((Excerpt from: "The Art of Everyday Joe: A Collector's Journal."))
27 is way too early for anyone to die.
What makes the early death of Jean-Michel Basquiat so tragic for me is that he clearly went where few artists dare to tread. Even now.
On an art trip to New York City, I missed the Basquiat show at the Brooklyn Museum. You can't be everywhere. Obviously, that would've been the ideal place to see the work of someone whose been called everything from "graffiti artist" to genius. New York City was his stomping ground as it was mine growing up.
Instead, I'm here in Los Angeles where I've just seen "Basquiat" at the Museum of Contemporary Art. More than 100 works on paper, wood, canvas and found objects. I must admit that prior to seeing the exhibition, I didn't quite "get" Basquiat mania. Yet, as I looked at drawing after drawing and painting after painting, it became quite clear that Basquiat wasn't just an artist, he was a conductor and an orchestrator.
Who can look at "Grillo" 1984 and not at least wonder what went on in this guy's mind? I was floored by these four wood panel paintings spiked with nails. A huge artistic WAKE UP call! You name it, he tackled it way back then. Issues of race, slavery, poverty and urban plight. Yet, he also addressed popular culture, music and sports. It's an all out mix of humanity at our best and worst.
In the film, "A Conversation with Jean-Michel Basquiat, which complements the exhibition, the artist says he thought of himself as "naive." Of course, his approach does give the appearance of a seven-year-old's creative effort, but clearly the subject matter reveals the observations of someone who has lived in the real world for a considerable amount of time.
Jean-Michel Basquiat did not paint what many would consider "pretty pictures." I believe he played a big role in setting artists free. Thank God. Go look up "Philistines" 1982, his painting on canvas of three human figures and tell me this doesn't look like an urban child's nightmare … even if it isn't. Also, really examine, "Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump" 1982. It rocks.
Basquiat's work is not for the faint of heart. It's frenzied and frenetic and full of static. With all due respect, one can't help but wonder how often he painted while on drugs. Open his brain and "Flexible" 1984, completely intact, is what you might have seen. Look into his emotions and you may have experienced some form of "Six Crimee" 1982.
Of course, Basquiat didn't necessarily consider himself brave. In the film, he says he doesn't really know how to describe his work, because it's not all the same. Still, for me, his work goes straight for the jugular on what art SHOULD be about ... unapologetically expressing yourself and putting it out there!
Where are the artists today who are doing this? Where are they? Of course, no one should copy Basquiat's work, but why not emulate his steadfast devotion to his own voice? All of his work sets me on edge. It’s often ugly, but it's very exciting.
I love the film, "A Conversation with Jean-Michel Basquiat," because he's so bright and lucid and seemingly hopeful, unlike his portrayal in another film, "Basquiat," starring great actor Jeffrey Wright. In "Basquiat," he's basically portrayed as a drug addict through the entire film. Who is right and who is wrong? I don't know. What did grab me about "A Conversation..." is from his lips to our ears, Basquiat says he despised the "wild man, monkey man" image that he felt was his unfortunate portrayal by the media throughout his career. Clearly, Basquiat was no saint, but who is? He also says in "A Conversation..." that that he felt it was racist when reviewers focused on his personality rather than on his actual work. Imagine how he would handle that kind of scrutiny today in our 500 channel universe. I was also struck by the number of young people of all races who were sitting with me watching this film. As I watched them listening to Basquiat, I could almost feel the heartbreaking innocence in the room. These kids just want to be who they are and express themselves and their vision, free of judgement or ridicule. Clearly, Basquiat was giving them the freedom. At this moment, it was coming through his actual words and not his art. In a strange way, he was talking WITH them and not AT them (teachers take note). Despite whatever he faced during his life, his legacy seems solid.
When I completed the exhibition circle for a second time, I had to turn around and walk back through for yet another look. Basquiat was driven to draw, paint and create with whatever he could get his hands on. Old doors and windows as evidenced by, "To Repel Ghosts," 1986 and "Gravestone" 1987, planks of wood as also seen with "Gold Griot" 1984.
As he made more money, his works on paper grew to SYMPHONIES on canvas. Large, bombastic EXPLOSIONS of art. His work reminds me as a collector that art shouldn't just sit or hang on the wall. It should jump, sing and soar! It should be music! Art should make your eyes dance! It should be "visual" soul food. There's never a doubt who is behind the works that are feeding your eyes and challenging you. Basquiat was an original from start to finish.
After viewing the exhibition, I contacted Texas art collector Harriet Kelley. She and her husband Harmon own a Basquiat drawing. It's an untitled, 1985, pencil and crayon on paper, 26 1/2 x 22 1/4. It's illustrated in their catalogue.
"It's so different from what we had been collecting," says Kelley. "My husband was drawn to it because it showed internal organs."
The Kelley's Basquiat piece was part of an exhibition mounted by the Dallas Museum of Art. It was called, "Dallas Collects Basquiat." The Kelley's acquired the piece through a friend who knew Basquiat well.
"Our friend was going to bring Basquiat ... to see our collection, and they did not get to come. Instead, he went on to Hawaii (w)here he overdosed," Kelley says. In the film, "A Conversation..." Basquiat tells the interviewer that Hawaii was his favorite place in the world.
Basquiat was indeed an original from start to tragic finish. I can't even imagine what he would create today if he were alive. Would he be a rapper? Perhaps have his own line of high-priced clothing? Would he be a record producer or jazz musician? He might also be a doctor or an attorney. I doubt that, but we'll never know. Above all else, he had the courage to follow his own vision.
We'll just have to look at his work and wonder … and in some cases, I mean REALLY wonder.
27 was way too early for Basquiat to die. http://basquiat.com/