In the spring of 2019, I obtained tickets for the Brant Foundation’s opening of its new space in East Village NY with an inaugural exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat works. The Peter Brant Foundation is part of this growing number of “private collection museums” by billionaires who are given huge tax breaks for” sharing” with the public their art collections but under limited terms set by the owners (another tax scam favoring the elite). Peter Brant (who by the way has a checkered past) has been a long-time collector and supporter of Jean-Michel’s work.
The opportunity to see over 70 pieces of Basquiat’s artworks, which today mostly is in the hands of private collectors, was indeed a joy. I was glad I had fought hard to get those damn tickets. The combination of a beautifully designed 100-year-old building (formerly a substation for Con Edison) and four floors of Basquiat’s artworks with amazing views of the city urban landscape where Jean-Michel lived and honed his talent was just utterly breathtaking.
Who was Jean-Michel Basquiat ?
This year (2020), Jean-Michel would have turned 60 years old if he had not overdosed on heroin at the age of 27, depressed and lonely. He died at a time when he was beginning to experience some success for his radical approach to modernizing Contemporary Art that for the most part, ignored the Black experience of growing up in a racist America.
Jean-Michel was born in Brooklyn, NY, to a Puerto Rican mother and a Haitian father. As a young black adolescent, his destiny was marked by two experiences that help shape and cultivate his love and passion for the Arts. The first was a car accident at the age of 7. While hospitalized, his mother gave him a Henry Gray’s Anatomy textbook, that shaped his obsession with the human body and the skull of which so much is reflected in his work. The second was attending an alternative school where visits to museums fueled his exposure to the Art World. There he met Al Diaz, another teenage Puerto Rican, and started SAMO, which led to an evolved form of Graffiti.
In the late 70s-80s, when Graffiti was taking over the walls and public spaces of New York City, most of it was tagging— a nickname with a number that was significant to teenagers whose only goal was to tag as many places as possible as an expression of their identity. A primitive way of branding among their peers as compared to Instagram today. Both Jean-Michel and Al Diaz elevated Graffiti one step forward by painting or drawing messages instead of just tagging; this gave them notoriety. This eventually became a familiar aspect of Jean-Michel’s artistry using texts, phrases, messages, and symbols such as halos, grids, arrows, and crowns throughout his works.
During his short life, Jean- Michel produced over 1,000 paintings and 2,000 drawings, many in the hands of private collectors since museums were too late to recognize his work and were eventually priced out by the same elites who are their donors. This is unfortunate because it limits public access to his work. The cost to mount an exhibition is extremely expensive and time-consuming that drives the admission price up.
Basquiat’s works are rebellious and reflective of the racism and classism embedded in the Art World and the day-to-day struggle of a poor young black man. When you examine his work, you see references of a knowledgeable person that includes all forms of music, especially hip hop, punk, and rock, as well as poetry. He also references legendary artists such as Leonard Da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, and Jackson Pollock in many of his works.
As a black man, Jean Michel celebrated African American athletes and musicians and his African roots while continuously raising his objections to racism, greed, and the exploitation of black communities. He consistently used the symbol of a king’s crown to reference success among his Black heroes and was outspoken about the lack of Blacks in the Art World and the indignities that he experienced as a young black man even as he gained fame and money.
A constant theme in his work consists of parts of the human anatomy, specifically skulls with bulging eyes that are intense and provocative. When observing his work, you can’t help sensing darkness, even expressions of anger, imagery that are haunting yet playful in how he draws and paints his characters. His paintings are intensely vibrant with the color black being a constant theme that clearly speaks to who he is and how he chooses to be identified.
If Jean-Michel were alive today, it would be hard to imagine what the evolution and variations of his body of work would look like? Would he have had the equivalent of a rose or blue period like Picasso who remained creative throughout his aging life, or would have he burned out much like his mentor Andy Warhol and others?
Jean Michel Relevancy to Today Social Justice Movement
No doubt, he left an indelible mark in contemporary art history and is increasingly becoming part of Pop culture, much like Frieda Kahlo, Andy Warhol, and others where their works and image are reflective in all aspects of American life. The only difference is that he brings a life story and a body of work that seeks to raise one’s consciousness of the racial divide and inequities that exist then and today throughout the world. This, I believe, is why there is a growing interest in his life’s work and voice. Unlike so many other visual artists, his message of inequality is even more relevant today as it was for him growing up. He is now an inspiration to so many young black and brown fledgling artists who seek to be creative and be who they are in a world that still marginalizes them as second-class citizens.
Of the 70 pieces shown at the exhibition, I so am happy to share these 30 pieces.
Click the center of the photo to see the full view
“For more stories and photos like these, please click here to subscribe!“