Jean-Michel Basquiat, who arose from the world of graffiti to become an internationally acclaimed artist, has been dead since 1988, but his life and work is expansively invoked at the Gagosian Gallery in lower Manhattan.
And expansive is the right word in terms of gallery space and the size of many of the works on display, some of them almost covering an entire wall. Most of the more than 50 works are from public and private collections, and they are representative of Basquiat’s highly productive career that ended when he was only 27.
Basquiat, Brooklyn-raised and of Haitian descent, utilized a variety of forms and formats in creating his often commanding and always compelling art. While Magic Markers, spray enamel and oil sticks are among his consistent tools, the current collection is mostly completed in acrylic paint, though presented on canvas, wood and other found objects. Words and objects proliferate his paintings, such as “Miles Davis All Stars,” where there is nothing but a listing from the back album cover, citing the players and the tunes. In another section of the gallery, this theme is revisited more visually in a tribute to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
Jazz, like the ever-present crowns, plays a very important part in his iconography, and none of the segments of the bio-film of his life are more memorable than those depicting him at work with bebop blasting through the studio.
Many observers have commented on his social and political consciousness, and this is evident in practically all of his paintings as he declaims police brutality, illustrates “obnoxious liberals,” weighs in on racism and homophobia and even takes a jab at museum guards in one painting in which the two words, like many of his words, are crossed out. One of the guards–and there is a veritable platoon stationed here in the gallery– only smiled when told of his citation.
There were several paintings in which Basquiat appears to be laughing at art critics and patrons who have elevated him to such a vaunted status. “Nothing to be gained” is a phrase that is repeated in one painting and accompanied by “ha, ha, ha!”
For some, Basquiat is most appealing when his stark images are combined with indications of his talented drawing skills, especially of the human anatomy, and no part seemed to fascinate him more than the larynx.
Boxing was another endeavor in which he was preoccupied, and the exhibit has three reminders of this fetish with nods to Sugar Ray Robinson–again the ubiquitous crown–Jersey Joe Walcott, Cassius Clay and Floyd Patterson.
Activists will be amused to see his “Malcom Versus Al Jolson” words, with Malcolm X misspelled and Jolson’s name crossed out. Deciphering this and any of Basquiat’s works is no easy exercise, and perhaps the best thing to do is to appreciate his timeless way of delivering his own unique perspective on our crazy world.
The Gagosian Gallery is located at 555 W. 24th St. near 11th Avenue and is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
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