Jean Michel Basquiat
I’ve just completed reading ‘Basquiat- Or How To Make a Killing In Art’ by Phoebe Hoban. Written in 1998, ten years after his death from a drugs overdose aged just 27, it charts the meteoric rise and fall of New York painter Jean Michel Basquiat set against the backdrop of the gross capitalist excess of the Eighties art world; a time when art really collided with the world of commerce and became just another consumable commodity. Artists like Basquiat became overnight stars, but at a heavy cost; selling their work at astronomical prices, but not as much as the vulture like dealers they worked with who would then sell the work on again for double or treble the price to the ‘nouveau riche’ collectors, who sprang up at this time, who would then sell the paintings off at auction for grossly inflated prices. It became a deadly vampire like game that all famously came crashing down in 1989, destroying many artists careers, but a game which had a lasting impact on how we view and experience art today. Charles Saatchi continued many of it’s excessive practices with his own art collection in the Nineties, launching many careers and destroying others in the same way, when he would sell off wholesale a particular artist’s work that he had been collecting and subsequently kill off the market for it.
It’s been a compelling read, which I’ve found myself picking up at any given opportunity. Hoban fills the book with a high level of fascinating detail where we are drawn into the seemingly outlaw world, or a seemingly private, closed universe, of shark-like dealers (sharks and vampires! I’m piling this on!) such as Larry ‘Go Go’ Gagosian, Bruno Bischofberger and Mary Boone, where it is all about the money and total free market capitalism at its unchecked worst. I’ve been shocked by much of it, but also found much of it very sobering: this is the world of art reduced to the bottom dollar and nothing else. Any noble ideas of its value beyond that seem laughable. Basquiat himself, exploited mercilessly as he destroys his body and soul with an extraordinarily large amount of Class A drugs, seems lost like an angry child; making paintings of ever diminishing returns as he is trapped in a cycle of producing work for the big queue of collectors waiting impatiently at the door, to feed his desire to be famous and to feed his terrible heroin habit, heading into oblivion. It’s a sad story.
There is not that much discussion about the paintings made by Basquiat during the story. This comes a bit later after his death where his ‘legacy’ is reflected upon. The general consensus, lead by critics like the often pompous, Robert Hughes, is that the early work that made him famous is the best, with what followed repetitious and increasingly facile and that he never developed as an artist. I agree with this point of view about the early work etc. but with a career so short, and no art school background, and the trappings he quickly found himself in at a very young age, I don’t think he ever really had the chance to develop. There is an undeniable raw energy about the work, combined with many very sophisticated ideas about colour, the painted and drawn mark, and the combination of text and image. The paintings can be full of unexpected passages and surprises, crammed with ideas and references. They can also be sparse and terse, angry and spooky, with their cryptic words against the simplest of grounds. They can be very poetic, and also reminiscent of a more street smart Cy Twombly.
Having finished the book, I found myself digging out ‘Basquiat’ the movie made by artist Julian Schnabel, a painter I have never really seen the appeal of, unlike Basquiat. Schnabel was one of Basquiat’s peers in this incestuous New York art world of the Eighties, who has managed his own career much more successfully. I’ve seen the film several times, and having finished the book, I thought that film seems a pretty lame attempt to capture that world. However, on watching it again, I appreciated what a great and sly film it is, where so many of the issues discussed in Hoban’s book are worked through in the little asides of dialogue between David Bowie’s Andy Warhol (not sure about that casting!), and Dennis Hopper’s Bruno Bischofberger (which seems very good), or Jean Michel’s friend, a composite of many people, played brilliantly by the charismatic Benecio Del Toro. There is a two minute scene where they are playing basketball in the street, where Del Toro explains the whole art world Basquiat is trying to enter and will find himself quickly trapped in a few neat sentences. I loved it when Warhol accused Jean Michel of not spending much time on any of the painted postcards that he is trying to sell to him in a restaurant, and Basquiat retorts that other people make Warhol’s so he spends even less time. At which point, Hopper’s Bischofberger quietly states that it is not about how much time you spend on something, but how much you can sell it for. That sums it all up neatly. This painting below 'Riding With Death' is a brilliant and prophetic late painting by Basquiat, completed a few months before his death.