Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Haitian Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

The devastating January 2010 earthquake in Haiti has done nothing to diminish the vitality of that country’s artistic spirit. This spirit is fostered by the creative talent of Haitian artists. If there is one artist of Haitian descent whose works art lovers and connoisseurs everywhere are intimately acquainted with it is the late Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988).

The son of a Haitian accountant—his mother Matilde was Puerto Rican—Basquiat was born and raised in New York City. Early on in his childhood his mother recognized in him a love and talent for art, a love and talent she nurtured. This maternal fostering would mold Jean-Michel into a genius of artistic originality.

Basquiat was also a product of Symbolist stylizations and techniques, having been well-versed as a youngster in Symbolist literature. In form and design, Symbolist influences appear throughout the range and scope of Basquiat’s oeuvre. It would become a key feature of his art and an ebullient influence that he would never relinquish for the extent of his career.

By the time Basquiat turned seventeen, the walls of buildings in lower Manhattan, New York were covered with his spray-painted graffiti art. Working with his friend Al Diaz, Basquiat’s graffiti images represented his “SAMO” (“the same old shit,” later abbreviated to “Same Old“) phase, which lasted about three years. His seminal SAMO chapter would embolden Basquiat to select color arrangements that were more dramatic and gradational than anything he had done before.

Basquiat’s audiences were drawn to the decoratively abstract forms in his works. An integral part of his art, Basquiat’s abstractions would feel right at home with the art of other great abstractionists such as Picasso, Miró, Ernst, Dalí, and Kandinsky. Basquiat’s Haitian and African background was another affirmed influence that permeated his art. But graffiti is the real genesis of Basquiat’s art and it is inextricably woven into the fabric of his paintings.

While others could not quite decide what specific style of art Basquiat’s paintings belonged to, a few had no doubt that they were part of the Neo-expressionist artistic current that flourished in the 1980s. The movement, epitomized by its intensely vibrant and abstract character, included several equally-talented artists, but Basquiat stands out as a highly-celebrated figure among them. An artistic luminary in his own right, art experts would insist that Basquiat’s importance to the Neo-expressionism movement was pivotal.

Basquiat presided over a pictorial narrative that surges with a symbolic energy and ubiquity that exemplified his semiotic color and image schemes. Basquiat framed within those schemes what was for him his articulation of the written word—in the form of eclectic, sometimes incomprehensible, yet significant phrases and sentences—and what are considered to be primary motifs of his: ethnic and cultural heritage, the heroic ideal, and racial and economic discord and inequity.

Basquiat was famous for not avoiding social or political commentary in either form or function. The social and political themes that were advanced in his art were a noticeable divergence from the generally non-political works of his abstractionist predecessors. Basquiat forged exceptional art out of themes like class struggle, human existence, popular opinion, racial bigotry and capitalism. These themes are evident in Basquiat’s imagery: the sharp eyes of his colorfully-distorted subjects, his disproportionate treatment of the human anatomy, his sensitivity to the differences in the social classes as it is visualized in his graffiti exteriors, the images he pulled out of the deep reservoir of racial discrimination.

A prevalent undertone in Basquiat’s works is derived from the darker side of modern society. Basquiat offers his unique portrait of racial injustice and of the economic disparities that have effected a palpable separation between humanistic idealism and the social models of a technoscientific, coldly-calculating rationality. As a characteristic of a modern, urbanized existence, this emblematic rationality flies in the face of Basquiat’s artistic representations.

It may be an oversimplification to suggest that this real-life and real-world enfant terrible categorically had in mind socio-political interpretations in his art, but powerfully-expressive paintings like “Per Capita”, “La Colomba”, and his irreverent alteration of Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” speak for themselves.

For just about the entirety of his working life, Basquiat got down to the nitty-gritty of racial politics in his art. Having confronted racism on a social and personal level, Basquiat allowed it to guide his creative process. Through that process, Basquiat was able to pay homage to the victims of racial prejudice. His stand on that issue was irrefutably pronounced in his gaudy painting, “Irony of the Negro Policeman.” In it, Basquiat produces the luridly irregular image of a black policeman. It is the work of an artist whose racial consciousness was as animated and engaged as his desire to shake off the legacy of racial attitudes. The policeman is implicitly depicted in the painting as a subjugated public servant who simply assumes that it is his job to do the white man’s bidding as an obedient enforcer of his rules. The piece is very Fanonesque in message and in mettle.

Another way to describe Basquiat’s art is his paying tribute to not only his Haitian and Hispanic cultural heritage, but to his African cultural heritage as well. Following in the footsteps of other African-influenced Western artists like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, Basquiat, himself an artist of African descent, passionately emulated African art forms.

By exploiting the power of visual analysis, Basquiat was able to christen his neo-African art forms as fixed points that traversed cross-cultural contexts, contexts that comprised both traditional and modern art.

Given over to his powers of social, historical, and cultural concentration, Basquiat’s artistic genius and awareness of his diverse cultural background is on full display in paintings like “Gold Griot”, “Untitled (Skull)”, “Flexible”, and “Angel”. These works, along with Basquiat’s other cultural pieces, are irreducibly beautiful and flamboyant effusions of both his cultural heritage and his cultural identity. These outflows of cultural invocations are taken as proof that Basquiat has reverently preserved the clues and inferences of his past in his compositions.

In the panorama of his rich and highly-allusive art—a panorama that covered artistic associations with Andy Warhol and Julian Schnabel—it was Basquiat’s life itself that was his greatest subject of all. What was so remarkable about his tragically-curtailed existence was how much artistic content, imagery, and purpose Basquiat was able to pour into it. He died of an overdose of heroin in 1988 at the age of 27, but not before his art had a punctuated effect on many of his peers and on the contemporary art scene.


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