From hip-hop to hype, African-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat embodied everything noisy, audacious, disaffected, exhilarating and cynical about the revival of figurative painting in the 1980s. His firework career spanned the decade – from 1981, when his raw, rudimentary figures astonished a New York wearying of minimalist chic, until 1988, when he died of a drug overdose. He would have celebrated his 50th birthday next month, an anniversary marked by Europe’s first Basquiat retrospective, recently opened at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris.
Basquiat, according to his father, dreamed of a Paris exhibition, and certainly he is the only one of his New York cohort—among them Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente—whose work resonates in the capital of modernism.
His most iconic image, a black face halfway between a mask and a skull, executed in his characteristic graffiti scrawl, picks up where late Picasso left off, thus rounding off the century of exchange and appropriation between western and African art that began with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles, completed after the Spaniard visited Paris’s Ethnographic Museum.
As the first works here show, though, there was never anything derivative in Basquiat’s larger-than-life-size heads painted in aerosol spray. Irony of a Negro Policeman features a squat cartoon figure with slab-like hands and feet. The Profit 1 has a giant head outlined in white, encircled by a halo/crown of thorns. A celebrated untitled work denotes a black prisoner with a circle for a face and pajama stripes, flanked by square blue blobs for guards. All demonstrate Basquiat’s direct brushwork, economical means and playful approach to political painting.
The chief debt throughout is to his teenage identity as the street artist SAMO (“same old … “). When he began making paintings for galleries he kept the monumental scale, treating canvases as apparently random sections of wall, leaving some parts bare, covering others with words and numbers, scratches, smears, obscure notations.
He carried over key motifs, too, particularly cars and aeroplanes drawn with child-like simplicity. The saturated cerulean cityscape Untitled (Blue Airplane) has an energy and conviction straight from the street. The spare, lyrical Cadillac Moon, with its gold car in chains and black car about to fly, is surrounded by letters and symbols so inchoate that when an enthusiastic visitor to the show last week added a few, it took curators a day to notice. (That painting has now been removed.)
Yet Basquiat’s improvisational method bears unpacking. Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta evokes the southern landscape by repeated associative words—”Mark Twain,” “cotton” —and makes its point about humanity being treated like meat by juxtaposing a black head (Fig 23, a mere statistic) with a rat, a cow’s head, an udder. Slave Auction has an etiolated dealer offering for sale fluttering sketches of parodic black heads, drawn on paper and stuck on the canvas.
The hybrid aesthetic, fragmented images, passages of paint and lettering partly obliterated, crossed out, echoed around the canvas, and the use of collage, mimic in paint the sampling, cut’n’paste and impromptu rhythms of hip-hop music, emerging in the South Bronx as Basquiat grew up. He combined its waywardness with traditional painterly values: an instinct for composition, a strong line and, at his best—this show’s most interesting revelation, thanks to carefully chosen works, often from private collections—a marvellous sense of colour as a picture’s structural glue.
In Italian, a diptych built around a grotesque head and a large crimson splash, suggesting a pumping heart, is held together by warm harmonies of sugar pink, azure, apple green, interleaved with black blocks bearing scrawled slogans such as Sangre and Corpus: a colourist tour de force. Arroz con Pollo, a confrontation between a white figure and a black figure separated by a roasting chicken, disturbs because its violence is undercut by romantic hues of saffron, rose and mango.
Gold Griot parodies western fantasies of Africa through a scarecrow with oval head, almond eyes and too-big lips set on golden planks of wood like an icon. Dated 1984, it is more graceful, contrived, sadder than the 1981 works, and seems already to question Basquiat’s relationship with his delirious audience.
Young, black and beautiful, Basquiat was acclaimed from the moment he appeared in SoHo; he was soon Madonna’s lover, Warhol’s collaborator—their joint works are dreadful—and a tug-of-love prodigy between galleries. Was he genuinely innovative, a new black voice, or a puppet manipulated by an art world playing out cultural clichés of youth and exoticism?
Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne, with its impressive permanent collection including murals by Dufy and Matisse, and its vast, sweeping art deco galleries, imposes a significant challenge on any artist, both in terms of visual spectacle and history. Basquiat rises to the demands in the opening rooms, but soon palls: undeniably, he lost freshness and lightness as soon as his works hit the overheated 1980s market. The second half of this show is repetitious, tired, formulaic.
The jibe goes that death is a smart career move for an artist running out of steam. But Basquiat was always half in love with easeful death, persuasively expressing adolescent anger and dreaminess. His recurring image of a skeletal body composed of loosely painted diagrams of heart, intestines and other organs announces his preoccupation with physicality, mortality. Untitled (Fallen Angel) from 1981 is a fine example of how his X-ray torso gives pathos to a fallen hero, his ungainly yellow wings flapping helplessly as he is dying.
Hospitalised in childhood for the removal of his spleen following a car accident, Basquiat received a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, a defining influence and evidence of the complexity of his visual template. No wild child of urban myth, he was a bilingual sophisticate – his parents were middle class, his mother took him to museums – who positioned himself knowledgeably vis-à-vis past as well as contemporary art.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Derelict, painted on wooden doors with metal hinges, and Tenement Window on an old frame, are among several works referencing Robert Rauschenberg’s combines. Twombly’s scribbled poetry and broken hierarchies are constant echoes, as are Dubuffet’s scratchy drawings and the cartoon frenzy of late Guston. Basquiat blended these allusions with his own version of pop culture so seductively that he became a hyped commodity for the very consumer society that he satirised. With the time and distance provided by this Paris show, we see how the art world gobbled up the kernel of his precarious talent, and spat out the husk: a story as haunting as Basquiat’s best pictures.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.