August 17, 2012
There have been more books written, more magazine articles and even movies made about him than any other. He works have garnished the highest prices at auction and continue to climb yearly. He is in the private collections of famous and noted collectors like Vegas luminary Steve Wynn and designer Valentino. He is a pivotal figure in the history of art and culture. His importance continues to be debated, his worth reviewed. Artist Jean- Michel Basquiat was known and peer to the greats of his time. He was admired and sometimes ignored as well.
He was also African American and among all artist of African descent he was and at this time is “The Greatest”. It is easy to make the comparison to sports figures like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and most importantly Jackie Robinson. He was the “Jackie Robinson” of the art world. Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley and Wangechi Mutu have directly benefited from his presence and accomplishments. Kerry James Marshall, Martin Puryear and Sam Gilliam to a lesser but still major degree are benefactors of the Basquiat legacy.
I was introduced to Jean-Michel in an article written by Susie Gablick in “Art in America”. She was writing about the surge in presence and price of graffiti artists on the New York and world art scene. This was a fascinating article featuring Keith Haring along with Basquiat and other rising stars exhibiting at Fashion Moda. This was in the early Nineteen Eighties and I knew these were artist with a lot of potential and they were to be watched.
I would keep an eye on these guys and see how they developed. The next piece I read on Basquiat; a year or so later was an extended article and spread in Warhol’s “Interview”. It seemed that Warhol had taken a personal and professional interest in Basquiat and was promoting him. Basquiat had become at least for the moment an insider and very fashionable. What seemed like an incredibly short time later (still the Nineteen Eighties) I read something on the cover of “Vanity Fair” about the death of a young artist. I open the magazine to find the photographic portrait of Basquiat by James Van Der Zee. How could he be gone so soon? The impossible is not always so impossible. Basquiat was twenty seven and his career had lasted less than a decade.
In death Basquiat has collaborated with Maya Angelou on a children’s book and was the subject of Julian Schnabel’s directorial debut in film. He has been the featured artist of major retrospectives and documentaries. His works are represented in the permanent collections of many of the world’s great museums.
The artist that once courted Madonna is now suitor to eternity. As he told his father” Papa… I’m going to be famous” fulfilled his childhood prophesy within a brief time and with many works. The legend, the mystique, the life has grown over the years; as it should.
We will wonder about what might have been for Jean-Michel and ourselves in turn. We will celebrate and marvel at the brilliance of what remains and at what once was.