Jean-Michel Basquiat at Tony Shafrazi Gallery

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hollywood Africans (1983), mixed media on canvas; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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Is there anything left to be said about the life and art of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88)?  The critical extremes in which his work is held all but obviates discussion.  Basquiat’s admirers shower his talent with hosannas few figures in the history of art could sustain.  His critics assail the pictures with a ferocity that’s out of proportion to its subject.  Overshadowing all of this is a life and career whose trajectory renders the term “meteoric” inadequate.

In a culture enamored of the myth of the tortured artist, Basquiat’s story—with its corrosive jumble of art, drugs, race, fame and an early death—is too terribly perfect.  In this respect, Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film on the artist was a predictable capstone to the Basquiat phenomenon–one based more on the coarse attractions of celebrity than on the finely calibrated nuances of art.

Walking through the show of Basquiat’s painting and drawings at Tony Shafrazi Gallery, it’s hard to see, artistically speaking, what the fuss was all about.  Eleven years after Basquiat’s death, the work looks fast and bright.  Time has its way of ironing out the kinks of culture, and familiarity can breed complacency.  But removed from its historical and biographical context–which is, ultimately, where art lives–Basquiat’s work isn’t just stylish–it’s all style.

His signature calligraphy, that curt and scratchy schmutz-and-schmear, has less in common with the streetwise grit of graffiti than with the art-wise affectation of a savvy eye.

Combining the sketchy elegance of Cy Twombly with the ersatz art brut of Jean Dubuffet–and a dollop of late Picasso thrown in for good measure–Basquiat covered his surfaces with considerable, if somewhat academic panache.  Every last mark of Quality Meats For The Public (1982), a compendium of butcher shop mastheads, has a strategic presence.  Yet Basquiat’s is a frictionless art.  Seen en masse, one quickly realizes the pictures aren’t those of an impassioned genius, but of a professional too hyped to focus.

Basquiat’s work is satisfying in its facility, and we return to it for pictorial tics that press the right buttons.  His art is so uniform in caliber and timbre that a careful appraisal of its highs and lows would be fruitless.  One can make qualitative distinctions between, say, the works-on-paper and the paintings.  Many people prefer the former, with their smudged surfaces and crackly linearity, and they have a point–Basquiat’s scraggly gift lent itself more to drawing than to painting.  (Basquiat’s drawings are never, properly speaking, paintings; they are always drawings on canvas.)

Yet if it’s unjust to claim that once you’ve seen one Basquiat you’ve seen them all, it’s true that his art is exhaustible.  Once their ready charms have been deduced, one can pay lip service to the pictures without having to look at them.  This trait isn’t characteristic of Basquiat alone, of course–in an art world that encourages product over vision, it’s standard practice.  There have been worse artists than Basquiat, but to conflate his talent with genius is to confuse period pieces for the real thing.

© 1999 Mario Naves

Originally published in the October 18, 1999 edition of The New York Observer.

Postscript:  Tony Shafrazi wrote the following letter in response to my Basquiat review; it appeared in the November 1, 1999 edition of The New York Observer:

“It is not surprising that ignorance continues to show itself in the guise of snob indifference and cynicism.  Uneducated and unqualified ‘opinions’ run rampant like disease and poverty.

“Mario Naves . . . proves that he doesn’t know art, cannot see or smell itunder his nose and would not have recognized it a hundred years ago in 1899 in Van Gogh and his ‘style’.”

Italics in the original, by the way.

The man who spray painted “Kill All Lies” across Picasso’s Guernica probably wouldn’t like my take on take on Van Gogh either.

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