Thursday, 29 November 2018

Jean Michel Basquiat

I didn't manage to catch Basquiat: Boom for Real, earlier this year at the Barbican, so on hearing that his work was sharing the bill along with the amazing Egon Schiele at the Fondation Louis Vuitton I was determined to catch this show. It is the first time that I have seen any of his work in the flesh, as apparently no institution in the UK holds any pieces of his work, which is quite amazing given his legend. There was more of it here than you could shake a stick at, as Basquiat's work occupies all four floors of the Louis Vuitton Foundation building. I did find some of it hit and miss, and dare I say repetitive. When he was good though, he was very, very good, as is evidenced in the large series of skulls he produced below. I think some of his figurative work suffers from the frenzied spontaneity of Basquiat's execution rather than the discipline required of sustained drawing from direct observation, which is precisely the strength that benefits the work of Schiele contrasted at the same venue in the lower galleries (here). Basquiat though had no formal art training and took much of his figurative inspiration from the medical illustrations in his father's copy of Gray's Anatomy. He came up in the art scene through his work as a graffiti artist. Like Kerry James Marshall (here), Basquiat was on a mission to place the black presence into the western canons of art, having seen little to none of this in his art books or visits to museums. Last year Basquiat's painting Justified (1982) sold for $85 million which was the highest price paid for any American artist at auction.

There was so much work exhibited here, much of it titled - "Untitled" - hence no captions on the pictures below. Many of Basquiat's famous pieces which are critically lauded I personally did not like, so haven't included them below. As mentioned above I loved the skulls as they are direct, but felt a lot of the paintings featuring whole figures were weaker. In the 80s there was an in-joke amongst illustrators about filling areas of empty space in their work with hollow symbols like the spiral etc. - meaningless mark-making just for the sake of it. I am no expert, but I suspect Basquiat of doing the same in some of these pieces. He worked spontaneously, and quickly, almost like stream of consciousness, spewing out onto canvas whatever was on his mind. I do feel that certain works would have benefitted from more consideration, and time spent thinking about the mark-making and representation of the figure despite his expressionist style. This said his rapid execution is also a strength, as it gives the paintings a rawness and immediacy which appeals to the collectors and a certain section of his admirers. 

Basquiat seemed to be in a rush, and given his early demise with hindsight we can possibly see why. He created over a thousand paintings and even more drawings all executed in less than a decade. In a documentary I saw earlier this year one of his early art dealers was accused of exploiting Basquiat, locking him in her basement and forcing him to paint, then selling on the paintings at exhorbitant prices and giving him little in return. Unsurprisingly given this treatment he was distrustful of art dealers and described his work as being '80% anger'. This is a really striking exhibition and kudos to Fondation Louis Vuitton for putting on yet another strong blockbuster of a show for the third year running.

A portrait of Basquiat and Warhol, and some of their joint collaborative paintings featured in the exhibition. In much the same way Schiele adopted Gustav Klimt as mentor/father figure, Warhol was fostered in a similar role for Basquiat. As the stars of both younger artists rose though, both would go on to distance themselves from their mentors and for a while even eclipse them. 

I loved the boxing and jazz paintings and also this double portrait drawing of young/old Picasso and the accidental reference to the two big current Picasso shows across town in Paris at the Musee D'Orsay (here), and the Picasso Museum.The exhibition ends with Basquiat's poignant, much disputed 'last painting' Riding With Death (1988).

Jean-Michel Basquiat
until 14th January 2019
Fondation Louis Vuitton
8 Avenue du Mahatma Gandhi
Bois de Boulogne