New York

Jean-Michel Basquiat, With Strings Two, 1983, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 96 x 60".

Jean-Michel Basquiat, With Strings Two, 1983, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 96 x 60".

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Gagosian Gallery

Jean-Michel Basquiat, With Strings Two, 1983, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 96 x 60".

I’ve never seen a commercial gallery show as well attended as this exhibition of nearly sixty works by Jean-Michel Basquiat. The artist was once a divisive figure, but no more: The crowds who poured in to see his work didn’t imagine they were coming to see something controversial. They were coming to see the work of a legend, a man whose life has been endowed by the press and cinema with all the tragic glamour of a James Dean or Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain. But they also saw art that has turned out to have far more staying power than many would have once predicted.

The show presented the full arc of Basquiat’s brief career, from 1980, when he participated in his first group show, up through 1988, the year of his death. But the distinct emphasis was on the years when Basquiat was most productive, roughly between 1981 and 1984. In those days, journalists sometimes liked comparing him to Picasso, mainly using the Spaniard’s name as a lazy synonym for “genius.” But in fact they were right, insofar as both artists were essentially brilliant draftsmen for whom color was merely part of the painter’s job rather than his raison d’être—and also in that much of the best work of both artists was made out of anxiety, to use the word Picasso would have chosen. Basquiat preferred to speak of anger. But Basquiat could never fall back on academic skills the way the older artist could—he had to go on nerve, a voracious fascination with modernist, vernacular, and ancient visual codes of all kinds, and a dazzlingly free-associational intelligence that seized as passionately on language as on images. He treated the canvas as a Rauschenbergian flatbed across which letters, marks, and pictographs are scattered like so much litter, or a wall to be defaced with so many photocopies—the populist news medium beloved by punk bands, owners of lost dogs, political rabble-rousers, and paranoid cranks—before being slathered with color and semi-obscured in turn. In his hands, language became a kind of bebop zaum or lettrist poetry that’s as likely to be nonsense as it is to be incantation.

Basquiat’s paintings typically feature figures of authority—cops, crowned kings—and they are at once ridiculous and terrifying. Did the artist identify with them? Or was his art a means of warding off their power? IRONY OF NEGRO PLCEMN reads the legend on a painting of 1981, the irony being the coexistence of domination and subjection in one human being. Curiously, he rarely painted a female figure; if he ever painted anyone with empathy, it might be the blind harp player of Deaf, 1984, the image of a creativity that is prophetic, yet grimly isolated and self-enclosed. Pure admiration was best expressed through writing, through the name-as-image, as in the album credits inscribed in white on black in Discography (Two), 1983. The heroes of Basquiat’s paintings are either musicians, able to transmute violent emotion into pure beauty, or boxers, for whom violence itself becomes a game, a “sweet science.” Those who argue that the artist lacked the discipline of the musicians and boxers who fascinated him should look again: Expressing urgency of feeling through the medium of carelessness, he had simply attained the freedom of a late style in his early twenties.

Barry Schwabsky