No Mundane Options
I'm not going to write a review of Basquiat, which I saw at the Brooklyn Museum. First, it's not there any longer, second, it's been a couple months, and lastly there are lots of other great reviews out there. (Go here or here). So instead here are some scattered thoughts from my notebook.
- "No Mundane Options" is text taken from one of Basquiat's drawings. I think the phrase sums up his work better than the entire exhibition catalogue. Refusing the mundane option is harder than it sounds, and if Basquiat had been able to accept the mundane he may have lived to see his thirtieth birthday. When you see a show like this it's always hard to imagine the artist going through the day-to-day banality of life, even though you know he did. Part of that whole tired mystique of the artistic life that has yet to die.
- Verbal plays and teases. What he leaves out or crosses off often more telling than what he leaves legible. In Irony of the Negro Policeman Basquiat labels the cop's foot "PAW (left)" but there is a stroke after the "W" like he started to add an "N" to turn the word into "PAWN". But he chose not to. Or I'm reading too much into the marks. Given the title, I don't think I am.
- Repeated symbols and words remind me of the ritualistic graffiti I saw in New Orleans on the tomb of the voudoun priestess Madame Marie Laveau.
- Hollywood Africans, 1983, was the first Basquiat I ever saw, at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts years ago. It's probably still one of my favorites, with its electric yellow field of paint and the self assured drawings of Basquiat and his friends.
- Much of his work seems to embody the city (New York) itself, in its cacophony of words and images and advertising, in its barely controlled chaos that somehow makes sense. Like landscapes - or more accurately cityscapes, though they rarely make overt references to buildings. A symbolic record of the lived city life, both personal and universal. The repetition of pasted and collaged photocopies of his drawings recall the repeated fields of posters advertising concerts and events that line the streets of the city.
- Basquiat's images of advertising are hot and experienced where Warhol's are cold and without personal input. Warhol is minimalist and Basquiat (of course) expressionist, even performative. There is more affinity between Basquiat's drawings and Warhol's earlier black and white, diagrammatic paintings.
- Medieval altar shapes. In Grave, painted after his friend Warhol's death, the three panels radiate grief, it nearly moved me to tears (which really doesn't happen often in front of art).
- The sheer amount of work in the show is overwhelming. Words like thought-maps, recording his interests, what he was reading at the time, stream of consciousness connections. Political thinking, what music he loved... it's endless. Sometimes the words take over and flood from the painting or drawing, inundating you. "mapping the urban consciousness" (catalogue, pg. 94)
- Fell in love with his drawings of anatomy. You get a sense of his humour there.
- The catalogue essays are unsatisfying. Too much time spent on trying to prove he's some Art God. His work is good, don't dwell on mystifying him. Needed an in-depth analysis of his religious iconography and influence of religion - latin american catholicism, haitian religion, etc. It's all there, but I don't know enough about it to comment. Maybe they purposely avoided that aspect.
- Consciously employed primitivism and ritual repetition combined with references to contemporary life, throw in some of the logic of "high" Greek, Roman, and Egyptian civilizations. Interesting interplays that have an affinity to Picasso's use of the primitive, though Basquiat is far more aware and critical of this use. Picasso borrowed, Basquiat comments. See this article for a better discussion of this. It seems like any time I have a thought, somebody else has been there first and done it with more eloquence!