Until mid-January, the exhibition covers the entire span of the brief but intense career of the great American contemporary artist
From October 3, at the Luis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, you can visit an exceptional exhibition dedicated to Jean-Michel Basquiat 120 works, some never seen in Europe. Moreover, with the same ticket, you can also access the parallel exhibition on another great restless soul: Egon Schiele.
Basquiat, a born rebel, was born in New York. His childhood was far from easy: his Haitian father was a tough and likely violent man with whom it was difficult to relate. His mother tried to protect him, but she was fighting her own personal battle with psychiatric problems, which lead to frequent hospitalisations. A dysfunctional family and fragility became the distinctive traits of the boy’s personality. Discomfort grew along with the impatience for the rules, and at 17 he ran away from home, later arrested and then brought home. However, Basquiat had talent and an extraordinary drawing ability that allowed him to attend a school for gifted kids, the City-as-School, where he would become friends with Al Diaz, introducing him to the world of Street Art.
This marked the beginning of his artistic career, in the slums of New York, where he made his murals by signing SAMO (the Same Old Shit,). His artistic talent was combined with great communication skills; he used a modern and provocative language with which he lashed out against a superficial and racist society.
The subjects are monsters and comic book heroes, as if his psyche had been stuck in childhood nightmares. Yet there are also images inspired by African rock painting, in his desire rediscover his African-American roots. The strokes are aggressive and rough, the forms are simplified and exasperated, the colours when they are there, are intense.
Such a great talent could not stay hidden forever, and Basquiat, seduced by the praise of gallery owners, went from graffiti to canvas. He retained his “primitive” style, but the colours were generally more explosive. Meanwhile, the roaring 80s began, and New York was overwhelmed by the frenzy. It is the era of easy money, the aggressive capitalism of the new yuppies making millions on the stock exchange. Art would become a form of investment, gallerists and art critics pumped the market and the prices of the works rose dramatically, while a hedonist of artists, made up of heiresses and yuppies, gathered in the coolest nightclubs, like the legendary Studio 54, where drugs and alcohol flowed like rivers.
These nightclubs were where Basquiat would meet Keith Haring, becoming close friends. Together with him and other artists, in 1980 he participated in a retrospective entitled Times Square Show, which drew him to the attention of the New York art audience. Handsome and elegant, with dreadlocks and a tie around his neck, he made himself a trademark. In 1982 Annina Nosei, a gallerist from SoHo, organized a personal exhibition that consecrated him as one of the most promising painters. Success inebriated him, pushing him to become even more frenetic, hungry for money and even more notoriety. After moving to the Nosei’s home, he created a new piece almost every day, supplying a market increasingly greedy for his works. For some months he had a stormy relationship with Madonna, however his relationships with women were always difficult. He was compulsive in everything, always looking for sex, drugs and money as anaesthetics for his turmoil.
1983 marked another turning point. He began collaborating with Andy Warhol, who would become a father figure, friend and teacher. This relationship filled the artist’s emotional void and offered intellectual stimulation. He began rehab. However, the market is ruthless, and did not enjoy the collaboration and the role of Basquiat as “Andy’s mascot”. The artist fell apart, all his insecurities returned, and lost faith in his art. Abandoning painting almost completely, he started using heavy drugs again, leading to his separation from Warhol. In 1985, Basquiat isolated himself more and more, drowning in self-injury. The coup de grace came with the death of Warhol in 1987, making reconciliation impossible, as perhaps he had hoped. He is “suggested” not to attend the funeral. This is the end. A year later, he was found dead in his loft, killed by an overdose, sharing an end with many other talented young people of those times.
Anna Maria Calabretta