are never portrayed realistically — not even portrayed in modern art enough,” he told an interviewer. “I use the ‘black’ as protagonist because I am black, and that’s why I use it as the main character in all the paintings.” Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Jailbirds” (1983), acrylic and oil stick on canvas (image © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat) It’s a manifesto for a Black-centric body of art that inverts the white-supremacist social order — and calls out the representational racism of Western art history while it’s at it. Basquiat was never not political, but while he was capable of social commentary as scathing as anything from George Grosz’s savage pen, he preferred punk mockery and black humor (“Irony of Negro Policeman,” 1981; “Hollywood Africans in Front of the Chinese Theater with Footprints of Movie Stars,” 1983) to strenuously sincere sloganeering.  Red, too, recurs in his work. Sometimes, it’s the luscious crimson of TV-commercial ketchup, other times the ominous maroon of dried blood, like the drips and splashes that all but obliterate the skull-faced head of the figure in “Untitled” (1984). White critics, back in the day, would have read those spatter patterns art-historically, as references to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Black and Brown viewers — those intrepid few who penetrated the Soho-gallery sanctums known, unironically, as “white cubes” — would’ve reeled at their visual echoes of the brutal murder, a year earlier, of Michael Stewart.  Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Untitled” (1984), acrylic and oil stick on wood (photo Mark Dery/Hyperallergic) Stewart, a Black art student and graffiti artist, was handcuffed, hog-tied, and, many believe, beaten to death by New York City Transit cops who caught him tagging a subway wall. Basquiat was traumatized, dazedly repeating to his friends, again and again, “It could have been me.”  “The Death of Michael Stewart,” painted later in 1983, depicts two snaggle-fanged cops, pink as Porky Pig, bopping a black silhouette with their billy clubs; cartoon stars telegraph his pain. The distance between the mordantly jokey, kindergarten-naïf style and the American carnage it memorializes is measured in miles of irony. Five years in the making, King Pleasure is curated with fierce pride, tenderness, and unapologetic reverence by his sisters, Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, and their stepmother, Nora Fitzpatrick. The exhibition snakes through a labyrinth of galleries and includes not only 200 artworks from the family vault, 177 of which have never been publicly shown, but artifacts from the artist’s estate and family mementos. Installation, recreation of Basquiat’s studio at 57 Great Jones Street in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood (photo Mark Dery/Hyperallergic) Installation, recreation of Basquiat’s studio at 57 Great Jones Street in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood (photo Mark Dery/Hyperallergic) The show uses memorabilia to restore the lost context of Basquiat’s childhood and family life. A snapshot of his Haitian father, Gerard, captures a successful accountant whose bourgeois values and father-knows-best authoritarianism clashed, sometimes violently, with Jean-Michel’s seemingly innate iconoclasm. Escalating hostilities between father and son drove Basquiat to leave home at 17. Bumming around Manhattan, he panhandled, sofa-surfed, passed the bottle with winos, and survived on Cheese Doodles. He peddled his hand-drawn postcards and, with Al Díaz, as part of the conceptual-graffiti duo, SAMO© (“SAMe Old shit”), spray-painted gnomic slogans and Dada-punk koans all over downtown New York: “SAMO as an end to mindwash religions, nowhere politics, and bogus philosophy.” King Pleasure averts its gaze from the violence of Basquiat’s relationship with his father, which scarred him–literally: He once claimed his father stabbed him “in the ass” for smoking pot in his bedroom. Yet when the New York Times Magazine put him on its February 10, 1985, cover, certifying his status as an art star, he gave his father a copy, inscribed “To Papa.” Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Untitled (100 Yen)” (1982) (image © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat Licensed by Artestar, New York) The exhibition also draws the curtain of discretion across the sordid details of Basquiat’s last years, a forgivable sin of omission in an exhibition curated by siblings and a stepmother whose declared intention is the “celebration of the life, legacy, and voice” of a brother and son. Basquiat died from a heroin overdose in 1988, at the heart-rendingly young age of 27. The wall texts mention his death without stating its cause, and then only in passing; the catalogue acknowledges that he died from an overdose, but the word “heroin” appears nowhere in its 336 pages. The catalogue lingers longer on that desolate period, but it, too, shrinks from the close-ups that would have given readers a more laceratingly painful picture of the artist alone and adrift, desperately depressed by the death of his mentor and confidante, Andy Warhol; gnawed by the sense that his 15 minutes of fame were over; too despondent to work. His friend Tamra Davis, director of the Basquiat documentary Radiant Child, thinks he may have been “convinced that he had done what he had to do, and it was over.”  Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Untitled” (n.d.), acrylic, oil stick, and color photocopy on wood-hinged door (double-sided) (photo Mark Dery/Hyperallergic) “When you start to emulate these geniuses that also have tragic endings, you’re very well aware of what kind of path you’re taking,” Davis added, evoking Charlie Parker, who died at 34 from cirrhosis of the liver and a lifetime of heroin addiction. Maybe so, but Heriveaux forges a clear link between her brother’s downward spiral and the soul-corroding drip, drip, drip of everyday racism. “My brother was always aware of his Blackness as he navigated New York City, whether being racially profiled or chastised for how he dressed or wore his hair,” she writes in the catalogue. “He always had a hard time catching a cab as a Black man, so he resorted to riding a bike to get around the city. All of it wore him down.”  Installation, recreation of Basquiat family living room in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn (photo Mark Dery/Hyperallergic) Yet it was the white-supremacist climate of the art world that played a key role in his death spiral. He was often glibly dismissed and derided by White critics in reviews that tiptoed up to the line of blackface-minstrel caricature. Invariably the only Black man at art openings with “white walls, white people, and white wine” (as his friend, the gallerist Patti Astor, put it), he was alienated from the culture he spoke to and for.  In a 1989 essay on Basquiat, the late cultural critic Greg Tate spoke of the cognitive dissonance induced by the cultural (and economic) necessity “of speaking for Black culture and your own Black ass from outside” Black culture’s “communal surrounds” and “comforting consensus.” (Touchingly, the fastidious recreation, by exhibition designer Sir David Adjaye, of the Basquiats’ dining room, down to its spice rack —with its McCormick’s tins of turmeric, allspice, chili powder, and celery seeds, testimony to the family’s love of Puerto Rican and Haitian food — and living room, with its eye-poppingly mod couch and set of encyclopedias, brings Jean-Michel home, returning him to the Black Familiar.) Still the best thing written on Basquiat, Tate’s essay “Flyboy in the Buttermilk” is equal parts critical elegy and withering excoriation of the art world. “No area of modern intellectual life has been more resistant to recognizing and authorizing people of color=than the world of the ‘serious’ visual arts,” he wrote. Tate argued: To this day it remains a bastion of white supremacy, a sconce of the wealthy whose high-walled barricades are matched only by Wall Street and the White House and whose exclusionary practices are enforced 24-7-365. It is easier for a rich white man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a Black abstract and/or Conceptual artist to get a one-woman show in lower Manhattan, or a feature in the pages of Artforum, Art in America, or The Village Voice. The prospect that such an artist could become a bona fide art-world celebrity (and at the beginning of her career no less) was, until the advent of Jean­Michel Basquiat, something of a fucking joke. Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Untitled (1960)” (1983), acrylic and oil stick on paper (photo Mark Dery/Hyperallergic) If he’d survived his dark passage through the late ’80s, when dealers, collectors, and critics had wearied of the novelty of a Black enfant terrible and the rollercoaster of his dizzying success seemed to teeter on the brink of the inevitable sickening plunge, Jean-Michel would have navigated an art world that, while beginning to turn its critical gaze inward, is still a “bastion of white supremacy”: 85.4% of the works in major American museums are by White artists, according to a 2019 study; African American artists account for a mere 1.2% of their collections. Jim Crow is alive and well when it comes to managerial and curatorial power, too: A 2018 survey confirmed that “only 4% of the positions outside service and security” in those museums “are held by Black professionals.” Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Untitled (Love)” (1984), acrylic, oil stick, and paper collage on refrigerator door (photo Mark Dery/Hyperallergic) During his lifetime, critics, virtually all of them White, contextualized Basquiat either in terms of his “highbrow” (read: White) influences (Picasso, Cy Twombly, Jean Dubuffet, Pop artists like Warhol and Rauschenberg, Abstract Expressionists like Pollock and Franz Kline) or his roots in Black (codeword: “street”) culture (inevitably, graffiti, even though masters of the craft like Rammellzee and Futura 2000 didn’t consider him a graffiti artist and his work with SAMO© had more in common with Fluxus, conceptual art, and punk’s neo-Situationist provocations than the wild-style tagging of the day). They were never quite sure what to do with a self-taught Afro-punk, Afro-Surrealist, Afrofuturist code-switcher, cultural cryptographer, guerrilla semiotician, and hip-hop deconstructionist who owed as much to bebop and William S. Burroughs’s cut-up technique as he did any African influences, which he came by not through some mysterious genealogical juju but, in a fancy bit of postmodern footwork, by appropriating Picasso’s appropriation of African masks and fetishes, and through his Talmudic study of Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy by Robert Farris Thompson. Thompson’s towering achievement was a wellspring of inspiration for Basquiat, as was the classic medical text Gray’s Anatomy, which his mother gave him at age seven to read when he was recovering, in the hospital, from being struck by a speeding car. (He suffered severe internal injuries and had to have his spleen removed.) Anatomical imagery is for Basquiat what water lilies were for Monet. Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Untitled (Sugar Ray)” (1982), acrylic and oil stick (photo Mark Dery/Hyperallergic) Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Untitled (Edgar)” (n.d.), acrylic and oil stick on canvas (photo Mark Dery/Hyperallergic) Burroughsian in his constant need for incoming information — “I’m usually in front of the television. I have to have some source material around me to work off,” he says in the documentary The Radiant Child — Basquiat was interested in everything: hip-hop, Hitchcock, silent film, Tex Avery cartoons, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, underground comix, Jimi Hendrix, subway ads (“The advertisements bombard me and cloud my mind with visions of Newports, cream cheese, and 6% interest,” he writes in a high-school poem reproduced in the catalogue), snippets of overheard conversation, the secret code of “hobo signs” in Henry Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook, Leonardo’s anatomical studies, Lenny Bruce’s stand-up routines, Art Brut, African rock art. His first dealer, Annina Nosei, was flabbergasted when he displayed an incisive knowledge of Duchamp’s work. He was 20 years old at the time. The gallerist Jeffrey Deitch observes in the catalogue that he seemed to have absorbed all of modern art history by that age.  He wanted to tell us everything, all at once, and looking at his work fills me to bursting, makes me want to tell you everything it makes me feel and think, but I can’t, because his art begins where words end.
© Davy Mellado, 2022. All rights reserved.