At a recent party for the new Jean-Michel Basquiat show at the Whitney Museum here, the building's fourth floor seemed to thrum with activity. It came not so much from those sedately milling about as from the late artist's works themselves--paintings, drawings, silk screens and constructions teeming with spiky figures that often look as if they'd swallowed some volts of electricity and brimming with words and phrases that are linguistic counterpoints to the images.
Graffiti artist Crash was there, pointing to this painting and that, recalling the old days, in the '80s, when he'd hang out with Basquiat to play pool for a couple of hours or hit the downtown clubs.
In the late-night crush of the hip and the hopeful, Crash recalled that Basquiat stood out as a rising star: "He was getting really well-known, so he was like our entry into the clubs."
But the Whitney show, a retrospective of more than 90 works running through Feb. 14, brings back more than thoughts of the frenetic '80s art and hip-hop scenes, or even admiration for Basquiat's prodigious output. "Seeing the show like this makes me realize that he's dead," Crash said. Only now, four years after his death, Crash said, "it becomes really real."
Basquiat was found dead at age 27 of a drug overdose in August, 1988, in the Great Jones Street studio he rented from the Andy Warhol estate. He was the Brooklyn-born son of a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother and had enjoyed a meteoric success, rising from teen-age graffiti writer on the streets of SoHo to celebrity artist in less than 10 years' time. If some thought his fame was largely the product of a hype-driven art market, others were equally certain that he was a true original.
The '80s, for better or for worse, were his decade. His canvases, with their masklike, slyly "primitive" images and scribbled words and phrases, were found in the most fashionable collections. He frequented the downtown club scene and the uptown restaurants, wearing Armani and dreadlocks. He made gobs of money, which bought those expensive suits and the drugs that eventually killed him.
Friends and acquaintances knew the downside, though: his stormy dealings with art dealers; his extravagant ways; his anguish over the death of friend and sometime-collaborator Warhol, and his repeated descents into drug addiction.
With his death, Basquiat's paintings, which had been hovering around $50,000, ascended into the $500,000 range, even as his estate became embroiled in a legal wrangle involving his accountant father (the executor of his estate), his last dealer and various acquaintances who laid claim to some of his works.
With the recession, the prices for Basquiats tumbled, but recently there's been a new surge of interest in Basquiat. Two biographies are in the works, and artist Julian Schnabel has reportedly written a screenplay.
Most dramatic of all (and this is the event that's prompted at least some journalistic rustling) is the Whitney Museum retrospective, the first survey of the artist to be organized by an American museum. If ever a show was controversial merely for existing , it's this one. Is this a well-earned look at a short but intensely productive career? Or is it just a further spin on what has always been a dubious phenomenon?
The show has received some positive reviews. But it also invited an acidic commentary from art critic Hilton Kramer. "The career of the late Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of the hoaxes of the 1980s art boom," is the opening sentence of his review for the New York Observer. In it, he accuses the museum of putting "a new gloss" on Basquiat's career by depicting him as "an artist of social consciousness, dealing with greed, racism, the inhumanity of American society, and so on. This is the key to the way Basquiat is going to be marketed for the 1990s. It's all pure baloney."
Still, viewers are likely to find obvious references to racism in Basquiat's work, such as in the 1982 "Rinso." The cartoony style painting touts the virtues of "the greatest development in soap history," a product notable for its "whitewashing action." The work pokes more fun at black stereotypes by including the names of subservient characters (Kingfish of "Amos 'n' Andy") and phrases ("No suh, no suh").
Robert Storr, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York who specializes in contemporary art, said there are many far more subtle allusions to the fate of a black man in white society. Noting the "long lists of black boxers and musicians, many of them little known," that appear in Basquiat's work, Storr said: "If he was just a downtown superstar, he would have dealt with the B-52's or David Byrne." The dislike for Basquiat in some quarters is really a displaced dislike for the excesses of the '80s, Storr said. "People deal with him as a symbol of the period rather than as an artist. And the people who hate that period use him as an easy target."
To Richard Marshall, the show's curator, the point of mounting a Basquiat retrospective now is "to let people come to their own conclusions" about Basquiat's art.
"There is so much emphasis put on his life and death and drug use," Marshall said. "I didn't see that lessening. I felt it's not too soon to interject very strongly a consciousness of his art so that a clear awareness of his production could be factored into the other aspects of his life."