6 Sep

I used to think Basquiat was cool.


Well isn’t he? Doesn’t that look… cool?

Something must’ve switched over since then. Yesterday I went into the Arts Room at the State Library to check out the new books and groaned to see another Basquiat monograph. That makes seven books on him now. My favourite is Phoebe Hoban’s Basquiat: A Quick Killing In Art if only because the title sums up both the artist’s career and milieu.

I flip thru the book and see the same old pictures: Warhol, Clemente and Basquiat. Michael Halsand’s photograph for the Warhol/Basquiat collaborations show. Some of the collaborations, his own work of course.

I still like something about it, the colours perhaps. And it’s impossible not see in Basquiat the pioneer of the career path that leads from the alleyways to galleries. Still, if you use bright simple colour it’s hard to fail and when I look at his work I’m reminded of what happens to a new piece on the street after a few months of tagging and weather have done with it. By itself it doesn’t seem worth the fuss.

Basquiat was an 80s thing: an 80s in New York thing. In the New York of the 1980s, there was money again after a long stewing in corruption, crime, debt and wasteland creep.


The art scene boomed. Andy Warhol – who’d invented, in the polaroid portrait, a way to be even lazier – appeared to get off his arse again and try doing something new. He failed. Still there was a buzz, new people. Young artists doing well. Some were graffiti artists like Keith Haring; some were deemed Neo-Expressionists like David Salle. Basquiat was classified as both.

The whole schtick was a marketing ploy. These artists no longer formed movements the way they had in the first half of the century. Those movements were born because those moving them were waging a cultural battle and the ‘other side’ saw them as crazy and dangerous. These new ‘movements’ weren’t attempting to seriously pursue anything other than a market for their work. By the 1980s a movement was just a method by which culture could be block-booked. It was about money.

And Basquiat was in the right place at the right time. Good looking guy. Black, so the Lenny Bernstein cocktail set could celebrate. He had that cool post-punk look a la Rip, Rig and Panic, the intense stare. Yeah! he was the real thing, and the big broad colour fields of his painting were easy on interior decorators.

The story goes that the day he met Warhol he rushed back to his studio to make something for him. Warhol had it within the hour and supposedly remarked “he’s faster than me”. Fast? By the 1980s the production of the handmade still image had become subject to the twin dictates of post-industrial time management and scream therapy doctrine. To be quick was to be honest and efficient.

Like August Macke, Basquiat was 27 when he died. Unlike Macke perhaps his best times were behind him. How long before the fickle crowd made him yesterday’s man? Macke’s work was tragically cut short by a war that swallowed him. Basquiat’s life was cut short by smack. Dying young means you don’t live long enough to bore everyone. Twenty years later a Basquiat fetches eight figure sums. Is it worth it?

Basquiat boxer


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