Exhibit of the week
A barrage of Basquiat in one of the Brant’s grandest rooms
The Brant Foundation, New York City, through May 15
It turns out we have been looking at Jean-Michel Basquiat all wrong, said Blake Gopnik in ArtNet.com. The Brooklyn-born artist, who died in 1988 at age 27, never has lacked admirers, yet his myriad champions “have just about drowned him and his work in tired romantic clichés.” Even before the heroin overdose that killed him, Basquiat was cast as a tortured spirit who poured out his soul in slashes of paint—first as graffiti on the buildings of New York City’s ragged East Village, then on canvas. But a new Basquiat show, mounted at billionaire collector Peter Brant’s new four-story exhibition space in Basquiat’s now gentrified neighborhood, “lets us see a very different, much smarter, and more complex artist” than the primal screamer of myth. The 1980s wunderkind whose paintings now sell for boggling sums was “an artist of words and thoughts”—a conceptual artist rather than a neo-expressionist.
But Basquiat felt that he was demeaningly misread, and “this seemed to fuel his work toward greater heights,” said Martha Schwendener in The New York Times. During the short span between his discovery and his death, he forged his own brand of African-American history painting, mixing expressionist figuration with snippets of language that revealed his interest in French deconstructionism and the cutup technique of Beat-era writers. The nearly 70 works on display represent his career contributions well, and they even include his untitled painting of a black skull, from 1982, that sold at auction in 2017 for $110.5 million—the current record for a work by an American artist. “I’m not sure that the new show has a clear theme, other than what I can only call Very Expensive Paintings,” said Deborah Solomon in WNYC.org. Next to no information is provided about the individual works, which heightens the impression that despite the lack of an admission fee, this is a commercial endeavor, which flatters Basquiat’s collectors while boosting the value of their holdings.
“What would Basquiat have made of all of this?” said Andrew Russeth in ArtNews.com. His work has been impressively displayed here, with “moments of real drama.” The public also benefits, or at least those who aren’t waitlisted for tickets, in that these paintings have become so expensive that even museums can’t afford to insure them for an exhibition. But Basquiat was an outsider who fought for others like him, and little room is now left in the thoroughly gentrified East Village for people without money. In The Price of Gasoline in the Third World and works like it, he proposed a different vision of the ideal polity by capturing the “exhilarating, topsy-turvy, sometimes heartbreaking nature of life” in early-1980s New York. “As is often the case with Basquiat, the result is not seamless or pristine. It’s provisional, obviously pieced together, but it works, and it is beautiful.” ■