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The Meaning of Jean Michel Basquiat's Life

September 04, 1988|WILLIAM WILSON

Basquiat's L.A. gallery exhibitions were brutally elegant and bracing. Voodoo-like intensity of belief charged his images and coupled with thoughts of De Kooning's juiced brushwork and Picasso's capacity for myth. It looked like a major talent on the rise but anybody could recognize that a 22-year-old street artist is not a 22-year-old concert pianist. The untrained painter is on a dangerous wire at that age and the degree of peril is equal to the height of success. Usually, however, it remains a question of success, not of life and death. There were a notable number of skulls in Basquiat's work.

Later, people who travel the art circuit noticed him getting worse at the Whitney, dreary at Documenta, bad at Baden-Baden. The energy was gone. He repeated himself with all the inspiration of a coked-out house painter. The next thing you knew he was a corpse in a house in the East Village rented from Warhol's estate. Tant pis .

What is a death like Basquiat's worth? Thousands of us drop like wilted daisies every day but we can't get used to the idea that it's a natural act. We want to believe that we go off the edge in some orderly way, 80-year-olds first. When you go like Basquiat it seems out of order. Tish. Twenty-seven is too young but so is 96 if you live that long.

Maybe just another youngster snuffed before his time. Maybe another Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix, both of whom Basquiat admired. Does it really make any difference if it was a painter instead of a rocker? We don't own up to it but there is a certain dark glamour through that exit. Jim Morrison and the Rimbaud syndrome.

Yet, for the next few days, every art conversation and article points back to Basquiat as if the fates are trying to tell us something.

Analyst talks about how the current runaway prices for art force young artists to produce in a frenzy to meet exhibition deadlines. If quality suffers, that's tough. Dropping out of the market for that voyage of self-discovery once thought central to the art experience seems to the artist a luxury he cannot afford.

Stories of Basquiat closeted in gallery basements and dealers' houses cranking out reams of paintings float back to the mind. Were snake-eyed dealers treating him like the indentured goose that spews golden pate? To his credit, Basquiat hated the conveyor belt and walked away from it to paint at his own pace. He said that he painted because there was nothing else to do. That's another way of saying that painting is the only thing worth doing. Sometimes he'd work all night in an $800 suit and wreck it.

A critic writes about recent movies like "Legal Eagles" and "The Moderns," where art is characterized as a yuppie status symbol, like expensive designer dresses worn only once. The art world is seen as steeped in corruption and fueled by a fraud so pervasive that an original is as bogus as a fake because the whole game is a con. The critic disparages the movies as jealous and superficial. Reading the implications of Basquiat's life and death gives paranoid pause. Maybe they are on to something.

Does it really mean anything at all? One knows with bedrock certainty that the art population--as odd and intransigent as it can and should be--still includes those who believe in the redemptive power of art and act accordingly. In his way, Basquiat was one of them. Still, something has gone wrong.

A revered old teacher used to tell a true story about an experiment with chimpanzees who were set to painting. The chimps loved to paint and did so without encouragement by the hour. Then the experimenters started rewarding them with bananas. Soon our simian brothers were more interested in the reward than in the act and their painting (which was pretty good) went to hell. They sat around snorting bananas.

Andy Warhol liked the funky implications of the banana symbol. Before the death of the Pop pioneer he took Basquiat under his wing. They collaborated on paintings and produced a double self-portrait. In interviews, Basquiat started sounding like Warhol.

Question: Who's harder to get along with, girlfriends or dealers?

Answer: They're about the same actually.

Q: Did you work on the streets and subways because you didn't have materials or because you wanted to communicate?

A: I wanted to build up a name for myself.

We've all been charmed by the curious wit and wry wisdom of this kind of flat Warhol-speak but its evasive candor reveals other sides. An almost awesome disillusionment and passivity seeps out, robot-like and devoid of emotion other than a muffled and fuming hostility.

It is a sensibility that allows anything to happen because nothing matters anyway. It's almost saintly in the way it accepts what comes along. If the Buddha appeared it would go along with that. Unfortunately, what the '80s offered to the Warholian vacuum was greed and narcissism on a scale so massive as to turn the art world into a pimpled caricature of itself.

Even darker and more inexplicable is the way death dogged the Warhol aesthetic. Warhol himself was shot by a follower the same weekend Robert Kennedy was assassinated. He survived to die rather oddly at 58 and leave a mocking memorial of cookie jars and kitsch. Sad for a strange kind of genius.

Maybe fatality is not part of the Warhol aesthetic despite the string of deaths that followed him from Edie Sedgwick to Nico, but if I were a surviving superstar or member of the Velvet Underground I'd have regular checkups.

Basquiat does matter. He could have become an artist of substance. If substance matters. If could have exists. . . .

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