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Hail the king

Jean-Michel Basquiat's use of drawing and color jolted the art world.

July 19, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

For a long time we've had Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Now we have King Basquiat too.

This is not royalty-inflation. Jean-Michel Basquiat -- the artist whose trademark graphic icon was a toothy three-pointed crown, sometimes bestowed on references to his heroes and sometimes, like Napoleon, bestowed upon himself -- most certainly deserves it. The Duke had 75 years and the Count had 80 to cement their titles. But Basquiat died too young (at 27, famously from a heroin overdose) to develop a career that was more than the initial outpouring of an exceptionally fertile creative mind. Still, what he accomplished in the few years he had was more than just precocious.

What he did changed art. It changed the art world too.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, the large and satisfying survey of Basquiat's paintings and drawings that opened Sunday goes a long way toward making the contours of that contribution decipherable. The last retrospective, organized in 1992 by New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, was important in securing his reputation. Four years after his death, that was needed. The 1980s had turned upside down many standard presumptions about art. But that dizzying decade was over, and an art-market bust had followed the boom. Looking at the Whitney show, however, it was plain that Basquiat would last.

Looking at the current show, which was organized by the Brooklyn Museum, we begin to get a clearer idea why.

Basquiat, born into a middle-class Brooklyn family, had been a teenage tagger who went by the street-name Samo. Graffiti, love it or loathe it, is a compulsive scrawl across the implacable edifice erected by the establishment. Basquiat did something similar in his paintings and drawings. His work amounts to a bracing defacement of Conceptual art.

Conceptual art was the edifice the art world had erected, brick by brick, throughout the austere 1970s. It had successfully changed art's emphasis, turning toward the idea and away from the object. Visual concerns were replaced by structures based in language. Social and political analysis trumped aesthetics. Asceticism trumped pleasure, casting it as decadent.

Perhaps most decisive was a change in venue. Advanced art, which had flourished largely on the margins of 20th century American life, moved into the academy. In the competitive world of the footnote-conscious university, theory and the idea-orientation of Conceptualism became tools of legitimization for art.

Basquiat short-circuited all that. The MOCA exhibition shows a gifted and ambitious kid gaily crossing two highly charged wires, each carrying its own electrical current. One is drawing, the other is color. Drawing and color -- historically regarded as incompatible or even residing on separate artistic planets -- are the only things that matter in Basquiat's art.

Since the Renaissance, drawing (disegno) has most often been privileged over color (colore) by Western societies, whose commitment to business, science and industry tends to disregard art as frivolous. Drawing has clout because it's graphic evidence of a mind at work in the artist's hand.

Conceptual art renewed the prejudice favoring mind over matter. Basquiat's brand of drawing takes full advantage of Conceptual art's sense of freewheeling possibility, which is its principal legacy, often using language to boot. But there's a difference. Even though Basquiat's modern forebears include celebrated artists like Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly, his drawing style is a parody of intellectual pretension -- stock in trade of the academy.

Basquiat, who did not go to art school or college, scrawled and doodled like a relentless child. In his work a house is a box with a triangle on top. A face is a circle with two dots for eyes and a slash for a mouth. A crown is three triangles atop a rectangle.

Bodies don't exist in a space of three dimensions, never mind four (including time). They're flat and iconic instead, with torsos shown frontally and feet in profile.

Comic books are inspiration. In the place of Zen riddles and mystical koans, you'll find Batman's masked green nemesis demanding, "Riddle me this!" But the aim is the same -- temporarily jamming normal cognitive processing so that something more interesting can happen.

The meticulous analyses in Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks and the layered, X-ray-like renderings of the human body in Gray's Anatomy are also obvious incentives; you find references to both throughout Basquiat's work. But they all display a visual vocabulary associated with a wholly untutored author. The drawings are fast, notational and stylishly crude.

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