Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Brooklyn, New York. Visited April 2011

This post focuses on mercurial 1980's artist Jean-Michel Basquiat  - a tragic story of remarkable gifts and a life struggling to live with them. I asked my friend, artist Jay Walker to talk about Basquiat’s life and art.

When I list the artists that influence my work, Jean-Michel Basquiat is always the one that is curious to people.

"Unquiet Mind"
Basquiat rose to notoriety at the young age of 20, coming out of the New York graffiti movement under the tag name “Samo”, in which he would spray paint Dadaistic truisms. After being reviewed in Artforum by Rene Ricard, who dubbed him the “Radiant Child”, and then being discovered by the booming 80s New York art scene, Basquiat was the youngest artist in recent history to take the art world by storm. Eventually being exhibited internationally, making more money than he knew what to do with, being featured on MTV, dating many starlets (Madonna included), and developing a close relationship with Andy Warhol (whom many thought was exploiting the young artist), the pressures of fame came crushing down on Basquiat. This led to a lagging career, increased drug use, and the eventual overdose at the age of 27 in August 1988

Basquiat’s work is classified as Neo-Expressionism and he is often compared to Van Gogh, due to his similar lack of formal training, troubled life, and out of the norm expressive work. Some make the case that the adulation of the art world for Basquiat was penance for its oversight of Van Gogh.

"Fallen Angel"
His work is a dichotomy of tribalism and refinement. Basquiat would point out that it was Europe meets Africa, a form of Creole, like being Haitian, which his father was (his mother was institutionalized most of his life). He avoided being a black mascot for the art world, but he did embrace his heritage of jazz and identified with fellow African-Americans who had risen above social barriers.

Why is Basquiat important to me? His style of work is not similar to mine, though I hope a more direct influence will happen. He made the work he wanted to, he tapped into something deep inside, was unafraid of what people thought of what he created, and reached the level that few are able to attain in a lifetime, all while being very young. He is also a cautionary tale. What happens when fame and the market play to heavily into an artist’s life? What happens with a meteoric rise? What happens when art is all that matters?

If you want to know more about him, watch my favorite movie – "Basquiat"  a film by the painter Julian Schnabel, which is a loose biography from Schnabel’s first hand account of Basquiat’s life.

"Self Portrait"

Personally speaking, as I’ve looked at Basquiat’s work, I’m not sure I can say I ‘like’ it. But I can’t seem to stop looking at it.  You can take a look at his paintings at a number of sites online.  Basquiat is also featured in alot of short video.  The one I found most interesting is "Painting Live - Downtown (1981)"

David and Zac on the hunt

The main reason I wanted to include Basquiat in this blog right now has to do the experience of finding his grave. I visited  Green-Wood Cemetery, a beautiful historic cemetery on one of the highest hills in Brooklyn overlooking downtown Manhattan, just a couple of months ago. I was there with my friends, photographer David Sacks and Zac Martin, pastor of Sovereign Grace City Church. While the cemetery office gave us a map showing the approximate location of Basquiat’s headstone, when we got to the section where he’s buried we couldn’t find it. After about fifteen minutes of wandering around among the graves we saw a small elderly gentleman approaching us. He said, ‘you looking for that artist? I’ll show you where he is. He’s buried behind my daughter.’

He walked us down a row of low symmetrical headstones, literally back to back with each other. ‘Here’s my daughter. He’s on the other side.’ He graciously allowed us to take the picture I’ve included here. And then he set to the sad dignity of clearing away leaves and weeds from his daughter's stone. We stood there for a few minutes, silent; looking down at the grave of a gifted man whose life was cut short in its prime. A few feet away a grieving father faithfully tended to the final resting place of a young woman whose gifts and story are unknown to the world.

As we turned to leave I wondered if this wasn’t an opportunity to offer him hope. So as I thanked him for helping us I said, ‘Sir what you’re doing speaks deeply to me – thank you…’ But before I could finish, he gently held up his hand; the tears in his eyes told me there was a line of interaction he didn’t want to cross. And he said, ‘You never want to do what I’m having to do’.

As the Bible says, death is a curse. It leaves gaping holes of grief in families. It silences the beauty of God-given creativity. But death has its own enemy. And someday it will be defeated – swallowed up in the victory of Christ (1 Cor. 15:34). As I pray for that faithful old man I pray that when that victory comes, he will be part of it.

Come Lord Jesus.