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By Lukas Amacher

BASEL, SWITZERLAND, 28 AUGUST 2010 — A career of only eight years sufficed to earn Jean-Michel Basquiat his place in art history. It is still a question for debate whether that is due to his creative genius or a prodigious talent for marketing. Basquiat seemed to have known that, in order to make a name for himself, he had to convince a few key people to embrace his work. The two who did the most were Andy Warhol, the father of Pop Art, and Bruno Bischofberger, the gallery owner in Zürich and one of the most important art dealers of the twentieth century. Warhol and Bischofberger were neither the first nor the only celebrities, however, whose attention Basquiat managed to capture.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (22 December 1960 – 12 August 1988)
Photo courtesy of Fondation Beyeler

Early on, he was exhibited with now-world-famous names such as Jenny Holzer, Mapplethorpe and Keith  Haring. He spent numerous nights at the Mudd Club in the company of musicians such as Madonna, David Byrne (a founding member of Talking Heads) and members of the band Blondie. In Fab5Freddy (a prominent New York graffiti artist from the seventies) he found someone who could introduce him into the predominantly black graffiti scene. It was through graffiti that, at the age of eighteen, Basquiat found a path into fine art. Under the name Samo, he beautified (or vandalized, depending on your point of view) the walls of New York’s SoHo neighborhood with striking but thoughtful aphorisms. In 1980, he took part in the now-infamous Times Square Show. To the surprise of many in the art community, in the year 1982, he was exhibited at Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany, becoming, at twenty-one, the youngest artist ever to participate at the contemporary art event. Overnight, Basquiat was a star, the rookie talent. Not incidentally, he was the first black artist to make it big in mainstream contemporary art.

Also in 1982, Bischofberger took Basquiat to meet Andy Warhol in his studio. Basquiat asked his dealer to take a Polaroid picture of him together with Warhol. Two hours later, he returned to Warhol’s studio bearing a still-wet oil painting: his interpretation of the double portrait. Said an impressed Warhol, "He works faster than I do!" The two would go on to form one of the most famous (and financially rewarding) partnerships in contemporary art, collaborating on paintings that filled two exhibitions — a relationship that Basquiat would soon end, however, due to some initial negative reviews.

Eight years, 1,000 canvases and 2,000 drawings after his first exhibition, Jean Michel Basquiat died in his loft of an overdose. He was twenty-seven years old. Death rounded out the myth: the young, presumed genius, hyped and idolized but apparently always misunderstood, was dead before he could truly prove his talent.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Philistines, 1982 
Copyrights Norman Braman, Miami, VIA Jeffrey Deitch
Photo courtesy of Fondation Beyeler

Twenty-two years after his death, the Fondation Beyeler has put on Basquiat’s first big retrospective in Europe. In the foyer, three large-scale works on canvas greet the visitor. He scribbled and wrote motifs and words that kept reappearing in his work. No matter how large the canvases or how thickly the acrylic or oil was applied, his paintings never lose the character of drawings. They show that he may well have been more accomplished as a draftsman that he would ever be as a painter.

In addition to over fifty large-scale canvases, the Beyeler curators show many works on paper, as well as a couple of sculptures. At times, it appears as if Basquiat was obsessed with color; his brush touched everything, from a refrigerator to window frames. He mounted canvases on pallets and applied paint to big doors — all referencing his days as a graffiti painter.

Basquiat’s works are emotionally charged. They are colorful, direct and very raw, and at times they look somewhat confused. Brush or crayon strokes are laid onto canvases with skillful imprecision and the occasional stroke of anger. Writing, as a very important aspect of Basquiat’s work, is found in nearly every piece. Vowels are omitted; words are crossed out, only to be rewritten. Sources range from cornflakes boxes to scientific documents. There is so much writing that, when you see the paintings together, words cease to inform and become part of the imagery.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: in Italian, 1983
Acrylic, oil stick, marker, and assemblage
on canvas, wood mounts, two panels
 Photo courtesy of Fondation Beyeler

You can feel from the exhibition what life might have been like in downtown Manhattan in the 1980s and try to pull from it messages about the milieu and the times. To intellectualize the work of such an emotionally driven artist, however, is probably to miss the point of what he was trying to accomplish. It is safe to say that Basquiat was referencing Abstract Expressionism, but he lived too briefly to achieve the degree of mastery of artists such as Kline, Rothko and Newman.

In the end, the primary subject of Basquiat’s canvases was Basquiat himself. But an artist committed to working through his problems and thoughts on canvas will find it hard to get to the core of his psyche in only eight years. What we see in the Fondation Beyeler is artistic promise, not its fulfillment.

Through 5 September 2010

Fondation Beyeler
Baselstrasse 77
CH-4125 Riehen/Basel
Tel: (41) 61 645 97 00 

A native of Zurich, Lukas Amacher is a young collector, art critic and founder of the pictorial art blog He last wrote on the American artist Jenny Holzer for Culturekiosque.


Related Film Tip: currently on screens in the U.S.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010 Documentary)

Director Tamra Davis pays homage to her friend in this definitive documentary but also delves into Basquiat as an iconoclast. His dense, bebop-influenced neoexpressionist work emerged while minimalist, conceptual art was the fad; as a successful black artist, he was constantly confronted by racism and misconceptions [from his peers]. Much can be gleaned from insider interviews and archival footage, but it is Basquiat's own words and work that powerfully convey the mystique and allure of both the artist and the man. (Sundance Film Festival).
The documentary features interviews with Julian Schnabel, Larry Gagosian, Bruno Bischofberger, Tony Shafrazi, Fab 5 Freddy, Jeffrey Deitch, Glenn O'Brien, Maripol, Kai Eric, Nicholas Taylor, Fred Hoffmann, Michael Holman, Diego Cortez, Annina Nosei, Suzanne Mallouk, Rene Ricard, Kenny Scharf, among many others.

European Release Date: 13 October 2010 (France)

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