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 truly frightening “Mogul”.
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 an artist through the filter of his too young and too fast death. 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. It’s now accepted knowledge among Post-Colonial thinkers that 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.
More original Basquiat coverage from the AGO show and more original photography:
MOST OF MY HEROES DON’T APPEAR ON NO STAMPS
“It is most definitely, always, a tragedy when someone dies young, and by young, we mean 27 or 40. It is always a tragedy to lose an artist of any age who has much to say and has barely been heard yet, even as the outward markers of success suggest a phenomenon. It is a terrible loss, forever in the bones and nerves and heart and the brain we understand so little about, to lose someone we love. Someone we barely knew. Someone who changed the shape of the world, the space-time continuum, whether our mother, our friend, or Jean-Michel Basquiat.” READ HERE
BASQUIAT: ENDLESS FASCINATION (NOW’S THE TIME @ AGO: REVIEW)
“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 HERE
A Basquiat gallery HERE
By Step On Magazine Editors