Mark Dery on the "everything, all at once" art and life of Jean-Michel Basquiat

There are few reading experiences I enjoy more than cultural critic Mark Dery when his mind is on fire. Mark normally warms up his pen in the Twainian fires of hell (which I always enjoy), but I especially like it when he's inspired to rhapsody by art and music. Such has been the case recently with his Hyperallergic pieces on the Met surrealism show and Winslow Homer's arresting masterpiece "The Gulf Stream."

Mark was recently "filled to bursting" by King Pleasure, the Jean-Michel Basquiat show at the Starrett-Lehigh building in Chelsea, lovingly curated by the Basquiat family. Mark was so inspired by the "self-taught Afro-punk, Afro-Surrealist, Afrofuturist code-switcher, cultural cryptographer, guerrilla semiotician, and hip-hop deconstructionist" that he wrote two beautiful essays after his visit to the show, one for Hyperallergic and one for Medium.

"Untitled" (1984), acrylic on canvas. (Photo: Mark Dery, at "King Pleasure" exhibition.)

From "How Jean-Michel Basquiat Rose to Be King of the Art World" on Hyperallergic:

The color black has pride of place in Basquiat's work. On occasion, it dominates our field of vision, engulfing most of the canvas (as it does in the 1982 painting "Cabeza"), an aesthetic choice that's hard not to see as radical politics with a paintstick. "Black people are never portrayed realistically — not even portrayed in modern art enough," he told an interviewer. "I use the 'black' as protagonist because I am black, and that's why I use it as the main character in all the paintings."

It's a manifesto for a Black-centric body of art that inverts the white-supremacist social order — and calls out the representational racism of Western art history while it's at it. Basquiat was never not political, but while he was capable of social commentary as scathing as anything from George Grosz's savage pen, he preferred punk mockery and black humor ("Irony of Negro Policeman," 1981; "Hollywood Africans in Front of the Chinese Theater with Footprints of Movie Stars," 1983) to strenuously sincere sloganeering. 

Red, too, recurs in his work. Sometimes, it's the luscious crimson of TV-commercial ketchup, other times the ominous maroon of dried blood, like the drips and splashes that all but obliterate the skull-faced head of the figure in "Untitled" (1984). White critics, back in the day, would have read those spatter patterns art-historically, as references to Jackson Pollock's drip paintings. Black and Brown viewers — those intrepid few who penetrated the Soho-gallery sanctums known, unironically, as "white cubes" — would've reeled at their visual echoes of the brutal murder, a year earlier, of Michael Stewart. 

"Untitled (Sugar Ray)" (1982), acrylic and oil stick on canvas. (Photo: Mark Dery, at "King Pleasure" exhibition.)

And from "Blackness Visible: Jean-Michel Basquiat" on Medium:

Too often, the life blocks our view of the work. We can't see past the myth: his rock-star fame; the boldfaced names in his orbit (Andy Warhol, Madonna, Debbie Harry, Julian Schnabel, Keith Haring, William S. Burroughs); his fatal embrace of the demon lover, heroin.

Which is why, when you're face to face with it, his art leaves you jaw-dropped. Of course, the show has its underwhelming moments: there are pieces that feel slapdash, perfunctory, as if, running short on inspiration, he's relying on well-worn gimmicks from his bricoleur's grab-bag of signs, symbols, and shtick. (Francis Bacon, another self-taught polymath who didn't have technique to fall back on, also lapsed into self-parody when inspiration deserted him.)

But when he's good, he's stunningly good. His line is exquisitely expressive, as virtuosic as Charlie Parker's darting, swooping, skittering saxophone solo on "Ko Ko." (Basquiat, who worshipped at Parker's altar, often painted to his music, working on multiple canvases at once, dancing as he moved.) I'd forgotten what a masterful colorist he was, too: the supersaturated colors, straight out of the tube, eye-popping as the plumage on a West Indian Day costume, slathered on like frosting, impasto style. That pitch-perfect palette, its bold harmonies reminiscent of African flags (the red, black, and yellow of Angola; the red, white, black, and green of Kenya), but also of the '60s Pop Art and Saturday morning cartoons he loved, and of the "kids' work," bright with the primary colors of Crayolas, Magic Markers, and Play-Doh, that he liked "more than work by real artists any day." (He intentionally held his paintsticks awkwardly, like a kindergartner. "I want to make paintings that look as if they were made by a child," he told his friend, the graffiti artist Fab Five Freddy. A child fluent in Jean Dubuffet and Cy Twombly, more like.)

Read the rest here and here.