Jean-Michel Basquiat at Gagosian Gallery

Basquiat’s career encapsulated the kind of intensity and drama that art legends are made of. Within a period of five years he went from being a high school drop-out living on the streets of New York, to an established painter whose work was in high demand. Shortly thereafter, he died of a drug overdose at the age of twenty-seven, ending his short, but prolific career. - Nadiah Fellah, NYC Contributor

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Installation view of Jean-Michel Basquiat at Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
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Installation view of Jean-Michel Basquiat at Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

On view at Gagosian Gallery in New York are nearly sixty works by Basquiat, which span the length of his artistic career, from 1981 through 1988. Many of the works are large-scale and incorporate a wide variety of media, including acrylic, spray paint, oil stick, marker, and collage elements. Basquiat was known for scavenging his materials, and the Gagosian show succeeds in combining a diverse array of surfaces, like plywood, doors, and make-shift canvases constructed from irregular pieces of linen stapled to wooden shipping pallets. In a way, his foraged canvases epitomize the furious pace at which Basquiat was known to work, capturing the sense that the work he produced could scarcely keep up with his creative energy.

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Installation view of Jean-Michel Basquiat at Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Some works in the show carry the names and images of the musicians and athletes that Basquiat admired, like Cassius Clay and Sugar Ray Robinson. One work, titled Now’s The Time from 1985 is simply an eight-foot record, imperfectly cut from plywood, Basquiat’s homage to the jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker.

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Installation view of Jean-Michel Basquiat at Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Before his rise to fame, Basquiat would tag buildings in lower Manhattan with friend and fellow artist Al Diaz, work that they would sign with the moniker ‘SAMO’ (meaning “same old shit”). The influence of his work as a graffiti artist was forever integrated into his aesthetic as a painter, as many works in the show incorporate text, and are drawn in a gestural, expressionistic fashion typical of street art. The size of the show is also evidence of his prolificness, another quality he retained from his early experiences creating graffiti art.

Irony
Jean-Michel Basquiat | Irony of a Negro Policeman, 1981, Acrylic and paint stick on wood, 72 x 48 inches

Several paintings demonstrate the artist’s sense of humor, like Onion Gum, on which he scrawled “onion gum makes your mouth taste like onion” multiple times. Others are social commentaries on race and society, like Irony of Negro Policeman. The painting’s subject stems from Basquiat’s belief that blacks in the US are subject to a white-dominated system, which he saw as oppressing them within a structure similar to Jim Crow. He found it ironic that African-Americans would choose to become policemen, and work to enact laws meant to oppress them. Basquiat painted the policeman in this image wearing a skeleton-like mask, the figure’s fractured body symbolizing his disjointed and incongruous position within society. The word “pawn” is scrawled in the bottom right-hand corner, further driving home his point.

La Hara
Jean-Michel Basquiat | La Hara, 1981, Acrylic and oil paintstick on canvas, 72 x 48 inches, © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris, ARS, New York 2013 Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

A counter piece to Irony is Basquiat’s painting of a white policeman titled La Hara, Puerto Rican slang for ‘the police,’ which carries a derogatory connotation. In this painting Basquiat depicts the policeman with a disproportionately large chest, his figure filling most of the frame, and with red eyes, representing him as an overpowering, irrational force. However, his puffed chest is also hollow, and the figure lacks limbs, confining his mobility, an idea reinforced by his position behind a fence, painted in the lower left. Through works like this one, Basquiat was able to claim power over his oppressors, an ability he may have felt stifled from in reality.

Two Heads
Jean-Michel Basquiat | Untitled (Two Heads on Gold), 1982, Acrylic and oil paintstick on canvas, 80 x 125 inches, © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris, ARS, New York 2013. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Other symbols of empowerment can be seen throughout the paintings on display, such as the repeated appearance of crowns, often used in self-portraits. The crown was a particularly dual-purpose motif for Basquiat, in that it alluded to majestic and kingly qualities he attributed to himself, as well as it was visually similar to the idiosyncratic dreadlocks he sported. Basquiat also recognized the crown as a parallel symbol for fallibility in religious iconography. In a large double-panel painting titled In Italian from 1983, he has written the words “crown of thorns,” only to cross out the final word in the phrase.

In Italian
Jean-Michel Basquiat | In Italian, 1983, Acrylic and oil paintstick on canvas with wooden supports and five smaller canvases painted with ink marker, 2 panels: 88 1/2 x 80 inches overall, © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris, ARS, New York 2013. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

One of Basquiat’s last works, Riding with Death from 1988, is displayed prominently in the final gallery of the Gagosian show, a placement that implies its prescient subject matter. The enormous canvas has been grounded with a dull, gray paint, a departure from the colorful backgrounds the artist typically employed. In the work’s center, a faceless figure is shown riding a skeleton, the back of its head facing the viewer. At this point in his career, the fame that Basquiat had achieved as an artist also became a double-edged sword. While it allowed for him and his family to live comfortably, it also enabled his drug addiction to become unmanageable, and eventually, fatal.

Riding Death
Jean-Michel Basquiat | Riding With Death, 1988, Acrylic and oil paint stick on linen, 98 x 114 inches

Since the artist’s death in 1988, his works have continued to be highly sought-after, driving their prices upwards of $16 million in recent auctions. The works on view at Gagosian are entirely culled from private collections, creating an ideal opportunity to see significant works from across the artist’s career in a single place.

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Installation view of Jean-Michel Basquiat at Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

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Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1960. His mother was Puerto Rican, and his father Haitian. Basquiat become known as a graffiti artist in New York in the late 1970s, and exhibited paintings in his first gallery show in 1980, The Times Square Show. By 1982 his work was included in a show at PS1 in New York, and Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany. He has had several posthumous retrospective exhibitions, including a 1993 show organized by the Whitney Museum, and a 2005 show organized by the Brooklyn Museum.

Jean-Michel Basquiat is on view at the Gagosian Gallery in New York through April 6th.

Nadiah Fellah is a graduate student of Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York.

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