The Spectacular Talent and Artistry of Jean-Michel Basquiat

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In his notoriously intense but brief lifetime, Jean-Michel Basquiat made an indelible mark on the art world. During his ten-year career, the artist rose to become one of the most renowned painters of the 20th century. In celebration of these extraordinary achievements, the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris has just opened Jean-Michel Basquiat, a retrospective of more than 120 artworks. The exhibition gives light to Basquiat’s unique artistic sensibility, a fusion of counterparts: Pop and Figurative Neo-Expressionism, contemporary and referential styles, subjective, and socially conscious content. This resulting hybrid is both personal and transcendent—and undeniably timeless.

The show spans the entirety of Basquiat’s career from 1980 to 1988, including some of the artist’s most significant works, collaborations with Andy Warhol, as well as rarely seen artworks. Organized chronologically, the exhibit begins with three paintings from his Heads series (1981-83). These and other primary pieces such as Crowns (Peso Neto) (1981) and the Prophets series illustrate the importance of street culture, including its intense energy and various symbolic codes. African American sports figures are often featured, including Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis; when depicted with haloes or crowns, these central characters stand in for Basquiat’s feelings on the idea of race.

Developments over the course of Basquiat’s career are also explored in the showcase. The use of color becomes distinct as seen in the hallmark painting In Italian (1983) and his music-oriented works, often featuring Basquiat’s idol, renowned jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. The concepts of history and cultural diversity are the core of pieces like the masterwork Grillo (1984) and its references to African culture and the diaspora. In his later works, the artist moved towards immense canvases layering acrylic, oil, and collage to create dense, fractured compositions. His seminal artwork, Riding with Death (1988), includes references spanning the Renaissance, traditional art cannon, and the contemporary moment in a vivid blend of form and content.

Basquiat’s art is often a study in contrasts, a trait that can also be linked to his personality. Incredibly creative and artistically gifted, he was also known for his emotional fragility and a fatal drug dependency. From his youth, Basquiat was fascinated by art, while his mother and teachers encouraged this innate aptitude. His home life became unsettled when his mother, the family matriarch, was hospitalized for mental illness. He eventually dropped out of school and ran away from home by the age of 17. In the cultural axis of Lower Manhattan in the late ‘70s, Basquiat found a place for himself, embracing a Bohemian lifestyle as a poet, musician, and graffiti artist. He was first artistically recognized as part of SAMO, short for “same old,” a graffiti duo whose messages ranged from flippant to socially critical. In these years, his inventive, characteristic style began to shape itself, regularly including scribbling, symbols, diagrams, and mask-and-skull imagery. He fused canvas, paper, found objects, door parts, silkscreens, and photocopies into his work. The mixed effect became Basquiat’s signature approach.

The artist first publicly exhibited in the 1980 Times Square Show in New York. His work was quickly acclaimed and by the early ‘80s, Basquiat was showing internationally in both galleries and museums. In 1983, he met Andy Warhol, who became a friend and mentor, associating Basquiat with art world influencers. Warhol’s protégé was well-known for his unexpected antics: painting in Armani suits, then wearing the paint-splattered clothes to fine restaurants. He would often draw on random objects and surfaces, including other people’s property and the attire they were wearing. In only a few years, Basquiat ascended to become vastly successful—critically, commercially, and culturally. Yet he felt inwardly at odds, desirous of his fame and its trappings, and contemptuous of the art world’s inauthenticity. Basquiat eventually spiraled into drug abuse and never recovered, his life ending at the ripe age of 28, long before his full potential was realized.

Commemorating the artist and the lasting impact of his work, the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition is showing concurrently with that of another drawing-based artist, Egon Schiele at the Fondation Louis Vuitton. The collective showcases focus on both creators’ symbolic, emotionally effusive artworks and their distinct abilities to captivate audiences. Though Schiele preceded Basquiat by nearly a century on a different continent, both artists were moved by the mores of their times, bringing meaningful approaches to their enduring art. Specific to Basquiat, the show presents his work as that of a true talent and pioneer who shattered art world traditions. He followed his gifts to became an art icon and the first African American to have a prominent place in Western art. In 1981, Basquiat sold his first painting and in 2017, his Untitled (1982) sold at auction for 0,487,500, the highest price paid for an American artwork at the time. In his life, legend, and artistry, Basquiat knew no boundaries.

Jean-Michel Basquiat is showing at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris until January 14, 2019.

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