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The Meaning of Jean Michel Basquiat’s Life

Rueful riddle: He was black. In the ‘80s he rose mercury-fashion from obscurity to superstardom. Now he is dead of a drug overdose at the age of 27. What was his occupation?

According to prevailing stereotype he should have been a rock musician. In the last three decades we have been brutalized into acceptance of handsome daredevil rockers floating Ophelia-style in bathtubs, dangling, lanced on tiny needles, extinguished after flaring briefly in the Stygian firmament of licorice discs and concert halls that yawn like purgatory. Well, there goes another one down the well.

This was a little different. The superstar was a painter. At any rate he might have become a painter if he’d lasted. As it stood, he was one of that new breed of cat spawned by the Warhol aesthetic--the cult celebrity of uncertain gifts noted for being noticed. Funny. It was only a few days earlier that we read of the death of Nico, she of the ironed blond hair and sooty mascara whom we all desired from afar in the ‘60s. She turned up in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” joined Warhol’s entourage at the Factory, made his movies and cut records with a voice lined in whiskey-soaked wool. At least she made it into her 40s.

I digress, I digress. Perfume from a dress.

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Maybe it wasn’t an overdose. The obituary item equivocated--either a heart attack or an overdose. A guy I passed in the hall said it was a well-known fact that an overdose can give you a heart attack but not the other way around.

The next day I mentioned it to a well-known curator.

“Too bad about Jean Michel Basquiat dying.”

He thought I said “flying” at first and just went on with the conversation the way you do when something doesn’t make sense. When he realized what was said he really got quite agitated like the people at Arab funerals you see on the CBS Evening News. He shut the door to his office for privacy (even though it was glass) and made grieving gestures.

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“My God, I just saw his new work in Europe. He was getting better again.”

Stone cold dead in the market.

Ask The Times’ editorial library to send over the clips on Basquiat. The decent thing to do in the circumstance. Review of his L.A. exhibition at the Larry Gagosian Gallery. Interview in Interview magazine by Henry Geldzahler with a portrait by the legendary black photographer James Van der Zee. Cover story in the New York Times magazine by Cathleen McGuigan. In both photographs Basquiat is as handsome as a Robert Maplethorpe model. His hair is done in tribal corkscrews but he wears an arbitrager’s suit. He appears to sulk. Andy would have approved such media flash for one so young.

Basquiat’s art gave him the image of a wild street kid skulking around at night painting graffiti. He did that in fact, working with a partner and signing the work SAMO. On the face of it that activity sounds like the underground poor kids movement that vandalized most subway cars from Manhattan to the Bronx giving solid citizens the creeps. The beasts had taken over the zoo. Stage set for the Bernard Goetz shooting.

There came to be another side to graffiti art. New York, with its glutton’s capacity for marketing, saw a certain salability in the alarming ferocity and raw elegance of graffiti. The style bifurcated, remaining partly a grass-roots macho ritual like street corner break dancing, partly a new way to attract the attention of galleries of the East Village. A generation of artists emerged that way--Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Basquiat. The first of a new breed of throwaway artists whose fortunes peak and fizzle like pork belly futures.

Basquiat was a trifle more middle-class in background than his street-urchin image. Born in Brooklyn, he had a mother who sometimes took him to the museum and a Haitian father, a successful accountant, who brought him drawing paper from the office. Who knows what made him rebellious enough to splat a pie in the school principal’s face or drop out to Washington Square Park at age 15 to sit there and fry his brain on acid for eight months?

He talked about his doping. It seemed to be something that came and went in his life with varying intensity. He always clung to the notion of making a name for himself. He started out wanting to be a cartoonist and wound up wanting to be a Star. Fatal desire. He hung around the fringes of the art scene peddling hand-made post cards and T-shirts, gradually attracting attention until he was showing in evermore prestigious galleries, peaking with exhibitions at Mary Boone, the dealer-empress of SoHo with a more sensitive eye than suggested by her glitzy image in the press.

Basquiat’s L.A. gallery exhibitions were brutally elegant and bracing. Voodoo-like intensity of belief charged his images and coupled with thoughts of De Kooning’s juiced brushwork and Picasso’s capacity for myth. It looked like a major talent on the rise but anybody could recognize that a 22-year-old street artist is not a 22-year-old concert pianist. The untrained painter is on a dangerous wire at that age and the degree of peril is equal to the height of success. Usually, however, it remains a question of success, not of life and death. There were a notable number of skulls in Basquiat’s work.

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Later, people who travel the art circuit noticed him getting worse at the Whitney, dreary at Documenta, bad at Baden-Baden. The energy was gone. He repeated himself with all the inspiration of a coked-out house painter. The next thing you knew he was a corpse in a house in the East Village rented from Warhol’s estate. Tant pis .

What is a death like Basquiat’s worth? Thousands of us drop like wilted daisies every day but we can’t get used to the idea that it’s a natural act. We want to believe that we go off the edge in some orderly way, 80-year-olds first. When you go like Basquiat it seems out of order. Tish. Twenty-seven is too young but so is 96 if you live that long.

Maybe just another youngster snuffed before his time. Maybe another Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix, both of whom Basquiat admired. Does it really make any difference if it was a painter instead of a rocker? We don’t own up to it but there is a certain dark glamour through that exit. Jim Morrison and the Rimbaud syndrome.

Yet, for the next few days, every art conversation and article points back to Basquiat as if the fates are trying to tell us something.

Analyst talks about how the current runaway prices for art force young artists to produce in a frenzy to meet exhibition deadlines. If quality suffers, that’s tough. Dropping out of the market for that voyage of self-discovery once thought central to the art experience seems to the artist a luxury he cannot afford.

Stories of Basquiat closeted in gallery basements and dealers’ houses cranking out reams of paintings float back to the mind. Were snake-eyed dealers treating him like the indentured goose that spews golden pate? To his credit, Basquiat hated the conveyor belt and walked away from it to paint at his own pace. He said that he painted because there was nothing else to do. That’s another way of saying that painting is the only thing worth doing. Sometimes he’d work all night in an $800 suit and wreck it.

A critic writes about recent movies like “Legal Eagles” and “The Moderns,” where art is characterized as a yuppie status symbol, like expensive designer dresses worn only once. The art world is seen as steeped in corruption and fueled by a fraud so pervasive that an original is as bogus as a fake because the whole game is a con. The critic disparages the movies as jealous and superficial. Reading the implications of Basquiat’s life and death gives paranoid pause. Maybe they are on to something.

Does it really mean anything at all? One knows with bedrock certainty that the art population--as odd and intransigent as it can and should be--still includes those who believe in the redemptive power of art and act accordingly. In his way, Basquiat was one of them. Still, something has gone wrong.

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A revered old teacher used to tell a true story about an experiment with chimpanzees who were set to painting. The chimps loved to paint and did so without encouragement by the hour. Then the experimenters started rewarding them with bananas. Soon our simian brothers were more interested in the reward than in the act and their painting (which was pretty good) went to hell. They sat around snorting bananas.

Andy Warhol liked the funky implications of the banana symbol. Before the death of the Pop pioneer he took Basquiat under his wing. They collaborated on paintings and produced a double self-portrait. In interviews, Basquiat started sounding like Warhol.

Question: Who’s harder to get along with, girlfriends or dealers?

Answer: They’re about the same actually.

Q: Did you work on the streets and subways because you didn’t have materials or because you wanted to communicate?

A: I wanted to build up a name for myself.

We’ve all been charmed by the curious wit and wry wisdom of this kind of flat Warhol-speak but its evasive candor reveals other sides. An almost awesome disillusionment and passivity seeps out, robot-like and devoid of emotion other than a muffled and fuming hostility.

It is a sensibility that allows anything to happen because nothing matters anyway. It’s almost saintly in the way it accepts what comes along. If the Buddha appeared it would go along with that. Unfortunately, what the ‘80s offered to the Warholian vacuum was greed and narcissism on a scale so massive as to turn the art world into a pimpled caricature of itself.

Even darker and more inexplicable is the way death dogged the Warhol aesthetic. Warhol himself was shot by a follower the same weekend Robert Kennedy was assassinated. He survived to die rather oddly at 58 and leave a mocking memorial of cookie jars and kitsch. Sad for a strange kind of genius.

Maybe fatality is not part of the Warhol aesthetic despite the string of deaths that followed him from Edie Sedgwick to Nico, but if I were a surviving superstar or member of the Velvet Underground I’d have regular checkups.

Basquiat does matter. He could have become an artist of substance. If substance matters. If could have exists. . . .


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