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ART / CATHY CURTIS : A Bit of Basquiat : Meaning More Important Than Style in 11 'Blue Ribbon' Works From '84 at Newport Harbor

July 27, 1993|CATHY CURTIS

Jean-Michel Basquiat would be the hero of young taggers, if they'd ever heard of him.

Born into a middle-class Brooklyn family in 1961 (his mother's people came from Puerto Rico; his accountant dad was born in Haiti), the black artist started off spraying aphorisms, signed "SAMO," on New York City subway cars in the late '70s. He continued painting on doors, refrigerators and cardboard boxes at friends' apartments, made the East Village club scene, played in a "noise" band, showed at alternative gallery spaces, and developed a taste for addictive drugs.

Then he got signed up by a top art dealer, wore expensive suits (even to paint in), participated in the prestigious "Documenta 7" exhibition in Kassel, Germany, produced a rap record, exhibited in the 1983 Whitney Biennial, became a friend of Andy Warhol (who mentioned him 111 times in his diaries), hooked up with a different top art dealer, broke with her, made the cover of the New York Times magazine, pumped up his heroin habit--and died from a drug overdose at age 27 in 1988.

In his brief heyday, Basquiat was the darling of contemporary-art collectors who admired his willful combinations of painterly energy, high-keyed color, crudely drawn imagery and mysterious flurries of lettering, which reflected the vogue for graffiti art.

A painting by Basquiat scooped up the hollowness and brute rage at the edges of pop culture and served it up--fit for an upper-middle-class family's living room--in the recognizable forms of Abstract Expressionism.

One bicoastal couple who went to Basquiat's studio to buy 11 untitled works from a 1984 series, "The Blue Ribbon," has loaned them to the Newport Harbor Art Museum, where they're on view through Sept. 12.

Needless to say, this small exhibition--which is discussed only in general terms by a brief wall text half-hidden behind the museum admissions desk--is a far cry from the Basquiat retrospective of more than 90 works organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York last fall (that show is at the Des Moines Art Center through Aug. 15 and not scheduled for any West Coast venues).

But it is good to be able to study Basquiat's much-praised, much-damned style first-hand, apart from the swirl of gossip and innuendo that surrounded his fabled rise and fall.

Combining the immediacy of acrylic paint and oil stick with the duplicative properties of silk screening (an uptown replacement for the artist's earlier use of Xeroxed imagery), the 11-piece "Blue Ribbon" series is less captivating on a visual level than the eye-popping paintings that brought the artist his celebrity.

While Basquiat's highly visual use of language in other works may suggest such innocuously jazzy antecedents as the paintings of American Cubist artist Stuart Davis, in this show, meaning ultimately seems more important than style. The paintings are variations on a theme that runs through Basquiat's oeuvre: The troubled status of the black man in a white culture.

During Basquiat's lifetime, critics tended to deal with his work in strictly formal ways. He was praised for the suavity of his compositional sense and his lyrical use of gesture, and--in language that now seems unbearably, if unintentionally, racist--for his "primitivism."

Basquiat's detractors, on the other hand, saw him little more than a dumb graffiti artist crowned by the novelty-seeking hip art world.

Last November, New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik opined that even Basquiat's style was a bore--that "the 'African' masks, the coarse, zappy line, the scarifications, the scribbling intensity" amount to no more than "primitive cliches" used for decades by white artists.

The question of artistic vocabulary is a provocative one.

Don't worthy artists normally tap into the enormous body of pre-existing, even "cliched" images and styles, to express their personal ideas?

For Basquiat, African masks were not just intriguing shapes or fascinatingly "exotic" objects. At a time when he was surrounded by white boosters and hangers-on, such imagery may have been among his only links to his own people and his own past.

Most prominent among the images in the "Blue Ribbon" canvases is a princely figure, a black or brown head wearing a crown. The figure's features are sometimes mutilated or obliterated with a thick white stroke of paint, and the skin is often patchy or transparent.

Writing in the November 1992 issue of Artforum, Thomas McEvilley described the crown--which appears in many other works by Basquiat--as the symbol of "a royal selfhood somehow lost but dimly remembered, overlaid by a voodoo mask."

McEvilley proposed that the image be viewed in a mythical light, as the portrait of a noble figure whose ancestors were wrenched from their homeland by the slave trade, and who is now doomed to wander through a fragmented, apocalyptic Western civilization.

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