New York

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

I’ve generally been a fan of Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the few painters able to extend the graffiti issue of language from subway to gallery wall. Basquiat’s lexicon of diagrams, animals, anatomical parts, and “Sarno” crowns (to note only its most obvious elements) always seemed unusually broad in its conjunctive capacity; in its various manifestations, fused to a range of abstract pictorial marks, it seemed able to encompass much of the verve and jostling rhythm of the street. However, judging from Basquiat’s latest one-man show, that language has become slightly strained.

My comment requires qualification, for the problem with these works lies less in their elasticity of means than in the decorative function they’re increasingly forced to serve. There was too much here; often it seemed as though Basquiat had been required to churn out canvases purely through permutations and combinations of the code. At his best the artist is quirky and whimsical, but how witty can you wax in some twenty-plus variations? Basquiat’s bright scumbled color grounds reek when most inspired of the subway’s variegated walls, but at their worst they’re chromatic slush, mere supports for the pullulating images. There were wonderful works here—an Andy Warhol-ish portrait, for example—and certain elements to my mind were new: a burning house, a fire truck, and a floral motif coexisted with the bones, machines, and so on. And throughout floated a disembodied eye, which seemed to allude both to the self—the “I”—and to the witness or seer. But one sensed little of what Basquiat is witness to, or of why it bears accounting. And one wondered why, oh why, the many works when five or six would have sufficed.

Kate Linker