In the nearly 25 years since his death, Jean-Michel Basquiat has not ceased to grow in significance. More often than not, that popularity has thrived off a cycle of hype bolstered on the one hand by a bevy of eager collectors and on the other by the allure of his tragically short biography. “[There's] no underestimating the popular appeal of this tragic young African-American artist who embodied the idea of the charismatic supernova, burning bright and fast, leaving behind a prolific body of work that was taken up immediately in his own time, and which continued to escalate in stature and value as it has circulated in the international art market,” says Louise Neri, a director at Chelsea’s Gagosian Gallery.
A dazzling, though at times disorienting, new survey of his works at Gagosian’s 24th Street complex (on view through April 6), his first major show in New York City since a 2005 Brooklyn Museum retrospective, offers a welcome opportunity to mute the hoopla and concentrate on the art. “It is a general survey of works, from the beginning of his career to the end, which underscores some of the themes and approaches in his art that rewrote cultural history and introduced cross-fertilized knowledge systems,” Neri says. “He conflated modernist and indigenous expressionism and symbols of classical painting with recurring motifs in primitive art, consciously lo-tech bricolage with complex layering of surface and image.”
The sheer amount of visual information in most of the pieces featured in the show is astounding, and will require multiple visits for close readers to process. Working on paper, doors, wooden boards, canvases crudely stretched over shipping palettes, and any other available material, incorporating painting, drawing, handwriting, and Xerox copies of his own work, Basquiat evidences — in the more than 60 paintings brought together from public and private collections for this show — a voracious appetite for incorporating disparate materials into his expansive lexicon.
His paintings include countless historical and modern allusions that simultaneously suggest a deep reverence for the past and an unshakable confidence in his own vision. His nods to art history include the large seated figure in his 1986 riff on Rodin’s The Thinker, the sketches referencing the Venus de Milo, Titian, and the Atlas myth that are layered into Untitled (1981) — a six-panel painting whose sections are joined by door hinges — and his continual re-appropriation of the Primitivist iconography painters like Picasso took from traditional African sculptures in his mask-like treatment of faces.
Running parallel to Basquiat’s historical awareness is his knack for incorporating contemporary themes and motifs. Here, they include elements like the comic book imagery in 1987’s Riddle Me This Batman and the parody advertising slogan “Onion gum makes your mouth taste like onions” in Onion Gum (1983). For all the pain that’s plainly legible in many of the works here, Basquiat also demonstrates a wicked sense of humor.
On top of all these materials absorbed from the outside world, he developed an iconography all his own. Foremost among his signature motifs are the free-associative word strings and small crowns that were fixtures of his early street art and are peppered liberally throughout this show. The 1987 painting Harlem Paper Products, for instance, features the Dadaist sequence of words “Equator/Horizon/Tesla Coil/Glass Eye/Earwax/Lucha Libre.” Subjects in the paintings brought together here, most of which are portraits, include athletes, jazz musicians, friends, superheroes, the cop in one of the exhibition’s most overtly political works, Irony of Negro Policeman (1981), the artist himself, and, most ominously, the figure of death in one of the latest works on view, the sparse, shimmering and apocalyptic Riding With Death (1988). With its encyclopedic system of references, signature images and inscrutable texts, Basquiat’s work epitomizes the maximalist tendencies of today’s visual culture.
His incredible proficiency and prolific nature also mean that he produced some mediocre work, as the shortage of paintings in the exhibition from 1984-86 tacitly acknowledges. For instance, the 1985 piece Now’s the Time, a cut-out circle of plywood evocative of Gordon Matta-Clark, marked with the titular words, a copyright sign, and the letters “PRKR” to suggest a giant Charlie Park LP, is only memorable for its flimsiness. Meanwhile, a superb, haunting and untitled 1982 oil stick portrait of a figure wearing a crown of thorns languishes in the hallway behind the reception desk. A dozen fewer pieces and more spacious hanging may have done wonders for this exhibition.
An overly generous visitor might even say that the show’s chockablock walls and lack of any identifiable thematic, historical, or formal organization complements Basquiat’s chaotic and multidirectional aesthetic. However, some attempt at organization, even a simple chronological hanging, may have made this extremely compelling show more intelligible. The paintings transcend this lack of continuity, of course. The total absence of contextualizing information — save a helpful, if often-rhapsodic, press release and unwieldy checklist — makes it easier to become lost in the works’ whimsical wordplay, their arresting faces, and the slippery boundary between beautiful and tortured imagery that Basquiat straddled so briefly and successfully.