Na Vila Olímpia descubro uma “verdadeira” obra de Jean Michel Basquiat.
Quando morei em New York 1984-1985, encontrava pelas ruas as pichações de Basquiat (assinava SAMO) e Keith Haring.
Um domingo, 10 Fevereiro 1985, saiu na capa da revista de domingo do New York Times a famosa foto do Basquiat pintando e vestido de Armani, todo lambusado de tinta e descalço, ele tinha 24 anos e já fazia um sucesso brutal.
Morreu três anos depois, aos 28 anos de idade de overdose de heroina.
O artigo da Sunday Times Magazine começa assim:
February 10, 1985
New Art, New Money
By CATHLEEN McGUIGAN
WHEN JEAN MICHEL BASQUIAT walks into Mr. Chow’s on East 57th Street in Manhattan, the waiters all greet him as a favorite regular. Before he became a big success, the owners, Michael and Tina Chow, bought his artwork and later commissioned him to paint their portraits. He goes to the restaurant a lot. One night, for example, he was having a quiet dinner near the bar with a small group of people. While Andy Warhol chatted with Nick Rhodes, the British rock star from Duran Duran, on one side of the table, Basquiat sat across from them, talking to the artist Keith Haring. Haring’s images of a crawling baby or a barking dog have become ubiquitous icons of graffiti art, a style that first grew out of the scribblings (most citizens call them defacement) on New York’s subway cars and walls. Over Mr. Chow’s plates of steaming black mushrooms and abalone, Basquiat drank a kir royale and swapped stories with Haring about their early days on the New York art scene. For both artists, the early days were a scant half dozen years ago.
That was when the contemporary art world began to heat up after a lull of nearly a decade, when a new market for painting began to make itself felt, when dealers refined their marketing strategies to take advantage of the audience’s interest and when much of the art itself began to reveal a change from the cool and cerebral to the volatile and passionate.
As an artist’s hangout, the elegant cream-lacquered interior of Mr. Chow’s is light-years away from the Cedar Tavern, that grubby Greenwich Village haunt of the artists of the New York School 30 years ago. But art stars were different then. Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and their contemporaries, all more or less resigned to a modest style of living, worked for years at the center of a small and intimate art world in relative isolation from the public at large.
But today, contemporary art is evolving under the avid scrutiny of the public and an ever-increasing pool of collectors in the United States, Europe and Japan; and it is heavily publicized in the mass media. Barely disturbed by occasional dips in the economy, the art market has been booming steadily.
As a result of the current frenzied activity, which produces an unquenchable demand for something new, artists such as Basquiat, Haring or the graffitist Kenny Scharf, once seized upon, become overnight sensations. In their circle, and certainly among the top artists whose careers took off a few years sooner, artists such as Julian Schnabel, David Salle and Robert Longo, annual earnings easily run into six figures. Not only are the numbers involved great – both the dollars and cents and the size of the art audience – so is the breathtaking speed with which work by a new artist can become a cultural fixture.TAKE BASQUIAT. FIVE YEARS AGO, HE didn’t have a place to live. He slept on the couch of one friend after another. He lacked money to buy art supplies. Now, at 24, he is making paintings that sell for $10,000 to $25,000. They are reproduced in art magazines and also as part of fashion layouts, or in photographs of chic private homes in House & Garden. They are in the collections of the publisher S. I. Newhouse, Richard Gere, Paul Simon and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
His color-drenched canvases are peopled with primitive figures wearing menacing masklike faces, painted against fields jammed with arrows, grids, crowns, skyscrapers, rockets and words. ”There are about 30 words around you all the time, like ‘thread’ or ‘exit,’ ” he explains. He uses words ”like brushstrokes,” he says. The pictures have earned him serious critical affirmation. In reviewing a group show of drawings last year, John Russell, chief art critic of The New York Times, noted that ”Basquiat proceeds by disjunction – that is, by making marks that seem quite unrelated, but that turn out to get on very well together.” His drawings and paintings are edgy and raw, yet they resonate with the knowledge of such modern masters as Dubuffet, Cy Twombly or even Jasper Johns. What is ”remarkable,” wrote Vivien Raynor in The Times, ”is the educated quality of Basquiat’s line and the stateliness of his compositions, both of which bespeak a formal training that, in fact, he never had.”
That favorable review came after Basquiat’s first solo show at the Mary Boone Gallery in May 1984. The same month, a self-portrait painted mostly in black and white – stark, powerful and sexually charged – was included in the international survey exhibition that celebrated the reopening of the renovated Museum of Modern Art. Then, proving the solid marketability of his work, a painting of his appeared for auction at Christie’s spring sale of contemporary art. Painted only two years earlier and sold originally for $4,000, it fetched $20,900 on the block.
THE EXTENT OF BASQUIAT’S SUCCESS would no doubt be impossible for an artist of lesser gifts. Not only does he possess a bold sense of color and composition, but, in his best paintings, unlike many of his contemporaries, he maintains a fine balance between seemingly contradictory forces: control and spontaneity, menace and wit, urban imagery and primitivism. Still, the nature and rapidity of his climb is unimaginable in another era. The audience for art is larger now than ever before, and collecting original art is no longer the sole province of the very rich. The upwardly mobile postwar generation, raised on art-history courses and summer trips to Europe, aspires to collect and has the cash to do it. Even when collectors lack cash, some institutions, including banks, now recognize their need. Sotheby’s, the auction house, is willing to lend a portion of the price of an artwork at 2 to 4 points above the prime-interest rate. Given the extraordinary prices of the older blue-chip artists ($1 million for a vintage Jasper Johns, for example), a lot of collectors naturally turn to the young up-and-coming painters whose works are still available for $50,000 and down. For many new art patrons, connoisseurship of contemporary art is a necessary part of the urban life style. They look for paintings that are esthetically aggressive, that physically assault space. The artworks offer proof of up-to-the-minute taste and have a perfect showcase in the reclaimed lofts or gentrified houses in which so many upper-middle- class urbanites now live. With all these new consumers, the number of dealers has mushroomed: in 1970, for example, there were 73 galleries listed in the Art Now: New York Gallery Guide; today there are nearly 450.
This expanding market for contemporary art coincided with a shift in the direction that art itself was taking. Since the late 1960’s, the contemporary mainstream had been dominated by the austere constraints of Minimalism – Brice Marden’s simple areas of solid color, for instance – or the cerebral concerns of Conceptualism, like the mathematical cubes of Sol LeWitt. The forms that art often took seemed to reject the collector – environmental art such as earthworks couldn’t be neatly crated and taken home to hang over the stereo system. But in the late 1970’s, artists such as Jonathan Borofsky, Neil Jenney and Susan Rothenberg began, in vastly different ways, to paint recognizable figures on canvas. Bold color and the sensuality of a richly painted surface returned, appealing to an art public that had been starved, baffled or bored for a decade. Many art patrons hadn’t felt a comparable excitement since the early 1960’s. Eugene Schwartz, for example, who, along with his wife, Barbara, amassed an important collection including Frank Stella, Morris Louis and David Smith, stopped collecting altogether in 1969. One day in 1980, he saw a painting by the artist Julian Schnabel in a dealer’s gallery. ”It brought us from the 60’s to the 80’s in about 14 seconds,” he said, and since buying it he has been collecting again – ”compulsively.”
Not everyone in the art world is overjoyed at what is happening. Some think neo- expressionism, as much of the new work is called, is a hyped-up fad, doomed to a short life. ”The new expressionism tends to be a generalized Angst ,” says Thomas Lawson, a painter and editor of Real Life Magazine, a small-circulation artists’ journal. ”You can’t tell what the artist is reacting to. It’s not very reflective.” Lawson thinks Basquiat is talented but that those of lesser skills will inevitably burn out.
In any case, Julian Schnabel’s highly publicized success made him the first art star of the 1980’s and created an atmosphere of expanded possibilities for any promising artist since. For someone as ambitious as Basquiat, high expectations are matched by the pressures of succeeding. Basquiat’s sometimes-stormy rise and struggle with the art establishment provide a look at how the artists’ names and their works are marketed in the art world today. His successful career demonstrates the competitiveness among dealers for artists; dealers’ pricing and marketing techniques; their control of supply and demand and the importance of the European market for today’s American scene. Further, Basquiat’s example shows how an artist tries to create and to preserve his autonomy in this heady environment. The danger is always that the glamour and fuss will cloud the meaning of the artwork itself. FROM THE START Basquiat has displayed a notoriously mercurial disposition, which certainly helped bring him early attention in a world in which a lot of noise doesn’t hurt. Like his paintings, which are at once childlike and fearsome, he can be both engagingly shy and temperamental. Henry Geldzahler, critic and former curator of 20th-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, comments, ”His personality, both charming and disdainful, is very attractive.”
He was born in Brooklyn to a Haitian father, a successful accountant, and a Puerto Rican mother. His parents separated when he was 7. Basquiat dreamed of becoming a writer and a cartoonist – his father brought home paper from the office for him to draw on, and his mother sometimes took him to museums. His renegade streak surfaced early. ”At 15, he left home and went to Washington Square Park, reported Suzi Gablik in her book ”Has Modernism Failed?” ”I just sat there dropping acid for eight months,” Basquiat told her. ”Now all that seems boring. It eats your mind up.” He dropped out of school again at 17 (after, he says, he threw a cream pie in the principal’s face) and began writing poetic messages and drawing odd symbols with a friend named Al Diaz on walls around town, especially in SoHo. The messages, in Magic Marker, were vaguely anarchistic and ranged from the obvious – ”Riding around in Daddy’s convertible with trust fund money”- to the ominous – ”Plush safe . . . he think.” They signed the phrases with the tag ”SAMO” and the copyright symbol. Basquiat explains that SAMO was meant to suggest a brand name or corporate logo; he has also said that it stood for the expresway, the graffiti captured a lot of attention. ”At that time, whenever you went to an art opening or a hot new club, SAMO had been there first,” says Jeffrey Deitch, a critic who co-manages the international art advisory service at Citibank and was an early Basquiat champion. (Citibank advises its customers that art of quality can be considered a good investment. And, with other leading banks, it also now accepts fine art and furniture as collateral against loans.) Eventually, SAMO was unmasked. For Keith Haring, who had admired SAMO’s handiwork, the realization came when he sneaked a young artist named Basquiat into the School of Visual Arts. The next day, SAMO’s leavings were scrawled all over the school.
Basquiat, like many aspiring artists, worked at a number of odd jobs, including selling junk jewelry on the street on the lower part of the Avenue of the Americas, and he crashed a lot of art parties and openings. ”He was always broke,” recalls Diego Cortez, a curator and critic who met him during this period at the Mudd Club, the now-defunct punk hangout that was headquarters for the art and rock underground. Basquiat was also painting designs on sweatshirts and coveralls and playing in a band called Gray. ”It was a noise band,” he says. ”I played a guitar with a file, and a synthesizer. I was inspired by John Cage at the time – music that isn’t really music. We were trying to be incomplete, abrasive, oddly beautiful.” It was not unlike his art. Basquiat exhibited some of the drawings he was making at occasional art shows at the Mudd Club and in the new-wave salons that Keith Haring organized at such popular nightspots as Club 57.
Neo-expressionist painting was having a growing impact on the SoHo scene in 1980. A trio of Italians, known as the three C’s – Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia and Enzo Cucchi, all of whom used the human figure in their epic- scaled, potent canvases – had major exhibitions in New York at the Sperone Westwater gallery. People began to talk about waiting lists for certain hot new painters. That summer, the emerging artists of the punk and graffiti underground had their own art event, at a rather unusual alternative space. In a former massage parlor near Times Square, a loose confederation of artists from the South Bronx and the Lower East Side collaborated to turn the dilapidated structure into ”a sort of art funhouse,” as Jeffrey Deitch put it in Art in America. Crammed with a crude, energetic assortment of drawings, posters, low-budget scraps of film, exotic fashions and sculpture, the ”Times Square Show,” as it was called, had a trashy exuberance that lived up to the neighborhood. (A work called ”Man Killed by Air Conditioner,” which was simply a life-size clay figure crushed on the floor by a real air-conditioner, typified the show’s deadpan humor.) Basquiat had contributed to the exhibition by covering an entire wall in splashes of spray paint and brushwork. ”A patch of wall painted by SAMO, the omnipresent graffiti sloganeer, was a knockout combination of de Kooning and subway spray paint scribbles,” wrote Deitch. That was Basquiat’s first press notice.
No one can remember exactly when the epitaph ”SAMO is dead” first began to appear scrawled around the Bowery and SoHo, but when Basquiat and his collaborator Diaz had a falling out, Basquiat killed off his alter ego. Diaz became involved in music, and Basquiat, though he had been the prime author of SAMO’s musings, turned increasingly to making art. He had no real materials: he painted on salvaged sheet metal or broken pieces of window casement and made assemblages out of junk. One work from that period, now owned by the artist Francesco Clemente, is a four-inch-thick slab of dirty yellow foam rubber on which a childlishly rendered car is outlined in black.
One day in 1980, Diego Cortez, who had been following Basquiat’s work with interest and had begun to act as his agent, brought Jeffrey Deitch to the tiny tenement apartment on the Lower East Side where the artist was then living with a girlfriend. The first thing Deitch saw was a battered refrigerator that Basquiat had completely covered with drawings, words and symbols, the lines practically etched into the enamel. ”It was one of the most astounding art objects I had ever seen,” says Deitch. Scattered all over the floor of the apartment were drawings on all sizes of cheap paper covered with images and smudged with Basquiat’s footprints. ”Jean kept on working as if we were interrupting him,” Deitch remembers. He picked out five drawings made on typing paper, and paid $250 in cash for them. This was probably Basquiat’s first sale; Cortez had to remind him to sign the drawings.
In January 1981, Cortez put together a show called ”New York/New Wave” at P.S. 1, the alternative-space gallery in Long Island City, Queens. Although the show featured work by graffiti artists, Cortez also showed some paintings by Basquiat, mostly minimal – lines of crayon or paint drawn in childlike fashion on unprimed canvas. The message was clear: though Basquiat had cruised onto the underground art scene on the crest of the graffitists’ new wave, his work was distinctly different. In fact, neither he nor the graffitist Keith Haring had ever ”bombed” – spray painted – dormant subway cars in the train yards at night, a necessary rite of passage in the authentic graffiti subculture. More importantly, as the critics pointed out, Basquiat’s paintings embodied more formal ties to the history of art. He may have grown up, like most kids, on a diet of comic books, but clearly he had also had a taste of Picasso. (Basquiat says that ”Guernica” had a big impact on him when he first saw it as a teen-ager in the Museum of Modern Art.)
Few dealers made the trek to Queens to see the P.S. 1 show, but several influential people did come. The Swiss dealer Bruno Bischofberger, who has a gallery in Zurich, saw Basquiat’s work for the first time there. Although he wasn’t ready to make a commitment to it, Henry Geldzahler was impressed indeed. Several months later, Geldzahler bought the first of the three works of Basquiat he was to acquire. It was half a door that Basquiat had found on the street to which he’d applied half-torn posters and layers of scribblings. ”It was covered with as dense and rewarding an array as a 1955 Rauschenberg,” says Geldzahler. ”I decided to overpay. I offered $2,000 for it. I knew he was authentic and I wanted to say, ‘Welcome to the real world.’ ”
For the Italian painter Sandro Chia, then new to America, Basquiat’s paintings captured the spontaneity and ”emotional reality” of the city. The paintings were full of disparate elements that somehow worked together, though there was no apparent system linking them – ”just like New York,” notes Chia. He commended Basquiat’s work to the Italian dealer Emilio Mazzoli, who promptly bought 10 paintings for approximately $10,000 and set a date on the spot for Basquiat to have a show at his gallery in Modena. That spring, Basquiat went to Modena (his first trip to Europe), made a few more paintings there and had his first one- man show. WHILE BASQUIAT was in Europe, the buzz of the New York art world was of the opening of the spectacular double show that Julian Schnabel was having simultaneously at the Mary Boone and Leo Castelli Galleries in SoHo. People gossiped about how Schnabel and his dealer, Mary Boone, had won the imprimatur of Castelli, who handles Rauschenberg and Johns and hadn’t taken on a new artist in nearly a decade. In fact, while Schnabel came to epitomize the new artist-as-celebrity, Mary Boone became a public persona in her own right, the best known of a new breed of young dealers: bright, aggressive and hardheaded in business matters.
Annina Nosei, who had opened a gallery in SoHo in 1980, invited Basquiat to join it in September 1981 at the suggestion of Sandro Chia. He needed money and a place to paint. He was given cash to buy supplies and the use of the gallery’s basement storeroom as a studio. ”He had, perhaps, seen in me the mother type,” says the dealer, who suggests that that image led to later conflicts.
Basquiat worked feverishly, encouraged by Annina Nosei, who sometimes brought collectors down to the basement while he painted. Now rich with color, his paintings began to evolve from the sparer look of the work in the P.S. 1 show: large, primitive figures were filled in and articulated with raw detail and there was less of the all-over drawing of symbols and words. In a book published last year, ”The Art Dealers,” by Laura de Coppet and Alan Jones, Annina Nosei described her strategy for selling these works: ”I was putting together major sales to important collectors who were buying, for example, the Germans. I told them that they should have a work by Jean Michel Basquiat also, for $1,000 or $1,500 more on the bill of $25,000 they had already run up. This worked quite well: these collectors gained an early commitment, told their friends, and all of a sudden Basquiat’s paintings were found in collections beside more well-known artists, as the youngest of all.” At first, she priced his works very low, so that ”later when I show paintings for $2,000 the improvement in that new work confirmed the small commitment already made.”
The dealer was said to be selling canvases by Basquiat at a brisk pace – so brisk, some observers joked, that the paint was barely dry. Basquiat says he did not always feel the paintings were finished. Meanwhile, the basement-studio arrangement was gaining a certain notoriety. Critic Suzi Gablik called it ”something like a hothouse for forced growth,” and Jeffrey Deitch referred to it when he reviewed in Flash Art magazine Basquiat’s show at Annina Nosei’s in March 1982. Deitch wrote: ”Basquiat is likened to the wild boy raised by wolves, corralled into Annina’s basement and given nice clean canvases to work on instead of anonymous walls. A child of the streets gawked at by the intelligentsia. But Basquiat is hardly a primitive. He’s more like a rock star. . . . (He) reminds me of Lou Reed singing brilliantly about heroin to nice college boys.”
What press attention Basquiat received from the show was mostly favorable, and one month later, when he made his West Coast debut with a show at the Larry Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, William Wilson of The Los Angeles Times wrote, ”We are simultaneously convinced that he is a tough street-voodoo artist and a painter of astonishing precocity.”
Basquiat began chafing in the hothouse. With a second show scheduled at Mazzoli’s in Modena, he went to Europe again. ”They set it up for me so I’d have to make eight paintings in a week, for the show the next week,” says Basquiat. ”That was one of the things I didn’t like. I made them in this big warehouse there. Annina, Mazzoli and Bruno were there.” (Bischofberger was now representing him in Europe.) ”It was like a factory, a sick factory,” says Basquiat. ”I hated it.” The Mazzoli show was canceled. After that episode, Basquiat decided to quit the Nosei gallery. ”I wanted to be a star,” he says, ”not a gallery mascot.” He returned to the basement, where there were about 10 canvases, most of them unfinished, that he wanted to get rid of. In a classic display of his notorious temper, he slashed them, folded them, jumped on them and poured paint on them. Although the dealer says that Basquiat simply was destroying work that he didn’t intend to finish, the art world buzzed about the incident. ”Jean Michel more than anyone has made a success story out of scandal,” says Cortez.
”Jean was ungrateful,” Annina Nosei says. She believes she was responsible for launching Basquiat’s career internationally. ”But he was sweet in the end.” According to the dealer, their relationship as artist and dealer was not clearly severed that fall. (As with most galleries, there were no contracts involved.) Many months later, in February 1983, she mounted a one-man show of his work while he was cementing a relationship with a new dealer.
During the autumn of 1982, Basquiat lived like a hermit in a loft on Crosby Street in SoHo. ”I had some money; I made the best paintings ever,” he says now. ”I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. I was awful to people.”
The fruit of that work, painted in a privacy he never knew at the Nosei gallery, made a big splash when it was unleashed on the art world in November 1982 at a one-man show in the Fun Gallery, run by Patti Astor, a former underground movie actress, and her partner, Bill Stelling. Bold and colorful, the canvases were crudely, irregularly stretched, and the works had more of the gritty immediacy of the paintings he had done before he joined the Nosei gallery, in part because he returned to a more intense drawing of words and symbols. ”I liked that show the best,” says Bischofberger. ”The work was very rough, not easy, but likable. It was subtle and not too chic. The opening was great, too. It drew young blacks and Puerto Ricans, along with limousines from uptown.”
Late that winter, he spent time in Los Angeles, preparing for a second show at Larry Gagosian’s gallery and working at the dealer’s house. Again, he felt pressure and regrets now that paintings were released that ”I didn’t want released.” A number of dealers had been courting Basquiat in New York. (”It’s no honor,” he says wryly. ”There’re more dealers than artists these days.”) One was Tony Shafrazi, an Iranian who had been interested in showing Basquiat in his SoHo gallery as early as 1981. In 1974, he had sprayed red paint on Picasso’s ”Guernica” when it still hung in the Museum of Modern Art. Police removed him from the scene while he spelled out his name for bystanders. The painting, protected by varnish, was undamaged, and finally the case came to nothing. Ironically, Shafrazi has helped legitimize the graffiti-art movement by becoming the dealer for such artists as Haring, Scharf and Ronnie Cutrone, but, partly because of the Picasso incident, he got nowhere with Basquiat. Others who had discussions with the artist included Metro Pictures (Robert Longo’s gallery) and the Monique Knowlton Gallery.
Basquiat’s temperamental nature didn’t always allow him to receive these overtures with grace. One dealer, visiting his loft and noting his fondness for health food, went away and came back with a big jar of fruits and nuts. ”But what she really wanted were my paintings,” he says. ”She tried to tell me that her chauffeur, who was black, worked with her in her gallery, not that he was her driver.” As she walked out of his door in defeat, Basquiat leaned out his window and dumped the contents of the jar on her head.
When Basquiat finally did join a new gallery, he went straight to the major leagues and, to the surprise of some of his friends, joined Mary Boone. ”I wanted to be in a gallery with older artists,” he says. And he wanted to insure, as well, that any lingering associations with graffiti art were severed.
Mary Boone, perhaps reacting to a spate of publicity about herself and her business style, now is careful to avoid any appearance of hype and self- promotion. In fact, initially she regarded Basquiat with caution, she says, vaguely repelled by all the fuss. ”There was a period of about a year and a half, whenit was impossible to wake up in the morning and not hear about Jean Michel Basquiat,” she says. Introduced to him by Bischofberger, she says she waited until she became convinced that Basquiat had staying power. ”I’d walk into some collector’s home and there would be something by Jean, hanging next to Rauschenberg and Stella,” she recalls. ”It looked great. It surprised me.” She has sold his paintings to such longtime clients as Peter Ludwig, the German candy tycoon who has his own museum of contemporary art in Cologne, and to Sidney Janis, the 88- year-old dealer who has hung Basquiat’s work in three group shows at his gallery.
Though Annina Nosei encouraged his high productivity of paintings, since Basquiat joined Mary Boone’s gallery he has tended to hold on to pieces longer and rework them more, with his new dealer’s blessing. ”His output is high,” she says, ”but he’s getting more critical of what he holds back.” He estimates that last year he finished 30 or 40 paintings. Yet any danger of the market’s being flooded with Basquiats is offset by the fact that Mary Boone represents the artist jointly with Bischofberger – they split the standard dealer’s commission of 50 percent – who takes much of the work to Europe to sell. The Boone gallery’s promotion of Basquiat has been low key; he didn’t have a one-man show there until last May, his second season with the gallery, and the dealer charges $10,000 to $25,000 for a painting, a purposeful underpricing, she says.
For the most part, Basquiat is pleased, although the pricing of his work does bother him. Paintings by such Boone superstars as David Salle sell for $40,000 and up. ”David Salle’s been at it longer, I know,” sighs Basquiat. ”I should be patient, right?” DOWN ON THE Lower East Side, in a small newly renovated building that he rents, which is owned by Andy Warhol, four big empty canvases are waiting for the touch of Basquiat’s brush. The vast whiteness of the canvases seems a world away from the dirty walls on which he first exhibited his work. Downstairs, a friend named Shenge, who acts as major domo, has his quarters, while the floor above the studio is Basquiat’s domain, the place he keeps his VCR and a hundred or so cassettes of his favorite movies. In one corner is the director’s chair the late Sam Peckinpah used while shooting ”The Wild Bunch” and ”The Osterman Weekend.”
Basquiat takes a tube of paint and squirts a blob of brown pigment directly onto the virgin canvas, which is actually white paint spread over a work he never finished. It gives the surface a layered texture he likes. In fact, many of his paintings deliberately expose the buildup of layer upon layer, the shadow of an earlier version poking through. He ”edits” by painting over. Under his brush, a brown face soon begins to form on the canvas. ”The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings,” he says. ”I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them.” Some of the figures are taken from life. For example, one powerful painting was drawn from a sad old man in a wheelchair whom Basquiat saw on a neighborhood street last spring. ”He would say to the young Puerto Rican helping him, ‘Put me in the sun, put me in the sun.’ He was a Cajun, from Louisiana. I gave him some money and he wanted to hug me, to pull me in. I pulled back.” But the vision is transformed in Basquiat’s bold painting. It is saturated with red, the wheelchair like a throne, the old man almost a god whose head is a primitive mask, frightening and defiant.
”Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy,” a book by Robert Farris Thompson, lies on his studio table, and thus it raises the question of influences on his art. His early rendering of primitive faces was instinctual, he says; he studied African masks later. He has never been to Haiti and there was no Haitian art at home when he was growing up. But his early inspirations include the master employer of primitive impulses, Picasso. Actually, says Basquiat, ”I like kids’ work more than work by real artists any day.” SINCE I WAS 17, I thought I might be a star,” Basquiat says. ”I’d think about all my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix. . . . I had a romantic feeling of how people had become famous. Even when I didn’t think my stuff was that good, I’d have faith.” In the last year or so, Basquiat has established a friendship with an artist who probably understands the power of celebrity better than anyone else in the culture. Once when he was trying to sell his photocopied postcards on a SoHo streetcorner, he followed Andy Warhol and Henry Geldzahler into a restaurant. Warhol bought one of the cards for $1. Later, when Basquiat had graduated to painting sweatshirts, he went to Warhol’s Factory one day. ”I just wanted to meet him, he was an art hero of mine,” he recalls. Warhol looked at his sweatshirts and gave him some money to buy more.
In his show at Mary Boone’s last spring, Basquiat exhibited a painting called ”Brown Spots.” It is a portrait of Warhol as a banana, a sly reference to an album cover Warhol once did for the Velvet Underground. That same spring, in ”The New Portrait” show at P.S. 1, a portrait appeared by Warhol of Basquiat, an acrylic and photo-silkscreen painting, with Basquiat posed like Michelangelo’s David.
Their friendship seems symbiotic. As the elder statesman of the avant-garde, Warhol stamps the newcomer Basquiat with approval and has probably been able to give him excellent business advice. In social circles and through his magazine, Interview, he has given Basquiat a good deal of exposure. Though Warhol teases Basquiat about his girlfriends, Basquiat finds the time to go with Warhol to parties and openings. In return, Basquiat is Warhol’s link to the current scene in contemporary art, and he finds Basquiat’s youth invigorating. ”Jean Michel has so much energy,” he says. One acquaintance suggests that the paternal concern Warhol shows for Basquiat – for example, he urges the younger artist to pursue healthful habits and exercise – is a way for Warhol to redeem something in himself. When asked how Warhol has influenced him, Basquiat says, ”I wear clean pants all the time now.”
Through a series of working collaborations in the last year, the relationship between them has flourished. First, at the suggestion of Bruno Bischofberger, they made a suite of 12 paintings with Francesco Clemente, with each of the three artists working in turn on each canvas. Then Basquiat and Warhol collaborated on huge pieces of unstretched canvas, some of them 10 by 20 feet. Warhol would silkscreen or paint words or symbols, a blown-up headline from The New York Post, for instance (”Plug Pulled on Coma Mom”), or perhaps a giant corporate logo such as Paramount Pictures’ mountain peak. Basquiat would then tackle the canvas, painting in his own strange figures, words and symbols. Thirty of these collaborative works, now owned by Bischofberger, will probably be exhibited in Europe. ”I’d run out of ideas,” says Warhol, to explain his involvement in the project.
But after Basquiat’s show at Mary Boone last spring, some critics complained that his recent work had grown too soft, too slick – and one blamed the long shadow of Warhol. ”They’re fresh out of the Factory,” – wrote Nicholas A. Moufarrege in a blistering review in Flash Art. ”These new paintings are too charming, they lack the nitty-gritty hip-hop and the jagged power that his last New York show at the Fun Gallery emanated.” Geldzahler saw the influence, too, but not as a negative force: ”The paintings had a lot of Warhol, but that’s to be expected. Basquiat seems to be able to keep his balance.” The artist himself is pleased with the work. ”I think I’m more economical now,” he says. ”Every line means something.”
Success, however, and sudden public scrutiny, can mean an end to artistic experimentation in private. ”Basquiat, like Schnabel, makes a great many works,” explains the collector Eugene Schwartz, who has bought three of the artist’s works and donated one to a museum in Israel. ”In exploring new ideas, he makes mistakes. But within that work he also has made minor masterpieces. I say ‘minor’ only because they haven’t yet stood the test of time.” But for some artists, the pressure to succeed and simply to repeat past successes can be too much. ”I think there’s a greater tendency today for artists to burn out,” says Barbara Haskell, curator of the Whitney Museum. ”It’s a question of whether they can maintain a personal space to work out and take the next step.”
”People think I’m burning out, but I’m not,” Basquiat insists. ”Some days I can’t get an idea, and I think, man, I’m just washed up, but it’s just a mood.” What doubtlessly helps Basquiat and many other artists to transcend the pressure is simply their own deep drive to make art. ”There’s really nothing else to do in life, except flirt with girls,” he jokes, then gets serious. ”If I’m away from painting for a week, I get bored.” Even when he had been painting at Warhol’s studio during the day, or if he had been out in the evening, he would often go home alone to work. He still keeps rock-and-roll hours. ”He’ll run in here in an $800 suit and paint all night,” says his friend Shenge. ”In the morning, he’ll be standing in front of a picture with his suit just covered in paint.” MEANWHILE, ONCE A painting is finished, it takes on a life of its own. As part of the never-ending marketing effort, paintings by Basquiat and other hot young art stars are always being crated and shipped. They are flown to an exhibition in Europe, a dealer on the West Coast, a collector’s home. This winter, Basquiat’s work was shown at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, more work was part of a show of young Americans at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris and new paintings were unveiled for sale in Bischofberger’s Zurich gallery. And as the paintings move, their price escalates. Schwartz remembers the three Basquiats he bought less than four years ago. ”They were just lying there,” he says, ”No one wanted them. Now you can’t get them.” Geldzahler says he has been priced right out of the Basquiat market. And while the art public waits to see Basquiat’s newest work at his next New York show, next month at Mary Boone’s, his early paintings continue to pump life – and money – into the market. The works surface at auction, as five did at Sotheby’s last fall, or perhaps are quietly bought from a private collector by a dealer who will hold them and wait, dazzled by their meteoric appreciation. The artist, who does not profit from resales, may be off at work in a new direction, but even the paintings he said goodbye to long ago keep going round and round in today’s heady art world.