Short Life, Big Impact: Basquiat

Article excerpt

When the streetwise, self-taught former graffiti artist Jean- Michel Basquiat burst onto the established art scene of the early 1980s, he quickly earned the reputation of being the bad boy of contemporary art. He gathered images of anything and everything, from religious symbols to advertising slogans to political phrases, and defaced and reframed them in wild colors with what many called a primitive energy and passion. His career was short (he died of a heroin overdose at age 27) and his vision was still emerging as he experimented with different styles and techniques. But his impact has been enormous and long-lived.

"He was the voice of a generation," says Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum, which organized the touring retrospective of this youthful, though influential artist, titled simply, "Basquiat." Among other accomplishments, says Mr. Lehman, "Basquiat single- handedly brought the black and Hispanic experience into the white art-world establishment."

The show has just opened in Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). This retrospective is the first major look at Basquiat's career since 1992, when the Whitney Museum in New York mounted an overview of his work. It contains some of the key examples of Basquiat's restless experimentation with different mediums and visual references, most notably an entire portfolio of 32 drawings known as the "Daros Suite."

Basquiat lived and worked in southern California during a two- year period that MOCA curator Fred Hoffman calls a seminal period in his emergence as a potent force in the national art scene. The curator says that nearly one-fifth of the 65 paintings and 50 works on paper that fill MOCA's white-walled galleries were created or exhibited for the first time during that period. "Basquiat liked this city," says Hoffman, and he responded to the city's openness to new ideas, which allowed him to go more deeply into concepts that concerned him for most of his explosive career.

The central theme that underlies nearly all his work, says Hoffman, "is a concern with his identity as a young black man in a white art world." Beyond that, he says, Basquiat explored other dichotomies he saw in the world, such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and the tension between the inner and the outer experience of an individual in a society. He had the same preoccupations with color and line of many early 20th-century artists and was willing to short-circuit what Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight calls the "beige" good taste of the formal art world. …