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Jean Michel Basquiat: Mass Productions

Mass Productions
March 23, 1982

OPEC isn’t the only world community with an oil glut these days. To anyone walking through Soho this week, the sense of overproduction is overwhelming. Maybe artists with waiting lists should have their paintbrushes taken away for a while. David Salle, certainly one of the best artists of his generation, is distracting us from this fact with an endless three-ring show at Castelli South and Mary Boones East and West. Surprisingly short on really good paintings, it seems more a statement of territoriality than anything else. I don’t even mind the lapses in quality — it’s interesting to see an artist as good as Salle push at his ideas and not be afraid to flounder. But I do mind the scale of pres­entation, which verges on the corporate. Discretion isn’t only the better part of valor.

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Of course, where production figures in, shows which don’t make any mistakes can be even more boring. Jean-Michel Bas­quiat first made his name as the graffiti artist-poet Samo, whose observations about the state of the world have amused and provoked New Yorkers, at least down­town ones, for the last few years. I always thought Samo was some frustrated older artist who hadn’t made it in the system and was taking his revenge with his excep­tional graphic and verbal skill. Wrong, or at least partly wrong.

Basquiat is only 22 years old and, hav­ing turned from masonry to canvas sur­faces, he seems to be having little trouble joining the system. But in a way I was right: Basquiat has absorbed every trick in contemporary painting’s book at an astoundingly early age. He’s so precocious he’s practically old before his time and his sensibility seems very European, also in an old vein. In a word, it turns out that graffiti art can have the hell domesticated out of it. This art seems made for a museum — it has the same imitative primitiveness that I associate with Art Brut, the same roughed-up perfection that comes from savvy imitation.

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The paintings are large, usually with big apelike heads or figures — King Kong/Space Man hieroglyphs fraught with echo­ing outlines — rising from a dense rubble of scumbled paint, drips and scribbles, most of which remain largely decorative. It’s hard to dislike them, but I keep coming back to how old and tame and well-put-­together they seem. Almost every canvas offers a seven-course painting that is done to perfection. The sense that they couldn’t take another mark, word, or smear looks at first fascinating, then calcifying, for it becomes an aspect of their illustrational stylishness. They’re too perfect to be as raw as they pretend. Plus, the drawing and colors get really monotonous. After a while, it all starts to look like great graphic design — trompe l’oeil graffiti meets trompe l’oeil painting, as effective on a billboard as in a spread of New York maga­zine.

Finally, we do come up against Bas­quiat’s youth in the assumption that sheer graphic talent, driving, streetwise belief in self-expression, and a working knowledge of painting’s many wonderful tricks are all that is required. These have gotten him someplace, but, so far, not far enough.

(Annina Nosei, 100 Prince Street, 431-9253, through March 31)

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1960-88

Since learning of 27-year-old painter Jean-Michel Basquiat’s accidental death by drug overdose last week, what I live over and over again are not so much the hideous and hideously stu­pid circumstances surrounding his pre­mature demise, nor the fact that so much splendor has been left by someone so young. He was a vibrant painter, a complicated artist, who produced work that meant more to the viewer, to me, than met the eye. But what I missed immediately was the figure of Jean him­self, one of the most beautiful young men — with one of the most original minds — I have ever met.

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It began with his eyes. I saw them­ — and him — for the first time in Brooklyn, our hometown. Never before and never since have I felt someone’s eyes pierce my consciousness in such a direct and directly personal way. Looking across the room at him and he at me, I saw the largely white cocktail party in which we stood grow smaller; the sea of faces that did not look like ours became a force that made us recognize each other to a degree that made at least my side of the conversation halting, stilted, naked. Sometimes love at first sight is like that.

And it was at first sight, too, that you realized Jean lived his life as if he had nothing to lose. At that same party he replaced the tape being played — Debus­sy — with a scratched bootleg recording by the Sex Pistols. As he danced about alone, I saw him watch, from the corner of his eye, to see just how long the others would take to pretend they would not react to the spectacle of dreadlocks, paint-splattered khakis, and brown limbs. As it happened, the others didn’t react. But then again, he did not stop dancing.

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That image was replaced, in later years, by the image of the artist as com­modity, enfant terrible, bad black bitch, nasty lout, charming gadabout. Initially identified with a group of artists who reached “blue-chip” status through their efforts as graffiti guerrillas (Jean’s tag­line: SAMO, as in Same Old Shit), he rapidly progressed to other forms of vi­sual expression. His paintings, drawings, and sculptures challenged the European idea of the “primitive”; as a disciple of Dubuffet and Twombly, he wanted to give his heroes the black face of his history.

It became increasingly difficult then to see him across the crowded rooms where so many of his paintings — in such a short time — loomed. The images he created always resonated for me because they were the truest representation of the “Negro” from my generation. In his last show, paintings with words like Mississippi and South African diamonds appear repeatedly in reference to what was being bought, sold, and lived outside of the world of his canvases. I think the words were metaphors for his position in the world just then, too. But that degree of self-knowledge is not what many people saw. Mostly what they saw was a boy so anxious for his life to begin — accompanied by love, by trust — ­that sadly enough he wanted to buy it all.

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Death not only happens once, but time and again to those of us who are left to speak of the dead. But sometimes we don’t. This has become a time in which we are more and more disinclined to speak of so frequent an event, essen­tially because, as Owen Dodson once said: “The dead have become the signs of our bury hour; our living crucifixion.” ❖

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flyboy in the Buttermilk

Nobody Loves a Genius Child

I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension… I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness… The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.

— Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself, 1845

In these scant lines, Frederick Douglass succinctly describes the ongoing crisis of the Black intellectual, that star-crossed figure on the American scene forever charged with explaining Black folks to white folks and with explaining Black people to themselves — often from the perspectives of a distance refracted by double alienation. If you want to hide something from a negro put it in a book. Douglass knew from experience the compound oppression of being poorly fed and poorly read, but also of having to stand Black and proud in isolated situations where nobody else Black was around to have your back. When the windchill factor plummets that low, all that can steady you is the spine of cultural confidence and personal integrity.

This business of speaking for Black culture and your own Black ass from outside the culture’s communal surrounds and the comforting consensus of what critic Lisa Kennedy once described as “the Black familiar” has taken many a brilliant Black mind down to the cross­roads and left it quite beside itself, undecided between suicide, sticking it to the man, or selling its soul to the devil. The ones who keep up the good fight with a scintilla of sanity are the ones who know how to beat the devil out of a dollar while maintaining a Black agenda and to keep an ear out for the next dope house party set to go down in Brooklyn, Sugar Hill, or the Boogie Down Bronx.

Dull unwashed windows of eyes
and buildings of industry. What
industry do I practice? A slick
colored boy, 12 miles from his
home. I practice no industry.
I am no longer a credit
to my race. I read a little,
scratch against silence slow spring
afternoons.

— LeRoi Jones, “A POEM SOME PEOPLE WILL HAVE TO UNDERSTAND,” from Sabotage

To read the tribe astutely you some­times have to leave the tribe ambitiously, and should you come home again, it’s not always to sing hosannas or a song the tribe necessarily has any desire to hear. Among the Senegambian societies of the West Africa savannah, the role of praise singer and historian is given to a person known as the griot. Inscribed in his (al­ways a him) function is the condition of being born a social outcast and pariah. The highest price exacted from the griot for knowing where the bodies are buried is the denial of a burial plot in the com­munal graveyard. Griots, it is decreed, are to be left to rot in hollow trees way on the outskirts of town. With that wisdom typi­cal of African cosmologies, these messen­gers are guaranteed freedom of speech in exchange for a marginality that extends to the grave.

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The circumscribed avenues for recogni­tion and reward available in the Black community for Black artists and intellec­tuals working in the avant-garde tradi­tion of the West established the precon­ditions for a Black bohemia, or a Blackened bohemia, or a white bohemia dotted with Black question marks. Re­markable in the history of these errant Sphinxes is certainly Jean-Michel Bas­quiat, posthumously the benefactor of a loving and roomy retrospective at Vrej Baghoomian gallery. When Basquiat died last year at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose he was the most financially suc­cessful Black visual artist in history and, depending on whether you listened to his admirers or detractors, either a genius, an idiot savant, or an overblown, overpriced fraud. Besides affording an opportunity for reappraisal of Basquiat’s heady and eye-popping oeuvre, the exhibition in­vites another consideration of the Black artist as bicultural refugee, spinning be­twixt and between worlds. When the fire starts to burn, where you gonna run to? To a well without water?

Given the past and present state of race relations in the U.S., the idea that any Black person would choose exile into “the white world” over the company and strength in numbers of the Black commu­nity not only seems insane to some of us, but hints at spiritual compromise as well. To be a race-identified race-refugee is to tap-dance on a tightrope, making your precarious existence a question of bal­ance and to whom you concede a mort­gage on your mind and body and lien on your soul. Will it be the white, privileged, and learned or the Black, (un)lettered, and disenfranchised?

When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to
black people. May they pick me apart and take the
useful parts, the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave
the bitter bullshit rotten white parts alone.

—LeRoi Jones, “leroy,” from Black Art

Spooked, dispossessed, split asunder by his education, his alienation, and his evolving race-politics, Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) sought to perform an exorcism on the learning he’d done at the laps of white men, vaccinate himself against the infectious anxiety of influence that came with investment in that knowl­edge he’d codified as Western. But we can say that African history and the history of border crossings made by Black artists and intellectuals from this country’s ear­liest founding to the present have blurred, blotted out, and disrupted any proprietary claims the Eurocentrists among us would care to make on the languages of ethics, aesthetics, and logic. In light of the mounting evidence of anthropologists and archaeologists and the revisionist scholarship of peoples of color, there is no province more in danger of dwindling to a vanishing point than that of “white knowledge.” Increasing the store of human knowledge has been everybody’s project since the beginning of womankind. The idea that the human brain first began functioning in Europe now appears about as bright as Frankenstein’s monster.

What remains, however, is the en­trenched racism of white-supremacist in­stitutions bent on perpetuating, until their dying breaths, that popular fantasy of slaveholders and imperialists that the white man represents the most intelligent form of life on the planet.

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No area of modern intellectual life has been more resistant to recognizing and authorizing people of color than the world of the “serious” visual arts. To this day it remains a bastion of white suprem­acy, a sconce of the wealthy whose high-­walled barricades are matched only by Wall Street and the White House and whose exclusionary practices are enforced 24-7-365. It is easier for a rich white man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a Black abstract and/or Conceptual artist to get a one-woman show in lower Man­hattan, or a feature in the pages of Art­forum, Art in America, or The Village Voice. The prospect that such an artist could become a bona fide art-world celebrity (and at the beginning of her career no less) was, until the advent of Jean­-Michel Basquiat, something of a fucking joke.

My maternal grandfather used to say, Son, no matter where you go in this world and no matter what you find, somewhere up in there you will find a Negro. Experience has yet to prove him wrong, especially where the avant-garde is concerned. In Wilfredo Lam we had our Cubist adventurer. Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, and LeRoi Jones bopped heads with the Beats. The British Invasion got vamped on by Jimi Hendrix while Arthur Lee and Sly Stone were spear-chucking protopunk and funk into San Francisco’s psychedelic Summer of Love. Bad Brains reclaimed Rasta and hardcore rock and roll from the punks. And we won’t even get into separating the Black aesthetic inspirations for all these movements, or raising up the counterhegemonic monu­ment that is Black cultural difference.

What’s often as exceptional as the artistic talents of the aforementioned Black crossover acts is their genius for cultural politics, the confidence and cunning with which they established supportive bases for themselves in white circles of knowl­edge, power, and authority. Nobody loves a genius-child? Basquiat, lonesome fly­boy in the buttermilk of the ’80s Down­town art boom, was hands down this cen­tury’s most gifted Black purveyor of art­-world politics. He not only knew how the game of securing patronage was played, but played it with ambition, nerve, and delight. Like Jimi Hendrix he had enor­mously prodigious gifts and sexual cha­risma on his side. He was also, to boot, another beneficiary of being the right Black man in the right place at the right time. Eric Clapton attributed Hendrix’s whirlwind ascendancy in the English rock scene to his arriving just when the scene was in desperate need of some new blood. The blues and soul boom was decaying. Hendrix, Black and from the birthplace of blues, soul, and rock, was extraordinarily fluent in all three styles, could whip up a frenzy from the stage like Dionysus on a tear, and was a preternatural innovator besides. The question with Hendrix is never why him, but how could the British rockers resist?

There is a sickness to the black man living in white town. Either he is white
or he hates white, but even in hating, he
reflects, the dead image of his surrounding…
There is a sickness to the black man in white town, because
he begins to believe he can beat everybody’s ass, and he can,
down there, where each man is an island, and the heaviest bomber,
throwing down tnt can establish some conditional manhood in the land
of the dead, in the country of the blind.

— Ameer Baraka, “Poem for Religious Fanatics,” from Target Studies

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The period of ferment that produced Basquiat began on British soil and was then transplanted stateside. 1981 the number, another summer, sound of the harmolodic drummer! Let’s go back to postpunk lower Manhattan, no-wave New York, where loft jazz, white noise, and Black funk commune to momentarily desegregate the Downtown rock scene, and hip-hop’s train-writing graffiti cults pull into the station carrying the return of representation, figuration, expression­ism, Pop-artism, the investment in canvas painting, and the idea of the master­piece. Whether the writers presaged or inspired the market forces to all this art­-commodity fetishism and anti-Conceptu­alist material is a question still up for grabs. But just as the classic blues, rock, and soul cats were the romanticized fig­ures who made the very idea of a Hendrix seductive to the Mods, it was the invigo­rating folk culture of the graffiti writ­ers — operating at a subterranean remove from the art world that made them all the more mysterious, manageable, and ulti­mately dismissable — that set the salon stages and sex parlors of the postmods up to be bedazzled by Basquiat. Phase II, Daze, Crash, Lee, Blade, Futura 2000, Lady Pink, Fab Five Freddy, and Ramm-­El-Zee. These writers and others might have tunneled their style wars out of “Afrerica” (© Vernon Reid) and into the gallery affairs of the snooty, the elite, and la bohème, but it would be the Haitian boy-aristocrat with the properly French name who’d get to set their monkey-ass world on fire.

Jean-Michel is the one they told you must draw it this way and call it black man folk art, when it was really white man folk art that he was doing. That’s what he draw… white man folk art. He does not draw black man folk art because they told him what to draw… They called us graffiti but they wouldn’t call him graffiti. And he gets as close to it as the word means scribble-scrabble. Un­readable. Crosses out words, doesn’t spell them right, doesn’t even write the damn thing right. He doesn’t even paint well. You don’t draw a building so that it will fall down and that’s what he draws, bro­ken-down imagery.

— Ramm-El-Zee, B. Culture, No. 1

I just love the houses in the South, the way they built them. That Negritude ar­chitecture. I really love to watch the way Black people make things, houses or mag­azine stands in Harlem, for instance. Just the way we use carpentry. Nothing fits, but everything works. The door closes, it keeps things from coming through. But it doesn’t have that neatness about it, the way white people put things together; ev­erything is a 32nd of an inch off.

— David Hammons to Kellie Jones in Real Life, No. 16

Negative gesture can be just as impor­tant as positive thrust. Indeed I got a richer sense of this characteristic of his work when I showed Basquiat a quick sketch I made of one of his works, Unre­vised Undiscovered Genius of the Missis­sippi Delta, a painting of Southern Im­ages, and all he would say was, “You forgot to cross out CATFISH.”
— Robert Farris Thompson, catalogue essay for Basquiat’s 1985 Mary Boone exhibition

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Clearly, Basquiat’s conception of mak­ing it in the Western art world transcend­ed those of the train-writers. To Bas­quiat, making it did not just mean getting a gallery exhibition, a dealer, or even col­lecting big bank off his work. Making it to him meant going down in history, ranked beside the Great White Fathers of Western painting in the eyes of the major critics, museum curators, and art histori­ans who ultimately determine such things. What he got for his grasping for immortality from the gaping mouths of these godheads was a shitload of rejec­tion, (mis)apprehension, and arcane or inconclusive interpretations. That he re­fused to let the issue of his genius die on the spent pyre of his accumulated earn­ings reminds me of some cautionary ad­vice I was given by filmmaker Haile Ger­ima: “Whenever white people praise you, never let it be enough. Never become satisfied with their praise, because the same power you give them to build you up is the same power they can use to tear you down.”

By all accounts Basquiat certainly tried to give as much as he got from the Amer­ican art dealers, critics, and doyens, most effectively in the end by his sustained levels of production, excellence, and irre­ducible complexity. Though we can cer­tainly point to racism for the refusal in certain quarters to consider Basquiat a serious painter, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that Basquiat, like Rauschenberg and Warhol, his brothers in canvas­-bound iconoclasm, made paintings that were unrepentantly about American cul­ture. There is a strain of Europhilia among our art historians and critics that is as uncomfortable with American art­ists looking to this culture for subject matter and vernacular as they are with artists holding the celebrity of household names. Looking to the uncertainty and reticence that abounded — and still abounds — in so much writing about Stu­art Davis on down through Robert Rauschenberg, Bob Thompson, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Romare Bearden, Red Grooms, Betye Saar, David Hammons, Alison Saar, and Jeff Koons, it seems that the surest way to be con­signed dilettante-hick status, ruining your chances for fawning art-historical hagiography, is to act as if you thought the United States was spilling over with the stuff of Art.

That Basquiat, like Bearden, made work that was unmistakably and vehe­mently about being a Black American male did not help matters any. Basquiat was as visually fascinated as anybody in our culture by cartoons, coon art, high-­tech, and the idea of private ownership. References to these elements are con­stants in his work, sometimes framed critically and other times as a stream-of­-conscious shopping list, pointing up our daily overdose of mass culture’s effluvia. But he also gave equal attention to ex­huming, exposing, and cutting up the nation’s deep-sixed racial history, in all its nightmarish, Neo-Expressionist gory. If you’re Black and historically informed there’s no way you can look at Basquiat’s work and not get beat up by his obsession with the Black male body’s history as property, pulverized meat, and popular entertainment. No way not to be remind­ed that lynchings and minstrelsy still vie in the white supremacist imagination for the Black male body’s proper place. (Any­one doubting the currency of this opinion need only look to the hero’s welcome Spike Lee got in see-a-nigger-shoot-his-­ass Bensonhurst or to Robert Hughes’s New Republic “review” of Basquiat’s death in which he defames the brother by calling him the art world’s answer to Ed­die Murphy.)

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In the rush to reduce the word games found in Basquiat works to mere mimicry of Cy Twombly’s cursive scrawls, we’re expected to forget that Basquiat comes from a people once forbidden literacy by law on the grounds that it would make for rebellious slaves. Expected to over­look as well that among those same peo­ple words are considered a crucial means to magical powers, and virtuosic word­play pulls rank as a measure of one’s personal prowess. From the perspective of this split-screen worldview, where learning carries the weight of a revolu­tionary act and linguistic skills are as prized as having a knockout punch, there are no such things as empty signifiers, only misapprehended ones.

Basquiat’s exhausting lists of weights, measures, numbers, anatomical parts, cuisine, and pop icons function as autop­sies on forms of knowledge, reading the historical entrails of literacy and numer­acy for traces of their culpability in the subjugation and degradation of Black people. In so many paintings it seems Basquiat is on a mission of retribution against the Anglos’ precious and allegedly value-free banks of information, here gutting the store of numbers for racking up the surplus-labor of human chattel, there looting the warehouse of words for legis­lating the difference between slaveholder and savage. Similar abstract historicizing can be found in the work of Basquiat contemporaries, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, Conceptualist photographer Lorna Simpson, and performance art collabora­tors Alva Rogers and Lisa Jones.

All of which is one way of reading Bas­quiat’s wordiness. But remember that this is also an artist who began his public career, roughly around 1978, as SAMO©, a street-level graffiti writer of non sequi­turs. The tag, spoken twice, is Black slang for “the same old shit” but also invites the cruel and punning to identify the writer as Sambo. Poised there at the historical moment when Conceptualism is about to fall before the rise of the neoprimitive upsurge, Basquiat gets the last word and the last laugh during ’70s conceptualism’s last gasp, pronouncing the brute shape of things to come by way of the ironic, sardonic slur he’d chosen for a name. Having a voice, giving a name to new things, multiplying and refracting meaning were always a part of Basquiat’s survival game and image-making procedures.

So Basquiat enters the field as a poet. Truly, many of his paintings not only aspire to the condition of poetry, but invite us to experience them as broken-­down bluesy and neo-hoodoofied Symbol­ist poems. Often the cerebral pleasures of his work are derived from sussing out the exquisite corpses he’s conjured up through provocative conjunctions of words and images. One painting entitled Catharsis is a triptych whose left panel abounds with symbols of power drawn on what appears to be the inside of a subway door: a crown, a clenched Black fist, a circus strongman’s barbells, a model of an atom, and the word Radium. On this last we find the vowels scratched out to pro­duce the Jamaican patois term Ridim or rhythm, another radioactive source of energy. The middle panel lumps the words liver and spleen with throat and positions the term il mano, Italian for “the hand,” between the thumb and forefinger of a limp and possibly blood-­drained hand.

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Things get more active again in the ­right panel. The top left half is dominat­ed by a leg with a dotted line cutting across the base of the foot, over which reads Suicide Attempt, an inscription that invokes race memories of the risks undertaken by runaway slaves as well as the tragedy of urban dance-floor guerillas without feet to fly their escapist maneu­vers. (Much has been made of Basquiat’s ruder street-connections, but his links with hip-hop are high-handed deploy­ments of scratchnoise, sampling, freestyle coloring, and bombing the canvas.) Named and labeled throughout the rest of the panel is a plethora of other de­tached or phantom limbs, four left paws, two thumbs — a dissection chart whose mix-matched labels for animal and hu­man body parts speak to the fate of the captive Black body as much as the energy sources surging through the first panel allude to the Black body in motion, bion­ic and liberated.

Just as diagrammatic and zig-zag with meanings is Wicker, where the scratched-­up name of Black boxer Henry Arm­strong is boxed into a rectangle crowned by the words buzzer and bell. Nearby hovers a Romanesque figure with exposed intestines and a tag indicating its bladder. The boxing anecdote forms a parenthesis around a text all about the bestial body work done to the image of Black men. On one side of the painting a speared elephant is being levitated, his (he has tusks ) physique branded with a black band like that used on TV reports to keep the interviewee’s identity protect­ed and disguised. Implanted into the elephant’s hide is a tacky Instamatic cam­era. Floating around the right side is one of Basquiat’s patented Black-ghost fig­ures, this one materializing out of the urbanized jungle of a willowy potted plant in a wicker basket.

In juxtaposition these images hit us as loaded symbols: of Western man haunt­ing the wild with his voyeuristic technol­ogy, and of Black spooks haunting the living spaces of the privileged with their irrescindable presences.

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The one thing Vladimir Nabokov said that left a lasting impression on me was that the only thing a writer has to leave behind is her style. When people ask Miles Davis what he wants from a musi­cian, he usually croaks, “Somebody who can play a style,” by which I’ve always thought he meant a musician with a unique sound and a personal way of turn­ing a phrase. The best contemporary mu­sicians to come through the academy of Miles have developed styles that enfold emotion and intellect into a captivating species of lyricism. Like any of those mu­sicians, or like Baraka’s poetry in his Dead Lecturer, what’s finally so compel­ling about the Basquiat corpus is the in­divisible meshing of style and statement in his sui generis tones and attacks.

Initially lumped with the graffiti art­ists, then the Neo-Expressionists, then the Neo-Popsters, in the end Basquiat’s work evades the grasp of every camp be­cause his originality can’t be reduced to the sum of his inspirations, his associa­tions, or his generation. For all his refer­ences to pop America and the gestural vocabulary of the late-modern American Abstract Expressionists, Basquiat’s signature strokes dispossess themselves of any value but that of being in a Basquiat painting. He has consumed his influences and overwhelmed them with his inten­tions, leaving everything in his work a map of his imagination and intellect. In the same way that the music made by Miles’s bands always sounds like orches­trations of Miles’s trumpet-persona, Bas­quiat’s paintings read as hieroglyphic en­sembles that glow with the touch of his hands and the unmistakable sign lan­guage that evolved out of his free-floating psyche.

But can’t you understand that nothing is free! Even the floating strangeness of the poet’s head? The crafted visions of intellect, named, controlled, beat and erected to struggle under the heavy fin­gers of Art.
 LeRoi Jones, “Green Lantern’s Solo,” from The Dead Lecturer

You are the only very successful black artist…
I don’t know if the fact that I’m black has something to do with my success. I don’t believe that I should be compared to black artists but rather to all artists.
— Basquiat to interviewer Isabelle Graw

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In the November issue of Elle there’s a Peter Schjeldahl essay about Basquiat and the Baghoomian retrospective in which the critic attributes Basquiat’s sig­nificance to his difference from other Black artists: “Most work by non-whites in the New York mainstream has been marked by a tendency, mordantly popu­larized by Spike Lee in School Daze as ‘wannabe’: a diffident emulation of estab­lished modes, whether already academic or supposedly avant-garde. So I would not have expected from a black artist Basquiat’s vastly self-assured grasp of New York’s big-painting esthetics — gen­erally, the presentation of mark-making activities as images of themselves in an enveloping field… I would have antici­pated a well-schooled, very original white hipster behind the tantalizing pictures.”

In a recent Sunday Times essay about African-American artist Martin Pur­year’s first-place award in the São Paulo Bienal, Michael Brenson asks, “Why is he [Puryear] the first black American artist to be singled out for international attention?” To Brenson’s mind the an­swer boils down to Puryear’s difference from other Black artists: “Part of what distinguishes Puryear from many other minority artists is his lack of defensive­ness about mainstream American art. He remains something of an outsider, with one foot outside the mainstream, but he has one foot comfortably within it as well. Many blacks feel too alienated from the mainstream, or too angry at it be­cause of its continuing failure to make room for black artists.”

Taken together these two opinions pre­sent us with quite a conundrum. Whom can we trust? Schjeldahl, who believes that Black artists can’t make the grade because they’re trying too hard to be white, or Brenson, who thinks they’re too busy being Black, mad, and marginalized to take notes during art history class or keep up with the “mainstream” (read white, male, upper-middle-class) art world? But of course I’m being much too coy and polite.

What’s wrong with these patronizing and patriarchal pictures is their arrogance and presumptions. Most of the se­rious Black artists I am familiar with know as much about art as any of their white contemporaries but would certainly have no interest in proving their Black­ness to satisfy Schjeldahl or in taking a quiz from Brenson. In trying to help oth­er white men figure out by what freakish woogie magic Basquiat and Puryear made it out of Coontown and into Cracker Heaven, Brenson and Schjeldahl regurgi­tate two very old and very tired ploys. Divide-and-Conquer is what we call one, One-Nigger-at-a-Time-Puh-Leeze names the other.

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The cold fax is this: the reason that Puryear’s work came before the judges in São Paulo, and thereby under Brenson’s scrutiny, is because of Kellie Jones, the first Black female curator with the un­precedented clout to nominate a Puryear and have it mean something to the art world’s powers that be. Before we can even began to appraise Puryear’s excep­tional talents we need to recognize the political struggles that positioned Jones in her exceptional historical position.

In every arena where we can point to Black underdevelopment or an absence of Black competitiveness there can logically be only two explanations: either Black folks aren’t as smart as white boys or, racism. If the past 20 years of affirmative action have proven anything it’s that whatever some white boy can do, any number of Black persons can do as good, or, given the hoops a Black person has to jump to get in the game, any number of times better. Sorry, Mr. Charlie, but the visual arts are no different. Black visual culture suffers less from a lack of devel­oped artists than a need for popular criti­cism, academically supported scholar­ship, and more adventurous collecting and exhibiting.

During the furor that arose around Donald Newman’s “Nigger Drawings,” I recall hearing talk in the art world de­manding to know why Black people should expect to be exceptional at any­thing else just because they were so good at music. If the Eurocentric wing of the art world wants to remain a stronghold of straight-up white-boyism, one has to sus­pect it’s because the white-boyists want something they can call their own. This might be understandable if they didn’t already own every fucking thing under the sun and made no bones of dehuman­izing the rest of us to maintain hegemony.

The bottom line for people of color is that we don’t need any more Basquiats becoming human sacrifices in order to succeed. We don’t need any more heroic Black painters making hara-kiri drip can­vases of their lives to prove that a Black man or woman can do more with a tar brush than be tainted by it. What we need is a Black MOMA, or, Barr-ing that, a bumrushing Black MOMA-fucker. ■

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES

Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Birth of SAMO

SAMO© Graffiti: BOOSH-WAH or CIA?
December 11, 1978

Big city graffiti peaked in the early ’70s, somewhere between the NYC Transit Au­thority’s decision to sic killer dogs on the vandals and visigoths, and the media hoopla that greeted the first graffiti artists show in SoHo.

We had pretty much stopped looking at the walls until this fall, when we noticed something new. The best graffiti suddenly had more to say than just a nickname and number. To be sure, the Communist Cadre had been stenciling slogans like YIPPIES JE­SUS FREAKS AND MOONIES ARE GOVERNMENT for years. But who was writing ONE WOMAN IS RAPED EVERY IO MINUTES — CASTRATE RA­PISTS? Or drawing chalk outlines of fallen bodies with bright red bloodstains? And who the hell was this guy Samo©?

For those of you who haven’t waded through lower Manhattan lately, Samo© is the logo of the most ambitious — and senten­tious — of the new wave of Magic Marker Jeremiahs. Accompanied by the inevitable copyright and usually punctuated with an ex­hortation to THINK!, there are hundreds of pithy SAMO© aphorisms splashed on choice spots in Soho, Noho, and the Village, East and West. A random sampling will give you the idea:

SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD, STAR­-TREK, AND RED DYE NO. 2.
SAMO© AS AN END TO MINDWASH RELI­GION, NOWHERE POLITICS, AND BOGUS PHI­LOSOPHY
SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO JOE NORMAL BOOSH-WAH-ZEE FANTASIES
SAMO© SAVES IDIOTS
SAMO© CAN SAVE THE AVERAGE JOE
SAMO© AS A NEW WAVE NEO ARTFORM
SAMO© AS AN ESCAPE CLAUSE
SAMO©…JUST IN CASE

I met the perpetrators of SAMO© outside an East Village bar the other night and they agreed — provided no last names were used — ­to give me a tour of their handiwork and tell me something of its genesis.

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Aided and abetted by a tight circle of friends, the bulk of Samo©’s sayings are the work of two sharp, personable teenagers named Jean (17) and Al (19) who share re­markably similar handwriting and an un­spoken agreement about where SAMO© is coming from.

Growing up in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, respectively, both knocked about quite a bit. Jean dropped out — or was kicked out — of five or six schools. Al eventually found his way to Art and Design, where he was comfortable for a couple of years. Even­tually he dropped out too — it seems he spent most of his time decorating subway cars.

“Oh man, graffiti? Forget it. I was right in there with Snake 1, Phase Too, and all those cats. ’Cause that was my life at that point. Bomb 1, that was me. I must have gone through a hundred different markers before I was 16. Then after that I hung it up.

“But when SAMO© came along it was like whoa! a rush, you know? A reason to start writing again. The stuff you see on the sub­ways now is inane. Scribbled. SAMO© was like a refresher course because there’s some kind of statement being made. It’s not just ego graffiti.”

SAMO© was hatched this spring in the alter­native high school in Brooklyn Heights where Jean and Al ended up. “We were smoking some grass one night and I said something about it’s being the same old shit,” Jean recalls. “SAMO©, right? ‘Imagine this, selling packs of SAMO©!’ It started like that — as a private joke — and then it grew.”

Next, they drew a series of cartoons for their school paper showing people’s faces be­fore and after using SAMO©: “I used to be a lamo before I started SAMO©. Now I get some poontang everyday.”

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The etymology of SAMO© took a meta­physical leap in its next manifestation, a short story by Jean featuring a man searching for religion and a store called Religomat, where a salesman with a TV smile explains the pros and cons of the popular brands: Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, etc. Then the salesman pulls out SAMO©, a guilt-free re­ligion. It works like this: You do whatever you want here on earth, then when confront­ed with your deeds at the Pearly Gates you simply tell God: “I didn’t know.”

This May, Jean and Al took SAMO© to the streets. The first, at the corner of Church and Franklin: SAMO© IS NOW! A little way up the block: SAMO© IS COMING! On a church on West Broadway: SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD. And in the men’s room of their high school: SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO AL­TERNATIVE EDUCATION.

Does SAMO© in fact provide an alternative? “No way,” Jean and Al agree. “SAMO© is just a means of bringing it out,” Jean continues. “A tool for mocking bogusness.”

“Right, exactly,” Al agrees. “It makes people think ‘hey, maybe there’s another way.’ But it’s not like we can defend it. We’re really in a vulnerable spot to even talk about it with people from media.”

Talking to people from media was the last thing on their minds this summer as they fu­riously scrawled their message to the city. Jean estimates that he executed some 30 SA­MO©s on a good day, concentrating at first on the subways. “The D train, man, I covered it, ads and everything. And in broad day­light. Half of it, you know, is the arrogance involved.”

“We slowed down a little in June and July,” recalls Al. “But once you run it for that long it starts just coming up.” They became more and more selective, picking their targets. SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GREEK CHEESBURGER EMPORIUMS on a Greek cheesburger emporium. SAMO© AS AN END TO VINYL PUNKERY outside the Trash and Vaudeville boutique. SAMO© AS AN ALTER­NATIVE TO BOOSH-WAH YOUTH IMPERSONAT­ING ’60s PROTOTYPES on Stuyvesant High. Al grins: “Those guys hate us down there.”

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Soon, feedback started appearing on the walls. Some of it was friendly — SAMO© CALL HOME AT ONCE! MOTHER NEEDS YOU — and some of it less so: SAMO© AS SHEER TEDIUM on St. Marks Place; SAMO© IS CIA on the Washington Square arch; and, on the Grand Union at Bleecker and La Guardia, a major political graffiti — DEATH TO SOMOZA — edited to read DEATH TO SAMO©.

“They’re doing exactly what we thought they’d do,” says Jean, his voice rising. “We tried to make it sound profound and they think it actually is! That’s like a heavy com­pliment, man.”

Al picks up the thread: “People are so bored that when something seems mysterious and it keeps coming up it’s like ‘Oh wow! What’s going on? We better know about this!’ So they conclude this thing that we’re CIA.… I can’t begin to explain where they got that.”

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Their epithet, BOOSH-WAH, seems to pro­voke the most hostile reactions. The word was Jean’s contribution: “This city is crawl­ing with uptight, middle-class pseudos trying to look like the money they don’t have. Sta­tus symbols. It cracks me up. It’s like they’re walking around with price tags stapled to their heads. People should live more spiritu­ally, man. But we can’t stand on the sidewalk all day screaming at people to clean up their acts, so we write on walls.”

Is no surface sacred? They do stay clear of most private property, but government prop­erty and corporations are fair game, especial­ly subways, elevators, and public toilets. What about the millions of taxpayers’ dollars spent each year cleaning up? Jean has a ready reply: “That’s a drop in the bucket compared to how people are getting shafted in big ways.”

Jean is more troubled by his questions. Is it a cop-out to give SAMO©’s story to the pa­pers? Is it anti-cool to take credit for street art? And what of their ambition to some day work in art-related jobs, isn’t that BOOSH­-WAH?

And it should be reported that in the proc­ess of helping me with this story Jean and Al came under some rather pointed criticism from their friends, who worried that a taste of fame would go to their heads.

The strain of these last few weeks is reflect­ed, appropriately enough, in their art. One of their latest, and increasingly rare, creations reads: LIFE IS CONFUSING AT THIS POINT…SAMO©.

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How Rammellzee Turned Graffiti Into Urban Mythology

Even back then, they didn’t know what to make of Rammellzee.

At the dawn of the Eighties, in that magic moment when the uptown scene met the downtown scene and hip-hop spun out from its roots among the b-boys, mobile DJs, and graffiti writers of the South Bronx and began its takeover of global culture, Rammellzee, though a central figure in this scene, was — even to true heads — a mysterious quantity.

Born in 1960 in Far Rockaway, Queens, Rammellzee — or to use his preferred orthography, RAMMΣLLZΣΣ — began tagging at fourteen, under various identities such as Maestro and Hyte. He took part in the birth of wild style, which turned the forthright act of spray-painting your name into a pageant of colors and extravagantly shaped letters, bulbous or jagged or shooting out arrows, melted into one another to the point of illegibility. For him, this was not just art but ideology. His theory of history, which he synthesized in a series of esoteric writings, focused on the struggle to liberate the letters of the alphabet from the shackles of words and sentences. (He called it Gothic Futurism and Ikonoklast Panzerism, and believed himself in the lineage of the medieval monks who inked illuminated manuscripts.)

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He put up some large pieces, including on subway cars — the paramount graffiti-art display surface of the time — but he was not one of the ubiquitous whole-car artists, like his contemporaries Iz the Wiz, Dondi, or Seen. Instead he shifted to drawings, paintings on canvas, and sculptural forms. But unlike many other “gallery writers” who began making portable (and sellable) pieces, his graf esthetic gave way to a weirder practice in which he used trash and discarded materials to enact his idiosyncratic theories.

“Fresco Love Letter: Scavenger, Bill of Fat” (1988)

Thus, beginning in the Nineties, he built Letter Racers, sculptures that he imagined represented individual letters, formed of junk mounted onto roller-skates or skateboards, suspended from wires, swooping like a vengeful armada. He also made Garbage Gods, whole-body costumes with names like Alpha Positive, Panmaximus Magus, or Destiny, each with particular powers and weaponry. When he left the Battle Station, his loft on Laight Street in Tribeca, it was often clad in one of these outfits. Usually he received visitors at home, surrounded by these creatures, drinking Olde English 800 and discoursing on esoteric subjects.

By the time Rammellzee died, in 2010 — of cardiovascular disease, likely resulting in part from the alcohol and unprotected exposure spray paint and epoxy — he was something of a mythic figure, an oddity who emerged from hip-hop’s foundational stew and had a moment of art-world prominence yet moved away from both, preferring not to compromise his stubborn habits and his quasi-impenetrable system of knowledge.

Exhibition view

“Rammellzee’s influence and mythology is ensconced in folklore and hearsay,” says Max Wolf, chief curator at Red Bull Arts New York. The two-level space in Chelsea, a gallery sponsored by the energy drink, has organized the most comprehensive survey of Ramm’s life and art, complete with evocative extras that transport the visitor into his world. There are big-screen videos of early hip-hop shows where Ramm, a proficient rapper, expounds in his nasal, sing-song style; footage of interviews and performance-art events, Ramm clad in body armor; and a rich oral history, accessed via phone-booth handsets — another retro reference — at wall-mounted listening stations that dot the exhibition space.

A merit of the current exhibition is that it fleshes out the story of Rammellzee the working artist. The lower floor of the gallery is largely given over to a spectacular display of Garbage Gods, who lurk like an occult army in the darkened space. A flotilla of Letter Racers hangs in the stairwell, as if frozen in interstellar space. This is the wild, science-fiction Rammellzee, and it’s exciting to see all these inventions in one place. But there is also, on the upper floor, a substantial selection of Ramm’s prior work, much of it on loan from museums and private collectors, particularly in Europe, where he found many of his buyers and patrons during his art-world phase in the mid-Eighties.

“Maestro” (1979)

The earliest gallery pieces here were made while Ramm was still in his teens. They transpose a pure graffiti ethos onto cardboard or canvas; some incorporate his street tags. Maestro (1979) is a drawing, with architectural precision, that alternates lines of train cars with lines of graffiti lettering. Several pieces are long rectangles, emblazoned with lettering, aerodynamic lines, and other geometric shapes, as if they were models for whole-car pieces. By 1982 to ’83 the subway references decrease: Works such as Jams (1982) and The Knowledge of the A (1982) are large canvas squares that evoke a busy section of wall where taggers have put up letters, dollar signs, abstract shapes, and chicken-scratch scrawl.

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In this period, Ramm was close to Jean-Michel Basquiat, also born in 1960. They were rivals and mutual inspirations; in one oral-history segment, the gallerist Barbara Braathen calls them “frenemies.” In another, the musician Nick Taylor recalls long sessions with Basquiat, in thrall to Ramm. “It was like talking to Malcolm X on acid,” he says. “It was a little threatening. He went beyond Afrocentrism and talked about arming and militarism on a cosmic scale.” The graffiti writer Toxic sums it up: “Ramm was like a general. Ramm wanted to destroy everything.”

Exhibition view with “Gulf War” (1991)

This sense of imminent conflagration grew as Ramm’s canvases gained relief through epoxy additions or assorted glued objects, and surfaced in their titles. Ransom Note of the Infinium Sirpiereule (1984) is a “resin fresco,” in which a video camera, splashed with green paint and angled downward like a surveillance apparatus, is glued onto the canvas along with collaged drawings, Gothic lettering, and assorted plastic bric-à-brac, all set against an eerie reddish-brown background that feels vaguely post-apocalyptic. It comes with Rammellzee’s notes, presented as wall text: “Specifics: Your death, a Planet’s death, the death of your Ego, Super-ego, or Id. A Galaxy or womb’s death and any kidnapping worth the mechanic’s crime.” Letter M Explosion (1991) is an iridescent purple and green phantasmagoric in which what may be some kind of battleship seems engaged in combat with a weaponized M shape (spacecraft design, jagged edges) amid a field of cosmic projectiles. Ramm clearly had a military obsession; yet the sculpture Gulf War (1991), a highlight of the exhibition, and distinct in that it references an actual conflict taking place at the time, reads in that context as pacifist critique. It involves a found Gulf gas-station sign split down the middle and stuffed with random items — a bicycle, a train set, a record player, caps and hats, plastic toys, a gas mask, other flotsam — and marks the turn to recycling that would sustain the rest of Ramm’s career.

Detail from the exhibition

Rammellzee’s is a New York story, with many classic features of the form. It involves a hard-knock upbringing that his brother, identified as K.P., describes on one of the listening stations: their mother was a Black woman from South Carolina, their Italian-American father ditched the family, and a stern policeman stepfather raised them. There is a plunge into street knowledge and esoterica: As a detailed wall timeline in the exhibition explains, Ramm received his name from Jamel-Z, a member of the Nation of Gods and Earths (or “Five Percenters”) he knew as a teen. (Rammellzee changed his name legally, too, in 1979; in accordance with his wishes, those who know his prior identity keep it secret.) Later, gentrification plays a part: A few years before he died, the Laight Street building was sold for condo conversion, and Ramm had to put his works in storage and move to a more conventional setting — an apartment in Battery Park City.

Detail from exhibition

He died, however, back in Far Rockaway, where it all began. Perhaps his lifelong outsider instinct stemmed from his roots in this distant outpost of the city, with its high density of housing projects way at the end of the A train. The art, oral histories, videos, and ephemera in “Rammellzee: Racing for Thunder” can’t help but summon nostalgia for a time when the city was rougher, more raw, its public culture infused with outer-borough grassroots brilliance and improvisational futurism instead of corporate programming. But you can’t wallow with Rammellzee. He was always looking ahead, formulating the next theory, plotting his next surprise attack on conventional thinking, setting the letters free.

‘Rammellzee: Racing for Thunder’ 
Red Bull Arts New York
220 West 18th Street
redbullartsnewyork.com
Through August 26

Exhibition view of “RAMMΣLLZΣΣ: Racing for Thunder”
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Watch an Exclusive Clip From “Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat”

In the three decades since Jean-Michel Basquiat died from a heroin overdose, at the age of 27, the groundbreaking painter, sculptor, and poet has inspired a cult-like following. The upcoming documentary Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat is a portrait of the artist before he became a legend. Director Sara Driver takes viewers back to the now-unrecognizable East Village of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Basquiat was still finding his voice. Watch this exclusive clip featuring filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and writer–performance artist Jennifer Jazz — a former roommate of Basquiat’s — and check out the full documentary in select theaters on May 11.

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DRINK IN PEACE

Why should creepy, stalking clowns have all the fun? Green-Wood hosts a party of its own, sans the balloons and red-nosed wierdos, let’s hope. At tonight’s Twilight Tour and Catacomb Cocktails gathering, the brave and intrepid are invited to explore Brooklyn’s 478-acre burial grounds just as the sun sets. A guided walk highlights the cemetery’s truly stunning landscapes—rolling hills and valleys like nowhere else in New York City. Pause to visit the graves of some of its most famous “residents,” which include Leonard Bernstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Horace Greeley. Afterward, wind down with drinks and refreshments as you wander the torch-lit catacombs. Built in the 19th century for those who couldn’t afford their own mausoleums, the tunnels house 30 vaults branching off from the gothic-style chapel. While they are brightly illuminated by skylight during the day, tonight’s cocktail hour provides a rare opportunity to experience their eerie beauty after dark.

Sat., Aug. 2, 8:30 p.m., 2014

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URBAN LEGEND

Jean-Michel Basquiat was only 27 when he died of a drug overdose in 1988, and the art world has never seen anything like him since. See what made him so unforgettable and his work so valuable (last year, one of his paintings sold at auction for $16.3 million, according to The New York Times) at Gagosian Gallery, which is presenting nearly 60 of his wild, energetic, colorful works done in a mixture of collage, oil and acrylic paint, oil stick, spray enamel, and Magic Marker. The first New York exhibition on Basquiat since the Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective in 2005, the show includes his tributes to black boxing champs, such as Cassius Clay (1982) and Untitled (Sugar Ray Robinson) (1982), as well as one of his final paintings, eerily titled Riding With Death (1988).

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m. Starts: Feb. 7. Continues through April 16, 2013

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Andy Warhol’s Piss Paintings Aren’t Exactly Number One

The figure of Andy Warhol, like Jesus, has come to mean many different things to lots of people. An empty screen onto which generations of arty folks project their own desires, the gee-whiz shade that was Warhol retains a religiously iconic power for an otherwise skeptical sweep of culturati that spans both Harvard deans and devotees of The Rachel Zoe Project.

Warhol’s position as the patron saint of art celebrity became gospel following his death in 1987, just as his mass appeal was beginning to wear away like a faded “My Boss Is a Jewish Carpenter” T-shirt. For every rerun of his A&E Biography and Love Boat cameo pulled from TV, loads of sycophantic articles and record auction sales took its place. What the faithful extolled then has become art-world catechism today. There’s Warhol’s forgiving celebration of superficiality as “the most brilliant mirror of our times,” his conflation of radical and blue-chip art, and the rock-sure faith in his escalating prices. Put in strictly Catholic terms, that is the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost of the Warhol cult. It’s enough to make one wish out loud for a glimpse of Martin Luther.

If early Warhol—a period, according to academics, that begins with the Campbell Soup cans and ends with his 1968 shooting by Valerie Solanas—embodied Stuart Davis’s definition of the new American artist as “a cool Spectator-Reporter at an Arena of Hot Events,” then the later version was characterized by Andy’s tabloid affair with conventional bourgeois kitsch. Warhol ditched his thrilling electric chairs and trenchant Marilyns along with painting (“so boring”) to engage in the following square pastimes: making perversely monotonous movies, starting a gossip magazine (Interview), churning out portraits of Imelda Marcos and Nancy Reagan (among other commissions), and generally whoring himself out in demonstration of something he called “business art” (his coinage lives on in the auction-house shenanigans of Damien Hirst). While at it, Warhol nearly torpedoed the chance of anyone ever again taking him seriously as an artist. Once the juggernaut of a culture of promotion, Warhol was suddenly unable to distinguish between good and bad products to hype. For an idea of how sleazy he looked then: picture Elton John singing at Rush Limbaugh’s inaugural.

One example of Warhol misplacing his cool compass was his decision to join middlebrow champion LeRoy Neiman in Los Angeles for a show underwritten by Hugh Hefner. Another career slip-up: his 1979 Whitney Museum display of celebrity portraits, which was universally panned. Still a third was an ill-timed exhibition of dollar-sign paintings at Leo Castelli in 1982. The press had a field day. The critic Stuart Morgan, writing in Artforum, served him up on a pike: “In recent years his shows have been increasingly disappointing. . . . Warhol’s work has always been empty, but now it seems empty-headed.” The prince of Pop had become the emperor of kitsch. For those who choose to properly recall his last years, the irony was perfect.

In the 1980s, Warhol became a parvenu in an art world that he had previously conquered. A famous painter and B-list celebrity who lacked the universal visibility of “real” stars (he was too swishy and opaque to have a beer with, to use W.’s popularity metric), Warhol knew that the tide had turned against him where it mattered—downtown, among the Bowery clubs and the neo-expressionist cool kids. “I wasn’t creative since I was shot,” Warhol confided with mangled grammar to his diary at the end of the ’70s. A few years later, after returning from visiting museums abroad, he was ready to agree with his harshest critics: “I might be well known, but I’m sure not turning out good work. I’m not turning out anything.”

Back in New York but no nearer a breakthrough, Warhol had studio minions relieve themselves on prepared canvases. Slathered previously with metallic pigment, these “Piss Paintings”—or “Oxidation Paintings,” as they are primly labeled at the Brooklyn Museum’s current show, “Andy Warhol: The Last Decade”—energized the artist for another decade of hit-and-miss activity. Shallow puns on Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings—and Jack the Dripper’s legendary habit of letting go into Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace—these and other late canvases were mostly condemned to exhibition in Europe during his lifetime. “The Last Decade” makes a case for their parity with Warhol’s seminal pop works. In a phrase: not even close.

Billing itself, quite rightly, as the first major Warhol museum show in New York in a decade—local gallery shows, on the other hand, are too numerous to count—the current hagiography is predictably full of superlatives orotundly mouthed by the show’s otherwise eminent curator (Joe Ketner). Warhol’s late “great artistic developments” include collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat (“a tour de force of figurative painting”), hand-stenciled “Black & White Ads” (sourced from newsprint, they mostly eschew “his extraordinary touch”), and a spiritually dodgy “Last Supper” series (“the most ambitious body of religious paintings of the 20th century”). But this is par for the course for Warhol appreciation, where grade inflation often resembles the old subprime market.

A firsthand look at the “Piss Paintings” makes one thing perfectly clear: These one-liners turn boorish after a single viewing. Warhol’s collaborations with Basquiat and a clueless Francesco Clemente are a train wreck that hardly invites rubbernecking. And Andy’s “Last Supper” paintings, rather than works of spiritual reckoning, represent this artist finding—according to an assistant—”just another button to push.” Warhol’s “Rorschach Paintings,” on the other hand, invite greater scrutiny—if not exactly for their painterliness, then for the artist’s frightening magnification of a familiar symbol (for those without benefit of an analyst, Rorschach tests are normally card-size). Another set of late paintings, the “Camouflage” series, deploys a similar strategy with contrasting Matisse-like color schemes. These paintings succeed because they feature the disappearing act that sustained Warhol throughout his entire career: his Oz-like ability to hide his utter affectlessness behind an equally empty front.

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Beyond the ‘Rock Star’ Image to the Heart of Basquiat

An international art star by the age of 23 and dead from a heroin overdose at 27, Jean-Michel Basquiat was drawn, in the words of one curator, to “the romance of the person whose life is so intense, it’s more than he can bear.” In her elegiac tribute, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, Tamra Davis, who became friends with the painter in 1983, mercifully avoids much of the gassy nostalgia that typifies documentaries made about artists in New York in the late ’70s and ’80s; only one interviewee gushes that “everybody did everything then.” Instead of the platitudes and fatuous art-world rhetoric that defined the 1996 biopic Basquiat by Julian Schnabel (a blustery talking head here), Davis focuses on fascinating specifics. Biographical minutiae (as he was recovering from a car accident at age six, Basquiat’s mother bought him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, which influenced his early work) and articulate assessments from friends, former girlfriends, art historians, and gallerists illuminate the life and work of the man who took, in the words of Yale professor Robert Farris Thompson, “all the street energies and translated them into high art.”

Centering her film around an interview she shot of the then-25-year-old Basquiat in 1985, Davis (the director of 1992’s Guncrazy remake and the 2002 Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads) uses that footage to provide emotional heft. “I was determined not to go home again,” the artist—beautiful, slightly bemused—and incorrigible teenage runaway said then, referring to his definitive break, at age 17, from his family’s Boerum Hill brownstone. Forgoing middle-class comfort, he slept in Washington Square Park, gained graffiti notoriety as SAMO (a truncation of “same old shit”), made frequent appearances on Glenn O’Brien’s public-access TV Party, and danced all night at the Mudd Club.

“He had no qualms about being ambitious,” recalls one of Basquiat’s assistants, and Davis thoroughly covers all the effects of that ferocious drive—both the highs (painting on almost any surface imaginable, including detritus like windows and refrigerator doors salvaged from the streets) and the lows (the moodiness that led Leo Castelli to tell dealer Bruno Bischofberger, “I think I’m too old to deal with such a difficult artist”).

Radiant Child is by no means flawless: The production values of the recent interviews are erratic at best (the audio is particularly crummy), and Davis unwisely chooses to go in front of the camera on occasion, reminiscing unhelpfully about eating Chinese food with Basquiat at the top of Mulholland Drive. But her homage—tender, never hagiographic—also contains some biting analysis of the racism, both overt and insidious, that the artist was up against. “They have this image of me as a wild monkey-man,” Basquiat said to Davis in 1985—the same year he was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, barefoot in Armani finery, like a noble savage.