Published October 15, 2010
PARIS – At the end of Jean-Michel Basquiat's short life, the explosively talented but troubled New York artist had a dream — to stage a major exhibit of his eyepopping, doodle-covered work in Paris.
Nearly 50 years after his birth, and 22 years after his death at age 27 of a drug overdose, Basquiat's wish has finally come true.
"Basquiat," which opened Friday at the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris, brings together more than 150 pieces that trace his rise from graffiti artist to star of the New York art scene.
The son of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat was the first to break the glass ceiling that had kept black artists out of the art elite. Curators said his dazzling rise helped pave the way for other prominent African-Americans, including President Barack Obama, who was born one year after Basquiat.
"Jean-Michel Basquiat is a very important link in the chain that led to black Americans' liberation," said curator Dieter Buchhart, adding that the artist's grappling with racism was a major theme of his work. "It's overtly political and takes on issues of race and questions capitalism in the boldest ways."
"Slave Trade," an oversized 1982 painting featuring a white auctioneer offering up a massive skull with a spiky crown of thorns, probes the tragic history of Africans' arrival in the U.S., while 1983's "Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta" skewers the stultifying legacy of segregation.
An untitled 1981 canvas features a black man in prison stripes flanked by two white policemen. The officers, hulking shapes in royal blue, wear neat caps, while the prisoner's headgear is altogether more ethereal: a halo.
Basquiat's paintings celebrate icons of black culture, from boxing champions like Cassius Clay, Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Lewis to jazzmen including Miles Davis. "Now's the Time," an oversized black wooden disk painted with white lines to suggest a massive LP, is a tribute to Charlie Parker.
It's also among the most sober of the pieces in the Paris show, which explodes with saturated colors, nervous lines and letters and words that — repeated obsessively and sometimes scratched out — crowd the crudely drawn figures. The canvases are palimpsests, piled with layer after layer of acrylic paint and patches of pastel and melded with drawings on paper.
"Basquiat was constantly working and reworking his paintings, adding elements and then painting over them, so that what was there before left just the faintest of traces," said curator Buchhart, adding that the artist's obsessive, workaholic nature was a source of friction with Andy Warhol, who took Basquiat under his wing in the early 1980s.
The show includes several collaborations between the two, including 1984's "Arm and Hammer II," with two oversized logos from the baking soda brand, side by side. The one on the right — Warhol's — is a faithful reproduction of the iconic logo, with a beefy arm brandishing a hammer, while on the right, Basquiat presents Charlie Parker with a butter-yellow saxophone dangling from his lips as the logo's centerpiece.
"Sometimes the collaborations didn't go so well," Buchhart said. "Sometimes Warhol wasn't so happy because he would paint something and Basquiat would go in and paint over everything. But Basquiat sometimes thought Warhol was lazy because he would finish quickly and Basquiat wanted to go back into everything over and over."
In addition to the paintings, most of them towering canvases and wooden panels, the show also includes unexpected artistic objects, like a painted refrigerator and even a football helmet sprouting a thin moss of human hair.
Buchhart described the show, which runs through Jan. 30, as the realization of one of Basquiat's last dreams.
"I talked to his father, who told me that in the last months of his life, Basquiat talked about really wanting to have a big show in Paris," he said. "We're so glad that it's finally happened."