Basquiat at the AGO: Separating the art from the art star – The question remains, does the legendary, tragic artist Jean-Michel Basquiat fascinate because of what he made or how he stopped making it?” – The Toronto Star, February 1, 2014

Yesterday, Toronto media was given the chance to  preview the Basquiat show, the occasion of which prompted The Star to ask the above question. In  case readers find this approach dismissive and lacking in context, readers will have a chance to tackle the question for themselves when the show opens this weekend. In under a decade, Jean–Michel Basquiat produced a lifetime’s worth of vivid, emotional, funny, original drawings, paintings, mixed media collages, text based art and new ideas. He was there, on the ground, at a time when the New York art world needed a revolution, and he provided one all by himself. Any interrogation of his work 25 years on should be focused on his work and not his death as his legend is only a fraction of what it should yet be. Shall we?

A major article’s lead that Basquiat’s death is one of the more interesting things about him, especially if a follow up which retracts the assumption of “fascination” and goes deeper is not to come, carries a suspicion of racial, cultural, and confirmation biases. Fortunately, we are now dealing with Post-Modernism, where the very structures and rules of art criticism are forever upset, for the benefit of all amateurs who feel and respond to Basquiat’s musicality, its subversion and its originality. Watch as some experts grasp at the margins as their blessings are no longer required for the next few months in the Toronto art scene. Decide for yourself how it affects you: Step On Magazine was thrilled to be at the media preview and we think the AGO show is a triumph for the gallery, Toronto and for our local culture in 2015.

Jean-Michel Basquiat / Horn Players / 1983 / Acrylic and oilstick on three canvas panels mounted on wood supports / 243.8 x 190.5 cm / The Broad Art Foundation / Photography credit: Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles / © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. / Licensed by Artestar, New York

Jean–Michel Basquiat would have seen few heroes of his own to follow the early 80’s landscape, and so was wholly original: spray painting on any surface he felt like, slipping effortlessly with an irresistible grin and a rare youthful beauty into the hungry mouth of the Art world, charming the ultimate Art Star and always-at -heart Ad Man, Andy Warhol and, pop culture figures such as the then-up-and-coming, dangerously effective social engineer Madonna.

Toronto folks can see eighty Basquiat works at the AGO between February 7th and May 10th. Take your kids and encourage them to make their own art, outside the lines. Take yourself and go alone, sit on a luxurious leather bench before someone else’s treasures on loan that really belong to the world and just feel it. Take your sweetheart and hold their hand and know that Basquiat laid on these big, impossibly big canvases on the floor of his studio, sketching, writing, painting, smoking, drinking, eating, talking to friends, entertaining collectors and buyers and curators, right where you now stand looking at right where he was living and he said “Huh”. “What the hell?” “I don’t like this” I love this” and all the small questions of the day and moment, and all the big questions of a lifetime, of a millennia, of all humanity, of earth, of abuse, of power, of skin, of money, of all our natural resources, of all the darkness and joy contained in the soul.

You may be amazed, “fascinated”, even, that these works with their decidedly large swatches of blacked over areas and startling darkness will make you laugh with understanding, with recognition, and the joy this feeling creates, something only possible here and now before him.  It’s not about death any more than any honest art is about death. It’s not gloomy. It could even be the most alive thing you’ve ever seen. Absolutely death-defying.

Read the plate beside the painting, or read the painting. Both ways work.

Here’s what Basquiat knew about Madonna before she even had her first record out: that a copyright symbol would be right after her too-ironic name on his painting about Saturday (or was that Monday) morning cartoons and sugary, artificial foods. Basquiat was, among other gifts, a social critic and a critic of his own world. Long before Madonna’s own iconography would become fact, Basquiat speaks to us from a wall of the AGO, like a bell still ringing in 2015, about Madonna, and he is active, alive, and on point.

Basquiat calls her out: copyright, cartoon, junk food, while elsewhere, 2015, super-human, clean-living Madonna goes on and on in the world collecting titles of the ultra –rich and less culturally relevant ex-artists and never was-es: “philanthropist” “record producer” the always entertaining “Business Woman” and the frightening “Mogul”.

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

This work is everything: prescient, funny, with the right amount of shade, getting the first and last word on Madonna while other lovers she trampled on the New York success ladder are relegated to relative obscurity (seen Jelly Bean Benitez lately? Did he enjoy the rightful fame, money and success he deserved from loving and launching her?) and while they operate without the public platform she will never leave, here Basquiat snatches it back from her, knowingly and with good humour.  And that’s just the top left eighth of the piece.

Madonna & Basquiat were contemporaries. While she trampled over heads and focused like a jungle cat, setting a template for narcissists and a trend that serves today as a basic fame business plan, Basquiat lived in the moment, one of the very hardest and most noble pursuits of humanity. To know what he was like in New York in his 20’s, read the recollections of his good friends who knew him well and loved him well, with the ring of truth that bears no agenda but that one (read the remarkable essays in Basquiat by Glenn O’Brien).  To be avoided is Basquiat, the 1996 movie, a real let down:  as any fan, of any age, in any town that will never be anything like New York in –’82 can tell you, despite the remarkable acting of Jeffrey Wright, there is an agenda there. This movie is by and for and about its maker, Schnabel, another artist and contemporary of Basquiat’s who was not him, but had (or has) a major collection of his work in his possession. This should be a disclaimer on the film.

There doesn’t need to be a remake, as there is a stunning documentary on Jean-Michel Basquiat “The Radiant Child” (2010, Tamra Davis) in the world. As those rare, satisfying documentaries do, this film replaces any need for a fictionalized biopic.  To know Basquiat’s work from afar is to obtain the thorough and rich retrospective book “Basquiat” 2010, published by Hatje Cantz) to research all there is online from past shows and galleries, and to, most urgently, see this work if you can in person anywhere in the world you can find it. A troubling, unknown lot if it seems to be gone, hoarded away and catalogued in warehouses of billionaires who don’t ever share, but we won’t let it trouble us. Just see one painting if you can.

To see this work in real life is to stop mourning, stop pearl-clutching, and stop judging.  It is to lose one’s breath at the wonders of greatness. Basquiat lives, is unkillable and like all great art, is immortal. Van Gogh’s death is but a footnote in his own story. Warhol screen-printed his way into eternity being just what he was, the pop and colour of banal everyday stuff around us, and by co-opting Elvis, Marilyn and even the fully relevant art of his time such as The Velvet Underground.  Warhol couldn’t steal and flatten Basquiat into one of his silks as Jean-Michel’s legend was not set yet, and was, anyway, uncontainable then as now. Basquiat influenced Warhol more than Warhol influenced Basquiat.

Basquiat did this throughout his world of art and beyond, leading contemporary artists to give up the brush, to become instead millionaire art collectors and dealers trading in him, Jean-Michel, the Radiant Child, spinning gold everywhere. Gold. One of the last commodities that is still reliable. Gold. Hard. Heavy. Hard to steal. Triumphant. A thread linking all known history, from the Pharaohs (there’s one here) to the Slave Trade (that’s here) to the Capitalists (all around here) to the kings (crowned, a graffiti tag, perfect symbology) to the commodification of all modern life categorized in lists here, to the aim and lifeblood of the art world we are allowed into for a short time, to the beating heart of an artist. Gold in all its fraught forms.

Basquiat is art that can be analyzed on the deepest and richest levels of Post-Colonialism, and is, and should be. He is as essential as any text, any music or any film in the Diaspora. He should be required reading to all students in all areas of study, too. He ought to be seen and felt and absorbed by little children. His work should be kept out of the hands of capitalists unless it is displayed permanently for their publics. And when it’s not, these publics must never stop asking for and supporting such endeavors of those who do.

For the next 50 years, it will be just and right and a move away from institutionalized cultural mass racism if Basquiat is shown widely, written about, sang about, imitated badly, imitated well, followed by (not only) the street  and the forward thinkers and the fearless and the self-made but also the classroom and the garage and the laboratory and the Geeks who’ll name their companies after him; if his copyright becomes threatened because so many people want to steal beauty, and if curriculums place him rightfully in the cultural canon, and he’s no longer “too new” to be taught. All involved with the Toronto show, the related programming and the catalogue deserve recognition for leading the way forward in this goal.

Basquiat: Twenty-five years later, too few outside the art world know how to pronounce it, spell it, or understand it. Far too few people have had the opportunity to own it, to see it, to feel it, to have access to it. But we don’t mourn. The upside of all of this that great, timeless work like that of Jean-Michel Basquiat waits to be received when we catch up to its messages.

Part two of our Basquiat coverage :Icons, Heroes, Celebrities & Deities to follow.

Official site: Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child film – watch trailer