Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The King of the streets

Waiting for the opening of the FIAC tomorrow, I could not miss the exhibition "Basquiat" at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. A retrospective of Jean-Michel Basquiat 's works (1960-1988) planned for his 50's anniversary.

The story of his short life is centered mainly around Manhattan where he became known for his graffitis signed SAMO. The early graffitis begin the exhibition, with their primitive symbols and drawings, arrows, suns: cave art in the street. As we progress along the rooms, the technique changes and the colors become brighter and brighter, till they reach a caribbean flavor, with the subject often drawn in black on sharp reds, oranges, yellow, blue backgrounds. The paintings are violent and the language becomes personal with symbols like the crown. The artist paints everything including old refrigerators, wooden panes, bags, with ferocity. He is translating the violence of the street on the canvass and becomes the voice of the anti-establishment and presents himself as a paria. Through his paintings, he makes the kings of the street become part of the art world.
A number of paintings refer to the anatomy of the human body, like "Skull", 1981. The artist describes the horror of being, a skull with black content and bones like a cage or a prison. Using what he calls his "cultural memory", he offers a glimpse into the underworld where kings get their heads cut off and pictures himself as a young derelict.
The works of Jean-Michel Basquiat are noticed and soon are hanging on the walls of the galleries. His message becomes political, the words are changing: liberty, skinheads, asbestos, negroes... He creates "Slave Auction", 1982, "Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta", 1983 and "Revised Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta". The only light painting is "Self-portrait with Suzanne", 1982, with pastel colors and a happy subject.
The works loose their spontaneity. The association with Andy Warhol is not a success for Basquiat. He has become a member of the new establishment but his voice is chocking. One more time, he tries to reach his roots and compose paintings with subjects related to Voodoo, african masks. The result? an advertisement like "Zydeco", 1984 or the caricature of an african-american on gold background "Gold Griot", 1984. His preoccupation with death becomes overhelming and he composes one of his last piece called "Eroica II", 1988. The colors are flat, heavy and the composition has lost all energy.
The king of the street is no more.
The retrospective is very extensive with 100 paintings, drawings, objects. But some viewers cannot be reached. The german couple next to me shakes their heads, and the lady from the 16th arrondissement honestly declares that she will never understand. The giant fishhook on "Revised Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta" is not a threat to the catfish, but to african- americans who used to be hung from trees. How can we understand the graffitis without walking in some areas of NYC?

Jean-Michel Basquiat was so young when he died twenty two years ago, if...

photograph by the author: ENOB, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1985 at the FIAC

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