Basquiat enters the canon of Art History

For several years now many people in and outside of the artworld have had the impression that Basquiat’s market was far ahead of his place in the canon. With Basquiat’s history defining Fondation Beyeler retrospective in Basel, Switzerland, which functions as the main cultural event beyond the Art Basel art fair for 2010, he has finally gathered the resounding critical praise and begun to be fully measured by art history to find his place among the stars in the artworld heavens.

My own personal sense of this transformation came from my many readings of Basquiat over several years, and my viewing of his retrospective at LA MoCA in Los Angeles in 2005. Basquiat was the New York City child of a middle-class Haitian father (Gérard, a career accountant) and his artist mother Mathilde, who was Puerto Rican. He was born outside of the height of New York’s art culture, and therefore all that he produced would be perceived as being from the minortarian subject position. This subject position – of being on the bottom of the society and looking up at its heights, perfectly imagined by thinking of a man on his back looking up into the canyon of New York City skyscrapers, was also how Franz Kafka’s fantastic narratives were viewed. In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, his protagonist wakes up one morning to find he is a gigantic insect. In his novel The Trial, his protagonist Joseph K  finds himself arrested, prosecuted and finally executed. Joseph K has no control in lives in terror. Kafka has these hallucinations only because he is not in the main of the structure of power in the society, but instead experiences this power as personally devastating.

Basquiat has not until now been completely able to be seen as seeing the world from the height of society, as Proust or Nietzsche or Anselm Kiefer or Gerhard Richter, but from the hellish black bottom of it, and therefore his perspectives would be inevitably be skewed. Supposedly, all the seismic and eletro-cardiographic shocks recorded so undiluted in his paintings were not being felt by the rulers and lords of civilization, and especially not being felt by those who were in the heights of the world of the privileged cultural producer. Those shocks were perceived as a form of ressentiment that was only experienced by the lower classes as victimhood. Basquiat was then the visual artist virtuoso blues man and stellar psychological shock painter as jazz man who was living in a world that had not yet been rendered intelligibly in the mind of the Western imagination. Though painting in the 1980’s, he was metaphorically living and working in the 1940’s and 1950’s, making out-of-this-world great painted cathartic flesh-on-canvas music with his brush. For Charlie Parker and John Coltrane before him, it took the European intelligentsia – mainly in Paris – to both directly experience and then decipher for the Western intellectual audience what it all meant. The European social and cultural sophisticates were able to impart this knowledge to those who mattered in the cultural press. This happened back then with jazz as it does now with Jean Michel Basquiat. He is part of that great river of undeniable genius that has produced everything from the hypnotic, shamanist, plundered African sculptures that filled the studios of Paris artists from Picasso to Brancusi, that were the founding images of Paris Modernism, to the global hip-hop phenomenon we live in today. Basquiat literally reinvents the phenomenal African sculpture tradition by working in the medium of painting. The parallel in jazz is that African-Americans (the Negro in 1950) used Western musical instruments and notation systems to express and deploy centuries old African musical strategies in the context of the urban American life of the time. We know that during the birth of Rock & Roll, the actual progenitors of the medium were decided to be unable to be marketed to all of America. The impersonators who adapted and exploited that work, from Elvis onwards, reaped the rewards for the creation of the genre. This happened yet again as the African-American sounds coming from the streets of the East Coast and Detroit and Chicago were sidelined to allow The Beatles a headwind free flight into the American youth’s hearts, which lead to Beatlemania.

So in many ways Basquiat’s reception as being a truly serious first rank artist in American and world culture, had to wait until the time was right for his best possible reception. That time happened to be a few decades after his death in 1988. He had  to wait until a decade has passed in the 21st century. It is no coincidence that Basquiat’s acendancy into the pantheon of art history is concurrent with the voting into office of President Obama. The same consciousness that allows Obama to be treasured for al of his high qualities is in action in the current reception of Basquiat into the pantheon. How soon we forget that it was the Parisians who wrote that the American painters who later became known as the Abstract Expressionists, that they were making something, but that something wasn’t art. The Parisians also told the Americans that their only art forms were certain Hollywood film directors, and their only indigenous art form was jazz. The Parisians formed cine clubs and watched those selected Hollywood directors works, and that looking and then making of their own films produced the French New Wave. We know that because of American artists in New York protesting the negative perception of them, that this is why the Whitney Museum of American Art was born.

At the birth of the contemporary artworld in New York, New York City was Francophile and both MoMA and the Metropolitan believes that real art, fashion and food came from Paris. Sixty years later in Basel, Switzerland, it is one of the highest peaks of European cultural life in the visual arts, the Fondation Beyeler, that is acknowledging Jean-Michel Basquiat has having produced a body of works over his extremely short life, that are indeed both in a league of their own and uppermost strata canon worthy. We have forgiven Henry Geldzahler, who was the contemporary art curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when Andy Warhol had just died. Henry said that it was fun to having gotten to play with that peasant Andy Warhol. Warhol himself had been born into great poverty in Pittsburg. According to Phoebe Hoban’s book on Basquiat, Larry Gagosian was put off when he first met Basquiat, but this did not prevent him from selling Basquiat’s paintings made in Los Angeles in 1983.

It is no accident too that the Ernst Beyeler both procured Basquiat paintings for himself and sold to other collectors. That the recently deceased Ernst Beyeler is considered to be the most important postwar dealer, and that Beyeler also founded Art Basel itself in 1971, closes the loop on the reality on how this particular giant of an artist’s career has come into view.

Basquiat retrospective, Fondation Beyeler

Basquiat retrospective, Fondation Beyeler

What Basquiat’s collectors want:

The Art Newspaper’s daily edition for Art Basel, dated June 17, 2010, offers a wonderful analysis of Basquiat’s market:

“Major collectors of modern art view [Basquiat’s] work as comparable to that of Picasso and Dubuffet,” explains Beyeler director Sam Keller. “He was prolific, and produced 900 to 1,000 paintings and 2,000 to 3,000 works on paper. This amount is a condition for an active and sustained market.”

“Like many markets, Basquiat’s is two-tiered,” says Brett Gorvy, deputy chairman of Christie’s, which sold the Untitled, Boxer. “The most coveted material is rare, generally dating from the best period, 1981-83. There are good later works but overall the quality is more inconsistent.” Collectors really want what Gorvy describes as “emblematic works, preferably with a single figure with strong colours and a desirable scale”. Many of the top works are now with a handful of collectors: Peter Brant, Eli Broad, Philippe Niarchos and Dennis Scholl, and the collector/dealer family of Mugrabis. They are a major presence in the market, and passionate about the artist: Alberto Mugrabi even has the signature Basquiat crown tattooed on his wrist.”

“The Basquiat market has matured in the last few years, there’s a lot of collectors, not the old timers, mainly new collectors,” says collector Adam Lindemann, who lent to the Beyeler show. “They want Basquiat, not De Kooning. The old guard may still wrinkle their noses but Basquiat is blue-chip.”

In 2000 Robert Polsky wrote the following about Basquiat’s accomplisments: “Besides paintings, Basquiat also created a large number of drawings. His best drawings are covered with scattered marks reminiscent of the frenetic energy of Cy Twombly — without the elegance, but with a greater sense of urgency.

Polsky further wr0te in the same article: “Merely three years ago, you could buy a well-developed 22 by 30 inch Basquiat color oilstick drawing for $35,000. Now, you’d be lucky to find one of quality for $135,000. Great large-scale drawings with dense compositions bring $125,000-$250,000 — which is the approximate equivalent of a Twombly work on paper. This is a problem as far as comparative values are concerned. Simply put, Basquiat is not as important as Cy Twombly.”

Basquiat's Untitled Boxer (1982). He produced 200 paintings during this seminal year of his artistic production.

In the New York Times February, 1985 article, New Art New Money, Basquiat is the New York Times Sunday magazine cover story featured subject.

“TAKE BASQUIAT. FIVE YEARS AGO, HE didn’t have a place to live. He slept on the couch of one friend after another. He lacked money to buy art supplies. Now, at 24, he is making paintings that sell for $10,000 to $25,000. They are reproduced in art magazines and also as part of fashion layouts, or in photographs of chic private homes in House & Garden. They are in the collections of the publisher S. I. Newhouse, Richard Gere, Paul Simon and the Whitney Museum of American Art.”

In the same article, Deitch buys 5 Basquiat drawings:

“One day in 1980, Diego Cortez, who had been following Basquiat’s work with interest and had begun to act as his agent, brought Jeffrey Deitch to the tiny tenement apartment on the Lower East Side where the artist was then living with a girlfriend. The first thing Deitch saw was a battered refrigerator that Basquiat had completely covered with drawings, words and symbols, the lines practically etched into the enamel. ”It was one of the most astounding art objects I had ever seen,” says Deitch. Scattered all over the floor of the apartment were drawings on all sizes of cheap paper covered with images and smudged with Basquiat’s footprints. ”Jean kept on working as if we were interrupting him,” Deitch remembers. He picked out five drawings made on typing paper, and paid $250 in cash for them. This was probably Basquiat’s first sale; Cortez had to remind him to sign the drawings.he Whitney Museum of American Art.”

“In reviewing a group show of drawings last year, John Russell, chief art critic of The New York Times, noted that ”Basquiat proceeds by disjunction – that is, by making marks that seem quite unrelated, but that turn out to get on very well together.” His drawings and paintings are edgy and raw, yet they resonate with the knowledge of such modern masters as Dubuffet, Cy Twombly or even Jasper Johns. What is ”remarkable,” wrote Vivien Raynor in The Times, ”is the educated quality of Basquiat’s line and the stateliness of his compositions, both of which bespeak a formal training that, in fact, he never had.”

Basquiat’s work has survived through the endless critique that his work was merely part of the drug crazed socially depraved raw and ugly impoverished downtown New York scene, that became the playtoy of the New York artworld. His reputation has arisen through the flames. It has outrode the insane critique that because much of his work is not currently in museums, but in the hands of pop culture celebrities, that is evidence enough that his work was not to be taken seriously. These are the reasons why it was necessary for the European powerhouse Fondation Beyeler to personally move Basquiat into art history. There are reasons why there was the fresh desire to rank Basquiat’s his work using the historical measure of aesthetic accomplishment, as even his appearances in Documenta, and museum shows at LA MoCA and the Brooklyn and Whitney Museums, attempted, but did not let Basquiat be see in the same bloodline as Picasso, Matisse, Vincent Van Gogh and Warhol.

Future Cities: Korean Los Angeles. 2009. by Vincent Johnson

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

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