Flyboy in the Buttermilk
"If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption," Rene Ricard quipped, "it would be Jean-Michel." What this omits is the place of blackness in Basquiat's art, as well as in his life, and in the complex relationship between the two. Basquiat himself did not shy away from the subject of race. In a 1985 profile for The New York Times Magazine published under the title "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist," Basquiat said that he included so many people of color in his paintings because "I didn't see many paintings with black people in them." His father, Gérard Basquiat, an accountant, was Haitian, and his mother, Matilde, who had an interest in fashion design, was Puerto Rican. The family lived a middle-class life in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where, for a time, Jean-Michel attended St. Ann's, a private Catholic school with a progressive curriculum. His early interest in drawing was encouraged at home. When he was recovering from an accident, Matilde gave him a copy of Gray's Anatomy, which became the source for the anatomical drawings that were so much a part of his artistic vocabulary. Thanks to Matilde, who often took him to the Metropolitan Museum and the Brooklyn Museum, he had an unusually rich museum background. "The art," he said, "came from her."
Yet he never traveled in an exclusively black world, and his introduction to art does not seem to have come through black painters like Jacob Lawrence or Romare Bearden. His downtown milieu was chiefly white, and though he resented the scarcity of blacks and the art world's subtle undercurrents of racism (one painting on display is entitled Obnoxious Liberals), he seems to have flourished in the scene--the galleries, the clubs, the parties. He had a band called Gray, which played at the Mudd Club and CBGB, he was a great dancer and he had many white girlfriends, including Madonna. Lizzie Himmel's photograph of him for the cover of The New York Times Magazine shows him barefoot, in a paint-stained Armani suit and necktie, peering out with sulky curiosity. There is a black figure in the painting next to him, somewhat fetal in shape, with two long rows of many white teeth. In the eyes of New York's mostly white art world, Basquiat was exotically handsome, a black bohemian prince.
The downtown art world of the 1980s had undergone a dramatic reconfiguration by the time Basquiat arrived on the scene. Painting, which had been marginalized in the 1970s, had enjoyed a resurgence as part of a world movement then known as Neo-Expressionism. Neo- Expressionist paintings were brushy, urgent, figurative and, not least, very large. Since the immense demand for the Abstract Expressionist canvases of the New York School was raising prices to unprecedented heights, the very size of the paintings of Julian Schnabel, David Salle and others enhanced their value to collectors. Artists who painted big canvases began to live suitably big, opulent lives. Basquiat's brilliantly splashy work merged perfectly with the new ethos, and the fact that he painted in designer suits, rather than the working-class bluejeans and flannel shirts of an earlier generation, embodied the shift in self-perception. Basquiat became typical of the spoiled American artist that Tama Janowitz wrote about in Slaves of New York. His pals were Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and especially Andy Warhol, who became his mentor. There is a wonderful double portrait of himself with Warhol, Dos Cabezas--another painting from 1982, perhaps his best year. The two artists are shown side by side, but in different spaces. Warhol cuts a meditative profile in his white wig, looking out through one green eye. Basquiat shows himself like a golliwog, with wild black hair. Interestingly, there is no lettering.
Whether because of Basquiat's race or the uncertainty of his association with graffiti, the official art establishment was leery of him. Relatively few of his works are in public collections. Critics in the 1980s generated rarified theories to deal with Salle's disjunctive canvases, which were believed to express something about the fractured reality of the external world. Or they speculated that Julian Schnabel's fragmented, sharded compositions expressed something deep about the mind and the world's disorder. Basquiat ended up being critically ghettoized, discussed in ethnic rather than philosophical terms. To some extent this is still true today. I had not, I must confess, especially gone out of my way to see his work until after his death in 1988, when I finally went down to see a show assembled by his first dealer, Anina Nosei. It then struck me that nobody had really looked at the work. Basquiat's gift, I realized, was like Pollock's--brilliant, daring, impulsive. None of the hot artists of his moment in the 1980s could touch him. He alone transcended the fevered period he epitomized.
He did not survive his decade. He made a lot of money, which he spent lavishly on drugs. He had a terrible heroin addiction. One of his last works, on brown canvas, is called Riding With Death. A brown and black equestrian figure sits astride a horse skeleton. There are crosses in the eyeholes of the horse's skull. "Horse," of course, is slang for heroin, which transports the rider out of the world, with his arms spread out in a gesture of helplessness. Basquiat was 27 when he died.