The exhibition Basquiat, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (until January 30) generates as much of a long queue outside the museum as Larry Clark did. This exhibition is a proven success because it is comprehensiveness and its remarkable presentation (there are almost 100 of the 800 paintings he created). Not only does the exhibition catalogue his work in a chronological progression, but it also highlights the artist’s underlying themes explored, from his Christian and auto-destructive aspect, as well as his fascination for letters, words depicting his familiarity with Kossuth, to graffiti. Then, there is the textual cartography that occupies the space of some of his canvases. One of the paradoxes that emerges from this exhibition is that his negritude was such a turmoil imbued in his work yet the fact of being black (and practically the only black American artist) permitted him to explore new ways of seeing, to undo himself from norms and dominant rules that white artists would have otherwise had more trouble escaping from.
Many of his paintings are more or less coded with messages about racism: the skinned man; as we do not see the colour of his skin, Catfish; the fish-cat that is the food of poor southern Blacks, or this superb Slave Auction of 1982 (pictured above), like a cry addressed to White society. The Black man- prisoner, humiliated but who will triumph- and in whom Basquiat saw hero and the herald, next to the boxers and jazzmen- were the only Blacks who managed well in life (Cassius Clay, 1982).
But despite being in revolt, Basquiat was not politically active (even if some of his artworks such as Per Capita sometimes give us this impression), and even if he new very well how to construct a distinct personality and position himself within the (white) New York art-world. He had a pronounced sense for marketing (he was pictured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine on the 10th of February 1985 whose headline was “The Marketing of an American Artist”); was very aware of his rank, and did everything he could to improve his public profile. There are several examples here, of the disastrous (ad)venture with Warhol, when both artists worked together, trying to devour one another; the older hoping to regain his popularity through the younger one who in turn, leeched off his mentor whilst explicitly imposing his own style. As a result, their collaborative paintings are confusing, and make for sad examples of failure (6.99 from 1985).
Not happy with being black, Basquiat took to drugs and many of his paintings are revelatory of his drug-induced state: exacerbated and out-of-this-world. Looking at his pastel artwork (Head of Madman, 1982), we see a figurative portrait with bulging eyes, erect hair, flared nostrils, and an immense grinning mouth- this stupefying tension electrified. It has to be read in a romantic way (did you know he was Madonna’s lover?) best exemplified by Anaïd Demir’s text “Le Dernier jour de Jean-Michel Basquiat,” which accurately describes his (drug) dependency and inability to withdraw. My astonishment came whilst watching a film accompanying the exhibition titled One Day in Crosby Street by Stephen Torton; a director who encapsulates Basquiat as dazzling; and we imagine a nervous, agitated artist who paints in a trance-like condition, and who dances around his canvas like Pollock, battling it at the same time. And yet this film of Basquiat trying to paint shows a hardworking man who is meticulous, careful, who traces his letters and contours of circles well, who cautiously re-applies paint on his motifs to give them a thicker appearance- all with controlled and measured gestures. The materials used are often haphazard, but the painting itself is astoundingly accomplished with care; more like that of a good student without error or accident, rather than a distressed young man. This took me by surprise.