Basquiat: The Show Must Go On
I wrote this text for an exhibition of works by Basquiat at Sotheby’s. Not many catalogs were printed, so I’m reprinting it here.
I met Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1979 when he was 19 years old. I had been curious about SAMO©, whose rude and amusing graffiti had recently popped up around downtown Manhattan. People who made graffiti were then referred to as writers, but SAMO© was the first one who actually wrote more than a name. He was a poet and a provocateur, writing cryptic messages marking himself as a sort of a metacritical institution. Kilroy was here…and then there was Samo. If this was graffiti at all, it was something quite different. Graffiti had been almost a sport, a way for young urbanites to publicize their existence in a world of corporate logos by marking out territory, a practice so primal that a dog would understand.
Some writers had shown a nice graphic style. I liked the tags of Stay High 149 with its geometric figure and halo and I was impressed by the sheer omnipresence of TAKI 183, but SAMO© was something completely new, something that might reasonably be called art. It was apparent that whoever SAMO© was, he was not a subway rider from outer boros but a denizen of Soho and the East Village who worked the art precincts as his beat. He wasn’t alone. Shortly after we met I asked him who his favorite artist was and he introduced me to Keith Haring, a cherub in pink glasses who looked nothing like a graffiti writer. There were also a few other artists doing work that was called graffiti but was in fact something else, like Futura 2000, Richard Hambleton and John Feckner and I could see where this was going.
Basquiat and I became very good friends and he continually amazed me. Here was someone who had introduced poetry to the spray paint on the walls, but then he turned out to be the most amazing draughtsman I’d ever seen. To watch him draw was a revelation. His line and his concept came from beyond. He was a star. So I put him in the starring role of the film Downtown 81, playing a kid trying to make it as an artist. For the first time he had enough money to make pictures on canvas and good paper, and a place to sleep where he had the key. I knew he was great—he was electric. A tesla coil with dreadlocks—cool fire emanating wherever he went. Magic.
Before he stopped giving it away on the streets he made a few masterpieces there. One day I walked by the tire store near my apartment and there was a huge mural with three angry black faces and the legend “FAMOUS NEGRO ATHLETES.” When I saw him later I said “that’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.” The next day he brought me one on paper. Yeah, I could see where it was going. He was talking about Picasso and Warhol like they were the guys he had to beat out for president. I said, “If they say you’re making graffiti, tell them it’s unauthorized public art.”
That’s what he did. That’s what he had to do just to be seen. Put it out there where everybody could see it. What else was he going to do? Walk into Leo Castelli with slides? He was nineteen and black, with a blond Mohawk, wearing an army surplus jump suit and dead man’s shoes. But his friends knew who he was. I almost said peers, but he didn’t really have any. He was inevitable. A force of nature. A man possessed by whatever gods needed to get out in public around here. He reminded me of what Ishmael Reed called Charlie Parker: “the houngan for whom there was no master adept enough to ward him the Asson…”
But he was fun. A delight. A riot. Don’t believe everything you read. When someone does something truly astounding everyone wants to rush in and explain it. I would suggest enjoying it first. For eight years he put on a fantastic show. I watched it and enjoyed it. Just when you thought he couldn’t get any better, boom, something came over the work and he had a whole new way of drawing a head or a mask or he’d tackle some new theme. Maybe something taken from a book lying on the floor of the studio, or a line overheard on the ever present television would open up a new chapter in his rewrite of the history of the world. He ate up every image, every word, every bit of data that appeared in front of him and he processed it all into a bebop cubist pop art cartoon gospel that synthesized the whole overload we lived under into something that made an astonishing new sense.
You probably know a lot of the story and this isn’t the place to rehash it, but I’m coming to a point. Our scene, the corner of the world we lived in, was a funky musical comedy. Everybody made art, made movies and plays, and played in a band. Basquiat had a band. Early on they were called Test Pattern, after the graphic that came on the TV when you were up way too late and the last Mary Tyler Moore went off the air. After that they were called Gray. As in Gray’s Anatomy. It was sort of punk jazz—being approximately to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew what the Ramones were to the Rolling Stones. It was great the way they played with the paradigm of “band.” I can see Jean up there on the Mudd Club stage in a set made from scaffolding, making snake charmer sounds come from clarinet and strange voices emerge from a cassette player while Michael Holman pulled adhesive tape off a snare drum skin with that slow action you’d use taking off a bandage.
In other words, Basquiat was a performer. Whatever he did, he did it for the audience. The big audience. Not just who was in the room but who was in the loop, who was in the network, who was in the world, who was in the future. Today artists want to sell out their show and buy a building. He didn’t have a house, didn’t have a car. He had a nice suit, but it wasn’t about that. This cat was a no sell out, no sell out like in Malcolm X. “The whole livery line bow down like this with the big money all crushed into these feet.”
He always pushed it. He never stopped working. How else do you make a life’s work in seven years? It was scary beautiful, like the Flying Wallendas. It was scary at the end. I went by the studio every day when he was making the last show that played at Baghoumian Gallery. He didn’t want to make that show. He felt under the gun, he was under the microscope at the wrong time. The press was biting at his heels. He wanted to cancel. He thought that the press had built him up just to tear him down. He was paranoid. But then he pulled off another miracle. I remember walking into the gallery and being amazed at what he’d pulled off in a few days. Eroica. Riding With Death. There was a dinner that night at Mr. Chow’s and I remember how it started. With a standing ovation. That’s what he always wanted and that’s what he always deserved.
I hope he can somehow feel the love that he gets now, more and more, from bigger and bigger crowds. I have tinnitus myself, and every time it starts in I think people are applauding me. Anyway, Basquiat is big show business now. He’s got fans like Bob Marley’s got fans, and the work still works great.
Basquiat museum shows are always packed with people but the crowds are not composed of the usual museum denizens, heavy on retirees, tourists and grad school thesis writers. You see all ages and all ethnicities. You expect a hip crowd, with dreadlocks and berets, the kind of crowd that might turn out for an imaginary double bill of Sonny Rollins and the Beastie Boys, but it’s more than that. At the Basquiat Whitney exhibition shortly after his death I saw high school teachers with their entire classes, hipsters who had travelled from Europe just to see the show, and older people in bohemian attire who would have looked right at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
But then just a few months ago I attended the Basquiat exhibition at Gagosian Gallery—three times actually—and I realized that every Basquiat show is a museum show. One rarely sees a commercial gallery crowded, especially on a weekday, but this was packed all day, everyday.
I showed up for the opening night and there was a huge crowd milling around the door that reminded me of Studio 54 in its heyday. The gallery was over capacity and they were only letting people in when people came out. Fortunately I didn’t have to look for Steve or Ian, one of the gallery assistants pushed her way out and grabbed my arm and the guards pulled me inside. When a young man tried to follow the guards said, “Hey, this isn’t a nightclub.” But the funny thing is that it was a nightclub, in a delightful way.
The crowd here was not shopping for something spectacular to hang in the pool house, or to consider as a great investment, the crowd was here to be entertained, delighted, wowed, and transported to another world. It was a concert crowd in that these people were here to be turned on. They came to experience a powerful feeling. There was a pilgrimage feeling, but also a concert vibe. It was bebop, hip hop crowd. Art show audiences don’t look like they’re expecting something to happen there, but at a Basquiat show they have a different air, an anticipation, as if there were a joyful performance in progress. These people were here to see Jean-Michel play. Some of Basquiat’s old band were in attendance, almost as if they were ready to do a few numbers.
None of this surprised me. There are some artists who really connect with a large popular audience. Often they are artists who were ahead of their time, artists who changed art itself and the way people look at the world. But artists today are careful about their popularity. LeRoi Newman was popular and Peter Max. Popularity was the argument against Warhol.
But sometimes great popularity comes late. I remember having that feeling when I attended the New Museum’s Brion Gysin retrospective. Here was a an artist who was one of the most important members of the Beat Generation, who crucially influenced the writing of William S. Burroughs and generations of writers to follow, whose calligraphic work strangely prefigured Haring, Basquiat and the graffiti artists of their time. And yet Gysin had been a footnote, almost unknown to the institutional art world. He was left out of the 1995 Whitney Museum “Beat Culture” exhibition but the New made up for it fifteen years later and despite the art world’s inattention, the kids knew exactly what he did. The Gysin show was filled with young people who lined up patiently to experience the effects of his psychedelic trance generating contraption “The Dream Machine” and watch the prophetic cut-up movies that he made in collaboration with Burroughs and Ian Somerville.
Basquiat is like Gysin in that his far reaching vision has taken time to really take hold. Basquiat’s dub version of history rings more and more true. When he lived he was not a marginal figure. He was not underground; he’d been on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. But Basquiat was way ahead of his time to the extent that he felt push back. He was not like the people in the art world. He wasn’t following the script. His enemies were not imagined, not just paranoia. He was in Star Trek territory boldly going where no man had gone before. He was rocking the boat, playing against the paradigm and winning.
He was certainly ahead of his market. Although he was infinitely richer than any of his friends, which was the source of much pain, he never really participated in his own market, as it turned out. He was famous in his lifetime, but he was hardly the celebrity that he is today. His reputation was not secure in his own mind. Among his peers, in the little downtown world of ours, he was a living legend, but sometimes the legend is the last one to know.
Basquiat was also ahead of his time in that the work not only retains its power, it actually seems to gain in power as time goes on and the audiences catch up to what exactly was going on there and invest in it with their interest and a kind of faith. His work was new in the way that only prophetic work is new. It was a whole new school, if even it was a one-man school for a moment, but it was a school that would turn art in a new direction. It was a school that said to other schools, built on theory and criticism, that school was out. How did Alice Cooper put it. “School’s out forever.” He schooled some bad fools. And that was the push back he felt. The black graffiti gimmick artist trend thing that sold bad newspapers.
He was the once in a lifetime real deal: artist as prophet. He was a scathing archive researcher and titanic mythos storyteller, he was a Dante-esque poet of data processing, a new wave griot, a self crowned king, a witch doctor, a poet, a musician, a heart as an arena.
Looking at people looking at Basquiat makes me realize that he made art for much different reasons than most of his peers did, far different in motive from most artists working today. Although he is a heavyweight champion in the market, he had no interest in the market at the time except as a form of abstract applause. He didn’t make work for collectors, dealers, curators or critics. He painted for the public. He didn’t paint for those who would hold title to his pieces, but for all those who would see them. He wasn’t out to get rich, he was out win. He painted for the world title: heavyweight champion of the world and grandmaster.
That’s what the great ones do. I wish he’d lived to see it. I wish he could see his shows now, how they draw the crowds, and I know he’d like his prices. I remember him laughing at selling a painting at the Fun Gallery show that he’d made in ten minutes. He had figured out that his hourly rate was something like $15,000 an hour. I wonder what the wage would be now. I think he’d like the fact that all those Basquiats in all those houses are just being well cared for before they inevitably wind up in a museum. But I would advise any collector not to put them in storage. They don’t like that. They want air and light. They want to be looked at. They’re alive.
As much as any music in my possession I listen to Beat Bop, the record that Basquiat produced with Rammellzee (recently departed) and K-Rob in 1983. It still sounds like now, which is how it sounded then. It’s perfectly in rhythm, perfectly in time. That’s what I see in the paintings and the drawings. Bigger than life life. Living large life. Moments still radiant with thought and feeling. Everything that came from his hand is alive, giving off rays. It’s like that Charlie Parker song, “Now Is the Time.” Now is always the time. Boom. Boom for real.