Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time at the AGO
“I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life.” – Jean-Michel Basquiat
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More Basquiat links:
- How much did Basquiat and Warhol really hang out? Read Andy Warhol’s diaries
- “All those people are dead, Jean. He said, If that’s what it takes . . ” Basquiat obituary article, Vanity Fair magazine, 1988
- “If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption, it would be Jean-Michel.” Radiant Child article by Rene Ricard in Artforum magazine, 1981.
- Basquiat cover of NYT magazine in 1985 and details on his grave.
- Full text of 1985 New York Times magazine article on Basquiat entitled “New Art, New Money”.
- The definitive documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: the Radiant Child (2010)
- The feature film Basquiat (1996) starring David Bowie as Andy Warhol.