In retrospect, judging from the carefully curated selection of Basquiat's best paintings here, it might have been a little too easy to place his work in the category of Neo Expressionism, with its bombast and emphasis on direct, experiential painting -- as closer looks reveal that his process (no doubt influenced by his working relationship with Warhol) didn't quite fit so neatly into the same camp as Schnabel and Clemente, but walked a fine line between high and low culture. In his essay "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception," the art theorist and social critic Theodor Adorno attempted to analyze the transformation of the cultural sphere in industrialized capitalist society. Adorno argued that as a result of the increasing rationalization of life in a technological society, the cultural sphere becomes one of the areas through which the dominant economic norms are inserted. He posited that this commodification of culture leads inevitably to the conflation of the avante-garde, or high culture, and those lower forms of popular entertainment or spectacle. For Adorno the end result of this mash-up is Kitsch. Perhaps no artist in the twentieth century since Warhol understood how to commodify kitsch into a believable art form as much as Basquait.
We can see in such pictures as "In Italian" (1983), with its layers of images of currency, reproduced and repeated underdrawings (Basquiat used the copy machine in much the same way that Warhol used the silkscreen), and the use of cheap, castaway wood and tarp for canvas support. "Untitled (Julius Caesar on Gold)" (1981) also makes reference to the currency of kunst (imitation gold paint), power (Caesar holding a cartoonishly large sword), and primitive, imagistic markings, which add a sense of street cred (via graffiti). Basquiat proves a canny manipulator of those Post-Colonial theorists in the '80s who were seeking examples of "authentic" African American art; later artists such as Glen Ligon and Ellen Gallagher would be enlisted toward the same ends. But Basquiat ultimately proved a different kind of painter, one who managed to keep (most) of his authentic early reputation as a product of the street graffiti movement, while also working the burgeoning gallery scene of Boone, Nosei, and Bischofberger. In analyzing the paintings of Courbet, T.J. Clark writes, "The critics did not object to the exploitation of popular art; on the contrary, it was already accepted as a source of imagery and inspiration, as one way to revive the exhausted forms of 'high art.'"
But to adopt the procedures and even the values of popular art, that was subversive. He exploited high art -- its techniques, its size, and something of its sophistication -- in order to revive popular art. His art, like any other, would in the end be assimilated. But for the moment, for a few years, the attempt troubled the public. One critic, in an attempt at categorization, resorted to the value-free description of the paintings as a "menagerie of bipeds." How better to describe Basquiat's "Untitled"(1981) or "La Hara" (1981)? In "Eyes and Eggs" (1987), he achieves an iconic image (Joe the fry cook holding a pan of eggs whose shape echoes his goofy eyes, painted on a canvas tarp covered with footprints; we deduce that the tarp was once laid horizontal, creating an "arena" or "boxing ring" for the painter's work), but this image was ready-made for the posters, coffee cups, and T-shirts it now ubiquitously adorns. This is not a painter who did not think in the long term of how his images would be reproduced but, rather, understood very deeply that when his carefully crafted public image would fade away, the pictures would live on to carry quite different, generally acceptable meanings to the public.
This is not to say that Basquiat's work is a series of calculated stratagems; in fact, Warhol was drawn to the idea of working with him because he saw in his drawing style, his hand, something reminiscent of his own early painting attempts (before the graphic designer in him banished scribbly drawing). There still remains, in the best of his paintings, such as "Gold Griot" (1984), a powerful, draughtsman-like intensity. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, spent a great deal of attention focusing on the origin of painting. In Book 35, called An Account of Painting and Colors, he writes, "We have no certain knowledge as to the birth of the art of painting, nor does this enquiry fall under our consideration. The Egyptians assent that it was invented by themselves … the Greeks … claim it was invented at Sicyon … or Corinth; but they all agree that it originated in the tracing of lines…" To which we might add, "…and continued in New York, on Great Jones Street." - Bradley Rubenstein
Gagosian Gallery is at 555 W. 24th Street, New York, New York.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.