Paris

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1981, acrylic and oil stick on canvas, 81 × 69 1⁄4".

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1981, acrylic and oil stick on canvas, 81 × 69 1⁄4".

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Fondation Louis Vuitton

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1981, acrylic and oil stick on canvas, 81 × 69 1⁄4".

This exhibition, curated by Dieter Buchhart in collaboration with the Brant Foundation, gathers an impressive 120 of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings, sculptures, and drawings, the majority of which have never before been exhibited in Europe. The inclusion of so many unfamiliar works (more than a few masterpieces among them) gives the retrospective a rare freshness and underscores the contemporary resonance of Basquiat’s oeuvre. Thirty years after the artist’s death, his heroic portraits of African American musicians and athletes, countered by disturbing evocations of racism, poverty, and police brutality, appear as vital as ever.

Almost perversely, the chronologically organized show opens with three “head” (or “skull”) paintings, each featuring a severely bruised and scarred face. Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Buchhart identifies the subject of one, In This Case, 1983, as Michael Stewart, a twenty-five-year-old black graffiti artist who was arrested and allegedly beaten to death while in New York police custody. (Two years after Basquiat commemorated Stewart, an all-white jury acquitted the six white officers accused of the crime.) Himself a young black New Yorker and sometime street artist, Basquiat identified intimately with his subject. The violence and suffering the artist conveys through raw and swollen facial features floating in a bloodred ground are both personal and universal. Disturbingly contemporary, the horrific subject of In This Case presages Black Lives Matter and the more recent killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others. An exhibition opening in June at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story,” will present additional paintings inspired by Michael Stewart.

Farther on in the exhibition, a salon-style hang of twenty-one “head” drawings showcases the diversity of Basquiat’s physiognomies. More intimate and spontaneous, the artist’s works on paper (often smudged, marked with fingerprints, and sometimes torn) are less confrontational than but just as emotional as his large-scale paintings. Among the faces haunting this wall of heads—a presentation nearly re—creating the first major exhibition of Basquiat’s drawings, which took place post-humously at New York’s Robert Miller Gallery in 1990—are a Christ figure wearing a halo-cum-crown of thorns (Untitled, 1982), a stylized visage whose blue-green skin and hollow yellow eyes recall African masks (Untitled, 1982), several anatomical-style cranial studies, and a colorful figure with sketchy white facial features who seems on the verge of being absorbed into a background of black ink (Untitled [Self-Portrait], 1982).

A poet as well as a visual artist, Basquiat frequently combined words and images to maximize his messages—many of which ring true today. In Obnoxious Liberals, 1982, a red-faced figure with a top hat stands between a shackled black man and a man wearing a ten-gallon hat and boxer briefs. The black figure on the left (the superhumanly strong biblical judge Samson, according to the name written above his head) stands on a blue box labeled gold, while the cowboy/consumer has dollar signs on his chest. Caught in the middle, the politician has not for sale written on his shirt and obnoxious liberals © over his head. One of the last paintings here, Unbreakable, 1987, is an eight-by-nine-foot tour de force made the year before Basquiat’s death. In this frantic allegory of consumerism, cheap products such as disposable razors float near an advertisement for money orders in a turbulent alligator-infested swamp. The word unbreakable, painted in red block letters across the center of the composition, is part of the marketing campaign for a small plastic comb with a lifetime guarantee, but Basquiat co-opts the term to describe the perverse ecosystem in which such junk is produced and consumed. The painting can be seen as a poignant self-portrait: Here, Basquiat—who went from underground street artist SAMO© to a paint-splattered, Armani suit–wearing superstar in a mere five years—confronts his own conflicted relationship with money and consumerism.