Who was Basquiat … ?
to New York City?
to the art world?
to the art critic?
Who was Basquiat to New York City? During his life, Jean-Michel Basquiat seemed impossible to disregard. On the surface he was beautiful, with stone-carved features and round, crystallised eyes. Anyone who came to know Basquiat—even during his late teens, ‘the early years,’ having just run away from his parents’ home in Brooklyn to sleep on park benches and friends’ floors in Lower Manhattan—knew that there was more to him than beauty, that there was everything more than just beauty, and that with Basquiat beauty was an afterthought.
His artwork was exactly the inverse. Before his death at the age of 27, he left over 1,000 paintings and 1,000 drawings; upon first glance each one appeared unruly, amateurish or even faddish, too immediate for any meaningful lasting power. But the longer you stare, the more you’re able to see the beauty.
Today I walk through the gallery-lined Chelsea streets in Manhattan and wonder what it was like to be a down-and-out, undiscovered artist in New York City. Basquiat begin his adulthood anonymously, without any credit to his penniless, foreign-sounding name. And so he began his career anonymously, too, tagging public walls all over Lower Manhattan under the name SAMO© (‘same old shit’). It didn’t take him long to be discovered, to re-adopt his birth name and adorn it for the public. But SAMO© lived, worked, and died broke. I’m broke but I’m not down-and-out. I’m an artist but I’m not a painter. I know nothing about the art world, then or now, nor do I possess any desire to penetrate let alone conquer it. Instead I wonder how many young people today live the SAMO© life and, whenever met with resistance, shrug and say, ‘Basquiat did it.’
Who was Basquiat to the art world? SAMO© emerged with the burgeoning underground street art movement of the late 70s but quickly set himself apart, be it through more talent, more brilliance, the fact that he actually sought fame, or other people’s readiness in placing him in the ‘exotic’ role.
‘They’re just racist, most of these people,’ Basquiat said plainly. And then he picked his brush back up, turned up the volume of his phonograph, and went on painting. It is difficult, from an outsider’s perspective, to know how much or how little those things bothered him. Despite being steadfast and confident in his work, he was sensitive to criticism, especially later in his still-young career, when he’d been famous for a while and people were no longer afraid to say anything negative about his work. But before that, during his meteoric rise to fame, all his energies seem to have gone into his paintings. After all, as Basquiat said himself, they are ‘about 80% anger.’ And he keeps painting and keeps painting, while the art critics who ‘mean well’ express joy in the young black man’s emergence, saying, as Diego Cortez said, they were ‘tired of seeing white walls with white people with white wine.’
Who was Basquiat to the art critic? Rene Ricard was the first person, at least publicly, to crown Basquiat ‘the radiant child.’ It was the title of an article Ricard wrote in the December 1981 issue of Artforum, a print version of Basquiat’s first appearance on the art world’s main stage. The piece astonishes me; parts of it could have been written after Basquiat’s rise-fall instead of before it:
I think about how one must become the iconic representation of oneself if one is to outlast the vague definite indifference of the world.
Basquiat the radiant child, the supernova, had more than enough presence to go around, and he filled and played some sort of role in many people’s lives simultaneously. I can’t remember who said it, but there’s this idea that, when someone is so radiant and so bright, everyone around that person will want some part of that light. And when that person just happens to be famous, there are enough takers around to take everything, until all the light has practically been snatched away. And so the radiant child became the poster child for a new era in fine art. In a way, Basquiat now belonged to everyone. He belonged to New York City. He belonged to the art world. He belonged to the art critic.
But does he belong to me and does he belong to you?
Who was Basquiat to me? Can I even call him a victim? Or naive? Unequipped? Someone like him, who seemed to know exactly what he was doing in all of his paintings, knew what he wanted to achieve in each one and set about achieving it. What right do I have to normalise his demise as another example of fame contaminating brilliance?
As an observer, let alone an observer one generation later, I have just about as much right to do so as the art critic, or at least the one who thinks Basquiat belongs entirely to him. If anything, Basquiat belonged to nobody but himself; rather, he was generous and careless at times in giving parts of himself away. Or he belonged to his paintings. They are about 80% anger; the other 20%, in each and every piece, were shards of his fingernails, ribcage, and skull. I’d like to believe, that during Basquiat’s strongest moments, he belonged to no one, and he was able to feed off his own radiance for a change.
An object of art is an honest way of making a living, and this is a much different idea from the fancier notion that art is a scam and a ripoff. The bourgeoisie have, after all, made it a scam. But you could never explain to someone who uses God’s gift to enslave that you have used God’s gift to be free.
Who is Basquiat to me? To me Basquiat the supernova was a brilliant flash of energy whose chemical trail still floats in the atmosphere. To me he is every untitled painting he has ever done: a fully focused work of art that radiates in front of me, making me beg and wish he called it something so at least I can rest easily. To me he is Miles’ horn and Parker’s sax in a paintbrush. To me he is about 80% anger.
Who is Basquiat to you?