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Angry Beauty: Graffiti, Art and Jean-Michel Basquiat

Posted on September 27 2015

Graffiti art is always going to be a difficult sell. For many, the term is simply an oxymoron for visual vandalism, at best a lazy if annoying lashing out of juvenile angst, at worst a beggaring of the quality of the built environment at everyone else’s expense. The UK’s Anti Social Behaviour Act (2003) defines graffiti as “painting, writing, soiling, marking or other defacing by whatever means” and some convicted of doing graffiti have received harsh jail sentences. For others, however, it represents a necessary forum for the disenfranchised to lash out at complacent society in general or its socially bowdlerized art industry in particular.

If there is a truth, it probably depends on where you look. Certainly most “tagging” is artless disfigurement, ironically often desperately seeking conformity by striving to mimic a narrow “graffiti style.” On the other hand, in addition to ensuring political voice to ideas usually denied commercial avenues of expression, talented graffiti artists frequently enliven dreary and/or desolate urban environments. In a January 2015 article, The Guardian’s Athyn Catheart-Keays (“Is urban graffiti a force for good or evil?”) explores this debate. But she also summarizes how what was once a protest born in 1960s Philadelphia not only has been appropriated into mainstream art, it has even become both part of urban tourist strategies as well as an acceptable component of “good” urban design.

Toronto, she reports, even has a Graffiti Management Plan that distinguishes “graffiti vandalism” (bad) from “graffiti art and other street art that adds vibrancy” (good). The latter may remain if commissioned by the building’s owner. In true Canadian fashion, an official panel of specialists exists to assess what gets the nod of approval and what disappears under city workers’ paint rollers. Many cities around the world now provide designated graffiti “canvases” and even commission works.

If it is true that ivy is the best friend of bad architecture, “good” graffiti may be the necessary friend of bad urban design. By rebranding poorer neighbourhoods, says Catheart-Keays, “gentrification graffiti” ultimately leads to graffiti artists becoming exactly what they started out to attack. Perhaps best known and illustrative of the ongoing love/hate relationship with graffiti – and its commercial value - has been the emergence of the UK’s enigmatic Banksy whose artistically strong, stenciled graphics are often simultaneously biting satire, amusing contradictions and even gently whimsical twists.

Despite carefully guarded anonymity and continued sharp social criticism - most recently the ambitious and hugely popular Banksy-curated dystopia Dismaland, located in Weston-Super-Mare UK – his/her/their paintings and prints bring in increasingly astronomical prices in auction. While original works fetch over 1M£ and prints 300K£, commercializing real Banksy urban wall art has its own unique challenges. Notwithstanding, Slave Labour sold for £750,000 having been lifted from its North London Wall. As Maev Kennedy wrote in the Guardian (June 2014.) “If a piece by Banksy had appeared in the grand streets around Sotheby's in Mayfair 10 years ago, it would have been removed as fast as the street cleaners could get there. Today it would be removed just as quickly, but to sell for a substantial sum on the open market.”

But compared to New York’s Jean-Michel Basquiat, Banksy has a ways to go in terms of transition from graffiti social critic to commercially successful art icon. Despite a very short, if prolific career that ended tragically in 1988 with a drug overdose at the incredibly young age of 27, he is credited with bringing to the fore a Black/Latino sensibility reflecting the origins of his father and mother. But he was also quick to point out “I am not a black artist, I am an artist.”

Self-taught, with strong encouragement by his mother (and a ready supply of paper from his father’s accounting office), Basquait quit high school in grade 10 despite gifted intelligence and lived off street-selling of sweatshirts and postcards featuring his artwork. He first came to public attention, or as some would say notoriety as part of SAMO©, a youthful graffiti pairing with Al Diaz and Shannon Dawson They tagged subway trains and Manhattan buildings with cryptic aphorisms such as “SAMO© as an end to playing art” and " SAMO© as an end to mindwash religion, nowhere politics and bogus philosophy.” Ironically given his fate, many see this early work as a scathing criticism of the failed art/drug culture with SAMO© standing for a non-drug “drug” or a bogus religion.

Increasingly, writes Henry A. Flynt, the early group tag lines that are “mostly attempts at satire which were discernably juvenile” gave way to a second age of Basquiat graffiti that included prose poems and, most importantly, limited images. He also formed a moderately successful band eventually called Gray after Gray’s Anatomy, the medical textbook given to him by his mother that would have a profound impact on his figurative art. In addition to appearing in videos and movies, he gained visibility for his emerging painting by appearing as a frequent guest on Glen O’Brien’s public access television program, TV Party.

His gallery career and rise to celebrity status took off in 1980 when he participated in the Times Square group show followed by the P.S. 1 exhibition and two Mudd club shows in 1981. Six solo shows followed in 1982 and soon exhibitions of his work were finding their way to prestigious European galleries. By 1984 he commenced a collaborative friendship with his idol Andy Warhol. While the critical response to his own large scale paintings was very positive, they soured when it came to his joint work with Warhol.

In 1986, as solo artist again, Basquiat continued to exhibit around the US and the world including Abidjan, Ivory Coast. At 25, he became the youngest artist ever to be featured at the Kestner-Gesellschaft Gallery in Hanover, Germany. At the same time, heroin addiction, a growing sense of paranoia and the sudden death of Warhol took its toll. His 1988 Boghoomian Gallery solo show would be his last; three months later he was dead from an overdose.

But what about his place as an artist? Certainly, unlike many “shooting stars,” he has not sunk into obscurity. Almost three decades after his death, interest in Basquait’s work remains strong. Most recently this was signalled by retrospectives at Toronto’s prestigious Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the Brooklyn Museum as well as the astronomical prices commanded by his work. The latter includes an auction sale at the incredible price of €33,508,000. While critics remain starkly divided on his significance, interest remains remarkably high.

As his career evolved in the late 1970s, his art became increasingly socially engaged, connecting with the plight of the underclass. Most significantly, his dense paintings, often rich collages choked full of starkly primitive figures, Gray’s Anatomy-influenced images, and enigmatic text, letters, pictograms, logos and numeric graphics expressing the Black and African colonial experience, demanded the viewer to decode its rich but often painful message. "Basquiat speaks articulately while dodging the full impact of clarity like a matador,” writes Marc Mayer, “... he painted a calculated incoherence, calibrating the mystery of what such apparently meaning-laden pictures might ultimately mean."

Heroic Afro-American figures, including musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, athletes like Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali, and prophets or conflicted everyman, often topped with Basquait’s signature crown, hat or halo, populate his work. The figure of the West African griot, a traditional oral historian, storyteller, news carrier and poet frequently appears, fixing his inescapable gaze on the observer. These historic figures are often simply heads, not as classical likenesses but as graphic embodiments of what made these men (and they were always men) heroic, iconic, prophetic or, as in the case Irony of a Negro Policeman 1981, ironic. Not often discussed is his powerful use of colour that makes many of this best paintings burst with raw energy.

Some criticize his paintings as lacking definition, a clear composition tying together their montage of images, graphics, texts, symbols and colours. Yet that seems to miss the point. It is safe to say he never meant them to be “finished,” instead they were chaotic, enigmatic expressions of an ongoing history. His layering on of complexity, his use of the figure albeit abstractly, his socio-political story-telling and his raw, almost violent emotion is usually seen as part of Neo-expressionism and its reaction to conceptual and minimal art, but he explicitly rejected the movement as “childish.”

Incredibly, at the time of his death he left over 1000 paintings and 1000 drawings. Given this prolific output over such a short period, it is not surprising that their quality varied widely. Some believe his simplest, almost doodles were his best; some that he had produced his best work in the first two years with his later work being “flatter and more cartoonish.” But some believe his work shown in his last 1988 exhibition demonstrated a more mature technique relying on simpler, more economical images and focused compositions. Certainly Exu placed front and centre a dense composition of a head in a sea of eye balls afloat in a plane of white while in the powerful Riding with Death a spare image of death astride a horse moves across a rich but muted and monochromatic background.

Most of us will never be part of the 1% that increasingly are the only ones able to afford an original Basquiat. But for those who do appreciate the angry beauty of his work, Made Modern’s collection includes Ligne Blanche Paris’ line of Limoges porcelain plates, trays, candle holders (with scented candles) and mugs enriched with his images and sanctioned by the Jean-Michel BASQUIAT Foundation.

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