Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time at the AGO

Sunday, March 8th, 2015. Filed under: Art Toronto

“I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life.” – Jean-Michel Basquiat

Untitled 1981

Untitled, 1981, by Jean-Michel Basquiat depicts a damaged but stoic survivor of the streets.

On now at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, the blockbuster exhibition Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time.

The retrospective is a rare opportunity to see 85 large-scale paintings and drawings by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), one of art history’s most fascinating personalities. Famous by 20, dead of a heroin overdose at 27, the mythology of Basquiat often overshadows his complex, expressive work. Much imitated, never equaled, Basquiat went against the trend of 1970s minimal and conceptual art, reviving painting, creating a whole new direction, placing him in the pantheon of 20th century masters alongside DeKooning, Pollock and Picasso.

VanDerZee Photo Basquiat

Celebrated Harlem Renaissance photographer James VanDerZee (1886-1983) was still alive to photograph Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1982.

Beguiling in appearance and personality, hellbent on fame, Basquiat left his middle-class Brooklyn home at 17 to live as a homeless street artist in New York’s gritty East Village. It was the right time and place. A critical mass of creativity was gathering there. Basquiat’s milieu were musicians and graffiti artists, a circle that soon included A-list celebrities like Debbie Harry, Madonna, artists Keith Haring, Julian Schnabel and Andy Warhol. Much of New York was dangerously derelict but Reaganomics had created vast wealth for some who were eager to spend huge sums on art to hobnob with the elite of cool.

Obnoxious Liberals Basquiat

Obnoxious Liberals (1982). On the left, chained Samson, symbol of slavery. On the right, a white capitalist in pink shirt and boxer shorts. In the center, the artist declares himself NOT FOR SALE. At the top, Basquiat’s symbol, the three-pointed crown.

This is where the AGO show differs from previous Basquiat retrospectives. Guest curator Dieter Buchhart chose to organize the show by theme, rather than chronologically, emphasizing Basquiat’s work rather than his sensational biography.

Basquiat’s prevailing theme was identity, particularly black male identity. “The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings,” Basquiat said. “I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them.” Whether he depicted Royalty like jazz musicians Miles Davis and Charlie Parker (whose 1945 composition Now’s the Time provides the title for both a piece by Basquiat as well as the exhibition), Heroes (triumphant boxers) or Saints (martyred and halo’d), famous or anonymous, Basquiat declared that black lives matter decades before the phrase appeared on protest signs in Ferguson, Missouri.

Untitled 1982

Untitled (1982), Jean-Michel Basquiat.  Basquiat’s style was inspired by high art, music, cartoons, graffiti and the city itself.

But at the time, despite money and international acclaim, Basquiat was still a novelty, an outsider, in a gallery scene described by artist Diego Cortez in the 2010 documentary Basquiat as “white walls, white people and white wine”. Even with hundreds of dollars stuffed in his pockets, Jean-Michel famously couldn’t get a cab to stop for him in Manhattan.

Six Crimee 1982 Basquiat

Six Crimee (1982). Six anonymous martyrs of the streets float above a city that resembles a giant board game.

Systemic racism, inequality, police brutality. When Michael Stewart, a ‘retiring’ 135-pound graffiti artist was beaten to death by New York transit police in 1983 for tagging a subway station, Basquiat knew that it could have been him. In the painting The Death of Michael Stewart (1983), Basquiat portrayed his friend as a halo’d figure, his face scratched out, literally defaced by police figures who own the copyright on defacement.

The Death Of Michael Stewart by Basquiat

The Death of Michael Stewart (1983).

In the nearly 30 years since Jean-Michel Basquiat’s own death, how much has really changed?  As AGO Director and CEO Matthew Teitelbaum said at a media preview, “We’re in a Ferguson moment”. While the AGO show was conceived of before the killing of Michael Brown and protests in Ferguson, Missouri, it took on new urgency afterwards. Justice, racial profiling, police brutality and the struggle to survive in increasingly expensive cities are still huge issues.  More than ever, now’s the time for Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time is on at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, until May 10, 2015. See the AGO website for tickets and related events.

Basquiat Warhol Poster 1985

Basquiat and Warhol collaborated on many works. Several of their large collaborations are in the AGO show.

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