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Art & Architecture How the AGO’s Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective confirms the late artist’s staying power

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The retrospective of paintings and works on paper by the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, now up at the Art Gallery of Ontario, has come freighted with so much hype, earnestness, special pleading, calculation, merchandise and irony cum hypocrisy that it’s a relief to report that the actual exhibition is a largely entertaining, often arresting affair.

Twenty-seven years after his death at 27, Basquiat’s got talent. Enough, in fact – based on what’s on view in Toronto at least, timed to the start of Black History Month – to ensure his current standing as the best artist of the Neo-Expressionist spasm that convulsed the international art world in the 1980s for another, well, 27 years.

This wasn’t necessarily the surest thing in August, 1988, when Basquiat died of “acute mixed drug intoxication” in the sweltering heat of his Manhattan loft. Sure, his art was selling well at the time and the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum, among others, had Basquiats in their permanent collections. But posterity’s a harsh judge. With someone as incandescent as this trilingual American son of a Haitian-born accountant père and art-loving, Puerto Rican-by-way-of-Brooklyn madre, there was always the risk that both changes in taste and the judgments of his many nay-sayers would leave him stranded on history’s far shore.

Instead, the man-child’s reputation and appeal have been steadily on the ascent: Nine months ago, a sprawling five-panel Basquiat canvas from 1983 called Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta sold at auction in New York for almost $24-million (U.S.).

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Untitled, 1981. Acrylic and oilstick on canvas, 244.48 x 182.88 cm. The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection. (Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles/Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York)

If, as former Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer pronounced a few years ago, “the best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart,” then Basquiat is very, very good indeed. For some, it’s an achievement that, in its intensity and brevity – some 1,000 paintings and 2,000 drawings done between 1980 and 1988 – invites comparison with none other than Vincent van Gogh.

The AGO show, its 100 or so works curated by Vienna-based Basquiat expert Dieter Buchhart, is being billed as the first-ever Canadian retrospective of the artist. Working with a 10-member local advisory committee of artists, scholars and curators, Buchhart has divided the wares, culled largely from private and gallery collections, into nine thematic zones. Titles include “street as studio,” “heroes and saints” and “playing the trickster: cartoons and provocations.” Most viewers, I’m guessing, won’t pay much heed to this sectioning and will choose simply to go with the flow, space-by-space, painting-by-drawing-by-painting.

Horn Players, 1983. Acrylic and oilstick on three canvas panels mounted on wood supports, 243.8 x 190.5 cm. The Broad Art Foundation. ( Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles/Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York)

Over all, this show pops. By this I mean, the works – hung with a superb sense of space and cadence – hold their own against the bright, pristine white of the venue’s walls. It’s also a show that has to be seen in situ. While the exhibition’s 228-page hardcover catalogue is a serviceable enough souvenir, the matte-like finish of its pages barely hints at the physicality and presence of the actual works. That physicality is not only of size (there’s a lot of big stuff here) but of colour and palimpsest-like texture. Further, the catalogue’s colour reproductions are mostly wimpy and, in some instances, downright misleading. For example, the bold swatches of cobalt blue (or is it indigo?) that animate one of the show’s liveliest paintings, Horn Players, a 1983 homage to jazz giants Charlie Parker (a major Basquiat hero) and Dizzy Gillespie, are rendered a bland black.

The knock against Basquiat has been that, since he was largely self-trained, he relied less on painterly skill and more on gesture and graphic devices – all those words and pictographs and blocks of colour, the repeated deployment of the copyright symbol, the rictus of incisors and bicuspids like the teeth of a zipper, the tri-corn crown emblem (with its associations of royal heraldry and Jughead Jones doofusness), the mask-like faces – to put his art across. But seeing 1981’s Untitled in person, for instance, reveals an artist keenly aware of the full picture plane, expertly marshalling a dazzling variety of means (spray, paint, paper collage, oil stick) to create a fully realized composition, in red, black and white, that’s simultaneously and engagingly crude and complex.

Untitled, 1981. Acrylic, oil, paper collage and spray paint on canvas, 205.74 x 175.9 cm. The Broad Art Foundation. (Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles/ Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York)

Writers about Basquiat invariably cite his emergence, circa 1980, on the Lower Manhattan art scene as part of the two-man graffiti tag-team known as SAMO as being seminal to his solo art. Invariably, too, accounts of this arrival are dovetailed with references to the rise of hip-hop, turn-tableism (scratching, sampling) and breaking. Certainly the AGO has taken these elements on as a major theme.

A couple of nights ago it hosted a performance by one of the original New York rappers, Grandmaster Flash, who just turned 57. This evening there’s a six-hour “Basquiat Bash,” during which, we’re told, the AGO “will reverberate with the youthful sounds of B-boys and B-girls,” as well as a breakdancing competition. Meanwhile, near the exhibition’s entrance, there’s the “Basquiat Culture Jam Lounge” where visitors can add their own art and observations on a blackboard, listen to “Basquiat-inspired music” and record their impressions of the exhibition at a video talk-back booth.

Yet as important as graffiti was to Basquiat as a concept (the artist as outlier, scold and truth-sayer) and an aesthetic (a privileging of rawness, urgency, “the authentic mark”), the AGO exhibition demonstrates it was just one influence among many. Picasso, a fellow artist once observed, “had love affairs with all art history, and he’s the lover who’ll kiss and tell.” There’s something of that to Basquiat. Wander the sprawl of the AGO and you’re just as likely to be name-checking Jean Dubuffet,

Cy Twombly, Alan Stamaty, Jackson Pollock or Philip Guston, the cave drawers of Lascaux, Mose Tolliver, Franz Kline and (yes) Picasso as Futura 2000 & Stash. Seen from a 45-degree angle at a distance of about 15 metres, The Death of Michael Stewart, one of Basquiat’s starkest, hardest-hitting paintings (but with a frame straight from the 1895 Salon), no longer looks like a tableau of police brutality; instead it’s a delicate Degas pastel. Uncanny!

Untitled, 1982. Acrylic and oil on linen, 193 x 239 cm. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. (Studio Tromp, Totterdam/ Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York)

The AGO has subtitled its exhibition Now’s the Time. It derives, in part, from both a blues tune of the same name that Charlie Parker wrote and recorded with Miles Davis (another Basquiat hero) in 1945 – you’ll hear it as you enter the show – and a 1985 Basquiat creation, a big black hunk of plywood shaped like a vinyl recording (you’ll see it upon crossing the exhibition threshhold). “Now’s the time” is also the motif/incantation Martin Luther King used to great effect in his famous “I have a dream” speech from 1963, an excerpt of which the AGO is playing ad infinitum at the show’s mid-point.

Of course, the title isn’t just a historical reference; it’s also an argument of sorts for Basquiat’s relevance in the right here/right now of Ferguson, Staten Island and Phoenix, Cleveland, Sanford and … Toronto. Indeed, AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum, at a preview attended by more than 170 media types earlier this week, said his institution has striven to make the Basquiat retrospective “of Toronto,” not just “for Toronto.”

Well, we’ll see how audiences respond over the course of the three-month run in Canada’s most multicultural metropolis. Racism, of course, remains a perennial and potent issue. Indeed, I would argue that Basquiat’s engagement with it (and the slipperiness of identity) in his art has been significant in ensuring his relevance since his death. It imbues his work with a combination of necessity and conviction absent from the paintings of Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente and the other non-African-American painters who flamed into fame around the time of Basquiat’s debut.

Yet for all of racism’s persistence here, there and everywhere, and its various commonalities, Toronto 2015 is not New York 1982 (let alone New York 2015); the presentation of Jean-Michel Basquiat as a sort of adaptable universal soul brother may end up being more exercise in procrustean bed-making than apt fit.

Obnoxious Liberals, 1982. Acrylic, oilstick, and spray paint on canvas, 172.72 x 259.08 cm. The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection. (Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York)

Leaving Now’s the Time through the obligatory gift shop, the viewer naturally wonders: Would Basquiat’s fame, popularity and esteem have continued had he kicked his bad habits and feckless friends? Was he capable of more great art? The answer is: Who knows? The danger in having a strong, singular, “eccentric” and successful style is that self-parody is usually just a brushstroke or three away. In a society obsessed with novelty, familiarity is always contempt’s predecessor.

Moreover, if there is one thing for which now is not the time, it’s painting. Painters continue to paint, of course, but as an idiom, it’s no longer the automatic go-to activity of the best and brightest young artists. As The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl has observed, painting since Basquiat’s heyday has been “surviving on a case-by-case basis; its successes amounting to special exemptions from a verdict of history.”

In this sense, the AGO exhibition, for all its many pleasures, is rather old-fashioned. Tellingly perhaps, Now’s the Time contains only nine Basquiats completed in the artist’s last two years. And one of them, a modest-sized acrylic on canvas from 1988 called Oreo, is perhaps the exhibition’s saddest piece. It consists of an oval outlined in black with a white interior, the oval topped by a cross and painted against a large-ish ground the colour of the American greenback. Inside the oval is the word “Oreo,” spelled in capital letters and positioned in such a way as to resemble a face.

Basquiat was not averse to self-portraiture – indeed, two of the show’s strongest paintings, from 1983 and 1984, respectively, are in that genre – so it’s hard not to see Oreo, finished mere months before his death, through that lens.

An Oreo is, of course, a mass-consumption snack. The word is also used as a derogative to describe someone who’s “black on the outside, white on the inside.” Flicked on the green ground are discreet flecks of black and blood-like red. Over all, there’s an exhausted feeling, an inertness, to this painting, a lack of the exuberance, fun even, that distinguishes much of the rest of Now’s the Time.

Was Basquiat letting the world know that his quick rise to fame and fortune had turned him into an art-world commodity, manufactured by and for the delectation of dealers and collectors and hangers-on, most of whom were white? If Basquiat had lived and recovered, perhaps he would have been adroit enough to make a career-saving stylistic swerve à la Francis Picabia or Leon Golub or Guston. But looking at Oreo, one gets the sensation of an artist who very much knew his gig was up. In the meantime, we have Now’s the Time freezing Basquiat in time, eternally young, gifted and black.

A Panel of Experts, 1982. Acrylic and oil paintstick and paper collage on canvas with exposed wood supports and twine, 152.4 x 152.4 cm. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Gift of Ira Young (Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York)

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time opens Saturday at the Art Gallery of Ontario for an exhibition concluding May 10. Toronto is the show’s sole North American stop. Details of opening hours, Basquiat-themed events and programs are at ago.net.

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