Basquiat’s hot genius is still as cool as ever

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Basquiat’s hot genius is still as cool as ever

It’s rather redundant to talk about an artist’s self-destructive spirit when discussing a young painter who died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27.
But when that artist is Jean-Michel Basquiat, it’s hard not to consider the way his visceral images are mixed with signs of savagery and mortality.
After all, the story of this artist’s life is one of a dramatic rise to the peak of the New York art scene from his early days as a poor graffiti artist living in a cardboard box at Thompkins Square Park ― “kings, heroes, and the street” being the main themes of his work. It traces a classic path of “art and life” that fascinated many artists and art followers of his generation.
Yet few artists have managed to create such fame and glamour in their lifetime as Basquiat did in his eight-year career.
In her biography of Basquiat, “A Quick Killing in Art,” author Phoebe Hoban summed up the late painter’s reputation as “the Jimi Hendrix of the art world.” The New York Times once described him as “the art world’s closest equivalent to James Dean.”
Both are still true, 18 years after his death.
One photograph from the exhibition catalogue shows the young black artist in his studio dressed in an Armani suit over an Adidas T-shirt. The cryptic acronym “SAMO” (for Same Old Shit), which Basquiat sprayed over subway trains and public buildings in lower Manhattan, is still considered to be one of the most damning artistic commentaries to emerge from the anarchistic urban liberals whom Basqiuat had aspirations to lead.
Halfway around the world from the artist’s hometown, here in Korea, his legend continues to grow.
“Jean-Michel Basquiat,” currently on display at the Kukje Gallery, represents the first major retrospective of the artist in Korea in 15 years. The director of the gallery explains the show was one of the hardest exhibits the gallery has ever set up, due to the soaring cost of the artist’s work. (Some of Basquiat’s paintings now sell for around $400,000 at major art auctions across the United States.)
Perhaps this is all because Basquiat died so early. The early death of a young artist has often been the best formula for lasting fame and usually stimulates the appetite of art collectors.
Then, of course, there is the life that Basquiat led: he dated singer-actress Madonna before she became famous and was “hand-picked” by Andy Warhol to join his circle at “Studio 54,” a famous nightclub on New York’s West Side where hot artists and movie stars hung out. You get a taste of the nostalgia for New York’s vibrant art scene of the time in the biographical movie “Basquiat” by Julian Schnabel (starring David Bowie as Andy Warhol and Tony Award winner Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat). Many critics have said over the past decade that the public fascination with Basquiat as a hip graffiti artist had more to do with racial politics than serious art criticism.
The exhibit at Kukje Gallery, which opened Thursday, presents a solid overview of the artist’s works spread over two floors.
One of the major works in the show is “Life Like Son of Barney Hill,” an acrylic, oilstick and Xerox collage on six canvases hinged together. The work best captures the visual irony the artist used, featuring fragments of naive scribbles and complex icons mixed with words from his daily life.
The title of the work is a reference to an event claimed to have taken place in 1961, when a black postal service worker and his wife, a white child welfare supervisor, claimed they were kidnapped by aliens while on holiday in New England.
The couple didn’t have a son in real life, but Basquiat created a bizarre drawing of a half brown, half white, one-eyed alien in the piece, seated next to a rough sketch of nickels with words such as “five cent” and “liberty,” thus seeking to force the viewer to build an imaginary scenario about race, capitalism and American ideals.
Basquiat’s drawings raise other issues of black-American culture (His parents were of Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage). He painted sports heroes and jazz legends of African origin, such as Charlie Parker and Hank Aaron, using signs and words to bring their sufferings and achievements to public attention.
Yet the art of Basquiat was never considered “pop art,” a genre created by some of his closest acquaintances including Keith Haring and Warhol, because of the political connotations underlying his work. Instead the scribbles and words popping out of his canvas propelled many critics to call him a “Neo-Expressionist.”
Even that label, however, wasn’t accurate enough to describe the nature of Basquiat’s work. It is hard to ascertain whether his images were spontaneous, unlike the paint-dripping works that rose purely from the subconscious of leading abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock.
Instead, Basquiat’s skeletal figures often expressed his obsession with mortality (the artist often talked of being fascinated by human diagrams in “Gray’s Anatomy” ― a book he was given as a child by his mother when he was in hospital for injuries from a car accident); his drawings of crowns are interpreted as a sign of heroism; and he used random words culled from his favorite comic books, advertisements and his daily reading material.
This exhibit in Seoul gives a reminder that much of his work may be, after all, about the modern aesthetics of style as the audience is not given visual cues to “read” the content of his paintings. The tragedy, of course, is that his death came too soon for anyone to say that the patterns in his early body of work would have continued if he had lived.
In 1985, two months after he came back from his ranch in Hawaii where he had tried to kick his drug habit, Basquiat died of a heroin overdose. It was the death of a man who had introduced a new notion of style, politics and modern art.

by Park Soo-mee

“Jean-Michel Basquiat” runs through Nov. 12 at the Kukje Gallery, Anguk subway station, line No. 3, exit 1. The gallery is a 20-minute walk from the station. For more information call (02) 735-8449. The gallery is closed on Sundays.
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