The Concrete Hip-Hop Poetry of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat, A Panel of Experts (1982), acrylic and oil paintstick and paper collage on canvas with exposed wood supports and twine 152.4 x 152.4 cm. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Gift of Ira Young. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / SODRAC (2014). Licensed by Artestar, New York

We’ll never know if the name “Madonna” scrawled on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting A Panel of Experts refers to the mother of Jesus, or his pop-star girlfriend, or both.

In fact, there’s a lot in this artist’s work that leaves only questions in the viewer’s mind. But Basquiat — the legendary New York City Neo-expressionist who died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27 — has left us to answer them on our own.

And that’s not an easy task. Finding meaning in Basquiat’s extensive oeuvre falls to Austrian art historian and critic Dieter Buchhart, guest curator of Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, Canada’s first major retrospective of the artist’s work, now on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (1982), acrylic and oil on linen, 193 x 239 cm. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photogapher: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

The exhibition is unique in that it’s the first in the world to explore and organize Basquiat’s work by theme. “I want visitors to see how deeply serious the themes of Basquiat were, and how much content he was offering to his contemporaries, and to us now,” said Buchhart in an interview with NGC Magazine.

Although he started out as part of the graffiti group SAMO in the late 1970s, Basquiat was soon swept up into the fine art scene, befriended by famous contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol.

“From the start, Basquiat wanted to meet Warhol, because Warhol was a god at that time,” says Buchhart, adding that the two artists had very different approaches. “While Warhol was actually working with well-known symbols — Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney, celebrities, etcetera — Basquiat used the hobo from the street, the hip-hop guy without money, the boxer, as his subjects.” Nonetheless, the two artists collaborated on a number of works, four of which are in the exhibition.

Basquiat was soon creating the complex pieces for which he is now famous, layering ideas, imagery, and words into what Buchhart calls “concrete hip-hop poetry.” A Panel of Experts is a perfect example of the way Basquiat collaged his own drawings together. “The head shot is a symbol of not just killing, but high brutality,” says Buchhart. “But what he does is transfers it to the language of cartoons. And that is the genius thing.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (1981), acrylic and oilstick on canvas, 244.48 x 182.88 cm. The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection. Photography credit: Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2014). Licensed by Artestar, New York

Basquiat was essentially scratching and sampling the visual and textual world. “What he does is what we do nowadays with the Internet,” says Buchhart. “He copy-pastes from all over the place: television, film, textbooks like Gray’s Anatomy, art history, and Greco-Roman antiquities. He takes from all that and collages it together — in his own aesthetic language, of course.”

But, while the aesthetics of Basquiat’s art are important, his place as a knowledge-based, Conceptual artist is paramount. “He would never have referenced himself as a political artist, because he would have understood that as a reaction to daily policy,” says Buchhart. “But his total work is a critique on our society: consumer society, capitalist society, our racist society, on the way our society makes money and makes fortunes. So, in that way, it is very political.”

For example, in the thematic section on “reclaiming history,” Obnoxious Liberals juxtaposes a black Samson figure trying to free himself from the chains of colonialism, and a dollar-covered cowboy. “Samson has the power,” says Buchhart. “But by removing his hair, which represents his power, he would actually lose it.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Obnoxious Liberals (1982), acrylic, oilstick, and spray paint on canvas,172.72 x 259.08 cm. The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2014). Licensed by Artestar, New York

In another section on “provocation,” the exhibition explores some of the enquiries by Basquiat who, as a young boy, wanted to become a cartoonist. “He was always very interested in the superhero stories,” says Buchhart. “So, the question of what a hero is, why a hero is always white or in a costume, but never a black man — he questioned all of that.”

Another set of works shows “how he mirrors himself in other black people, silhouettes, or portraits,” says Buchhart. For example, in the work Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), he mirrors himself as the black graffiti artist who was beaten to death by police officers in 1983 in the New York subway. “He was so shocked by that,” adds Buchhart.

Basquiat is widely quoted as saying, “I don’t think about art when I’m working. I think about life.” Buchhart says Basquiat had one overarching theme about life in his work. “When you think about it, his subject is racism. That was his reality. He couldn’t get a cab by himself, standing in an expensive Armani suit on the street. He would need a white friend to get him a cab. Even the African-American cab drivers wouldn’t stop for him,” says Buchhart. “But it was a dangerous time in New York — a lot racism and prejudice, so tough times.”

The exhibition promises to be a window into the mind of one of the stars of the 1980s art scene, whose bold style and subject matter broke new ground, inspiring an entire generation of contemporary artists.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time is on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario until May 10, 2015. For more information, please click here.


About the Author

Alexia Naidoo is an Ottawa-based freelance journalist specializing in hi-tech, politics and the arts.

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