Jean-Michel Basquiat emerged as an artist in the eighties, rose majestically to stardom, then died tragically from an overdose of heroin within the decade, leaving the art world stunned and confused. As his star eclipsed, the debate raged around the cultural value of his contribution. It continues to raise questions in this blockbuster show of more than 80 works curated by Dieter Buchhart and hosted by the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Basquiat was controversial and enigmatic, yet he brought a level of energy and revitalization to art that was extraordinary. He began his assault on the bastion as a graffiti artist tagging buildings in the gallery precinct but he was always destined for the world of art. He gained increasing media exposure and launched his noise band, Gray, entering the music world.

His meteoric rise seems to have occurred after meeting Andy Warhol. One suspects an art world orchestration, as if he introduced a breath of fresh air into something stale. Warhol and Basquiat collaborated on over 100 works and there are a few in this AGO show. The primitive energy of Basquiat’s marks on these works makes them more memorable. Warhol’s personal influence on Basquiat seems pivotal and so the collaboration was vital for both.

Politically charged perceptions as to Basquiat’s value dominate this exhibition. Martin Luther King’s famous I Have a Dream speech, including the phrase “Now’s the Time”, reverberates through the space. It’s about Black heroes and linking his work to contemporary Hip-Hop and Break Boxing through interactive programming. The audio narrative, while often perceptive, is also subversive, distracting the viewer from his incredible synthesis of information.

Basquiat is far more metaphorical and diffuse in his interests. He upholds as heroic the Jazz musician Charlie Parker, who plays Miles Davis’ tune, also called “Now’s the Time”. Parker features in numerous works with Basquiat commemorating his death in one of the works called CPRKR (1982).

In art historical terms he could best be described as postmodernist with a penchant for cultural appropriation. He absorbed aspects from jazz music, opera, the street, books like Burchard Brentjes African Rock Art, Henry Dreyfuss’ Symbol SourcebookGray’s Anatomy and famous artists like Rauschenberg, regurgitating his perceptions and products onto canvas, paper and found materials like doors.

He championed Black iconography and racial issues, presenting his heroes within an aura of myth and magic. Many works deal with the history of slavery, like Obnoxious Liberals. Police brutality, with contemporary reverberations in recent US events, echo in The Death of Michael Stewart. The artist is keenly aware of monetary inequities and ownership. He humorously ‘stamps’ everything with the copyright symbol.

Black boxers and athletes are presented as kings, crowned with Basquiat’s trademark three-pointed crown, which also denotes, in street tagging, the ascendancy of his presence and message. He anoints himself and his heroes with nobility, inserting them into the Western cultural world, so barren of Black people’s contribution.

He litters his paintings with signs taken from Dreyfuss’ book, like hoboes neighborhood inscriptions warning that ‘fierce dogs are present’. He has also studied ancient African culture and mythology, acknowledging West African deities like Exu the trickster, who waits at crossroads and needs to be placated by offerings.

Bushman cave art narration is a somewhat unexplored aspect of his art. He uses lines and arrows to indicate the conceptual direction. Bushman paintings are immersed in magic and transformation so a given hunting scene is not what it seems. They believe in the Spirit World as being ever present and that images retain vestiges of life and spirit.

Western artists like Pollock (early), Twombly, Dubuffet and Picasso all make an impression on Basquiat. He creates his versions of their works as if to stand alongside them. Likewise William Burroughs, whose cutout techniques of composition has much in common with his own manner of poetic construction. He is hyper aware of art history and moves like a magician from graffiti artist writing pithy slogans and texts to full-blown poet and artist.

Basquiat’s genius lies in his syncopation of all the elements in his life into a rollicking life force that sweeps all before it. Each mark he makes, whether it is text or symbol, is treated as though it is a stroke of paint. He interacts with those marks, reiterating or obliterating them as part of his life’s continuum or stream of consciousness, like a Griot spreading the Word. 

AGO Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
February 7—May 10, 2015