Jean-Michel Basquiat

Curated by gallerist Bruno Bischofberger, one of the artist’s earliest champions, the exhibition in Trieste was a true retrospective, with 110 works dating from 1981 to 1988, the span of the short-lived Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career. The Venice show, on the other hand, organized by Achille Bonito Oliva, was a more concise “homage,” presenting thirty-nine works from roughly the same years. Both shows confirmed Basquiat’s extraordinary pictorial singularity. Like Pollock, Basquiat entered the New York art scene by storm, armed with an innocent and angry vocabulary that invaded urban spaces without regard to formal hierarchies: The street, the walls, and the D-train where he scrawled messages as SAMO were equivalent to the canvases that Jean-Michel would use later on.

Basquiat’s themes were money, politics, and death; his idols were the heroes of sports and boxing, music and dance, who entered into his personal pantheon and remained there. The history of art became a point of reference only when it collided with his own life. He gave birth not only to a radical new aesthetic but also to himself, twice: first as SAMO, then as Jean-Michel. In an almost maniacal manner, he reconfigured the body from within. He scrutinized physiology, copying from an anatomy book given to him as a child and remixing organs in spontaneous aggregations. While the work never became sensual, his obsession with the body was charged with a hint of crude, nervous eroticism. The presence of death acts as a counterpoint to this vitalist tension, appearing in many of his “self-portraits.” In the most disquieting, Selfportrait, 1985, the head is shattered, multiple eyes protrude from a deformed skull, the gaping mouth cries out in acid pain, and the internal organs are exposed, the genitals a black scrawl. There is no nobility here, nor is there redemption—only a disturbing, fractured anatomy.

Standing in front of his canvases, you want to move about, dance. His paintings are full of sound: They cry, shriek, sing. One finds the same creative tension and capacity for improvisation as with Miles Davis or Charlie Parker. When you look at Discography One and Two, both 1983, you can almost hear their internal, syncopated music. And everywhere in his art there are words, loud and repetitive, superimposed, crossed out, erased, and then repeated again like written mantras, as Basquiat creates his own dynamic visual language.

The least convincing part of the exhibition in Trieste were the canvases painted in collaboration with Andy Warhol and Francesco Clemente. Basquiat’s sign appears coarser and rougher, but also more energetic, than the morbid and sensual qualities of Warhol’s and Clemente’s. Painting over one another’s work, each artist sought to leave his own “trademarks” legible, but the resulting pieces feel insincere. Only in the light and nonchalant Stoves, 1985, does a dynamic equilibrium seem to have been achieved. Here, Basquiat painted on Warhol’s silkscreened image of stoves, evoking the many real supports Basquiat used at the beginning of his career, as in Untitled (Refrigerator), 1981, also on view. But these collaborative experiments feel like cold, unfinished pastiches, and they fail to attain the disturbing charge of, say, the Surrealists’ exquisite corpses.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.