Saturday, January 10, 2015

Basquiat Belongs

With its catchy title, the exhibition Basquiat and the Bayou at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, part of Prospect.3: Notes for Now, is an attempt to relate Jean-Michel Basquiat's legacy to the culture of the Crescent City and the South in general. Nine paintings have been selected for the show which starts with a biography of the artist set along the hall leading to a vast room filled with the works.

Facing the entrance, Zydeco, 1984, a dark green triptych, color of "haricots" (beans), catches the visitor's attention with its reference to the music from Louisiana. The camera on the right panel focuses on the accordionist, the central figure. The left panel, harder to decipher, includes a black refrigerator, four black skulls topped by two iconic crowns and two seated black silhouettes. The painting is surrounded by Natchez, 1985, on the right, an aggregation of Xeroxed pieces on plywood mounted on a wood door, covered by texts and drawings treating a variety of subjects and, on the left, by CPRKR, 1982, dedicated to Charlie Parker. Facing these, two works appear loosely related to the theme of the exhibition: Embittered,1986, a complex juxtaposition of cartoonish figures including African inspired drawings and Back of the Neck, 1983, a painting inspired by Gray's AnatomyProcession, 1986, appears racially charged with its simple sinister cortege led by a figure wearing bright clothes and carrying a white skull, followed by four black silhouettes. Another prominent piece Exu, 1988, is a mythical painting radiating energy, a late work possibly made after Basquiat's visit to New Orleans. Two paintings, King Zulu, 1986 and Untitled (Cadmium), 1984, are similar compositions treating unrelated subjects. The first refers to New Orleans and the musician Louis Armstrong, the later has a religious overtone featuring a black torso and a sacred heart.
The physical relationship between the bayou (South) and Basquiat is tenuous at best and consists of one visit to New Orleans during Jazz Fest in April 1988, shortly before his death. Basquiat himself claimed his New York City roots which are not incompatible with his preoccupations with the South, racial bias, his Haitian and Puerto Rican origins, and his musical choices, as described by Robert G. O'Meally in his essay published in the exhibition's catalogue. So it is not surprising to find themes related to the South in his works long before his trip to New Orleans like in Undiscovered genius of the Mississippi Delta, 1983, or Jim Crow, 1986, among others, important works selected for the great retrospective which took place at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2010 for his fiftieth birthday. Furthermore, some of Basquiat's late paintings appear to be an attempt to reconnect with his preferred themes following his collaboration with Andy Warhol.
It is not surprising that the exhibition's intent feels somewhat contrived, twisting Basquiat's vernacular to make it fit into a Southern experience. Cataloged as a neo-expressionist artist, ultimately, Basquiat is recognized as Basquiat and like Gauguin, found at the New Orleans Museum of Art during the Triennale, it is fitting that he should be part of Prospect.3 because, referring to Tavares Strachan slogan floating on the Mississippi, he "belongs".


photographs by the author:
"Untitled (cadmium)", 1984
" Exu", 1988
" Zydeco", 1984

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