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The Purple Haze of Hype

6 minute read
Robert Hughes




THE BOTTOM LINE: The show recapitulates the overhyping of a limited ’80s talent.

The exhibition of the works of the late Jean-Michel Basquiat that opened at Manhattan’s Whitney Museum of American Art last month is billed as a retrospective. It does cover the artist’s working life: about nine years. But since it aims to present the deceased as the black Chatterton of Postmodernism — the “marvellous boy,” cut off in his prime by a drug overdose at the age of 27 — it more resembles a parody of a funeral rite, performed over a slender talent encased in a sarcophagus grossly too large for it. There had to be room in that box for the 1980s as well.

First, the eulogy by the museum director, David Ross. “Who killed Basquiat, ask the artist’s friends and foes alike,” Ross writes. “Art dealers? The white world? Self-serving collectors? The excesses of the ’80s?” And while we’re at it, why not toss in the CIA, the military-industrial complex, or little green men — oops, vertically challenged other-pigmented males — from Mars? Perhaps some imitator of Oliver Stone is waiting in the wings to do just that: there are truckloads of Basquiat works in Beverly Hills. The plain truth — that Basquiat killed Basquiat, that nobody but he was sticking the needles in his arm — is not going to get much airing at this solemn farce of heroic victimology.

Up come the mourners: six catalog essayists, rending their garments and mangling their syntax. Their rhetoric is sublime, beyond parody. “Since slavery and oppression under white supremacy are visible subtexts in Basquiat’s work,” intones one, “he is as close to a Goya as American painting has ever produced.” “The paintings are alive and speak for themselves,” cries another, “while Jean remains wrapped in the silent purple toga of Immortality.” A third, between decorative quotes from Michel Foucault, extols Basquiat’s “punishing regime of self-abuse” as part of “the disciplines imposed by the principle of inverse asceticism to which he was so resolutely committed.” Resolute commitment to inverse asceticism, apparently, is p.c. for addiction.

The acme of vapid pretension is reached by the former art dealer Klaus Kertess, who thinks Basquiat’s drug addiction was in some large way socially therapeutic. “Heroin,” Kertess opines, “seems to have played some role in the formation of the discontinuous maps of mental states that are his paintings and drawings. Heroin seems to have helped him fuse his line with his nerve endings as they responded to, parodied and sought to heal a disturbed culture.”

It appears that everyone did everything to Basquiat, turning him into the all-purpose, inflatable martyr figure of recent American art. Mainly, they loaded him with more money than he knew what to do with and more praise than he could handle; the art market, like the ceiling of the Emperor Elagabalus, opened and smothered him in tons of roses. Some martyrdom.

The malignant Other — racial, cultural, critical, you name it — bulks so large in this hagiographic exercise that one is surprised to find that the catalog nowhere mentions the one thing that Others did do for Basquiat in the last couple of years of his life: namely, get his pictures going when he was too zonked to do so himself. This operation was performed during the final six months by an artist named Rick Prol, at $15 an hour. Of course, artists have long used studio assistants. But under the circumstances, it seems hypocritical to gush about Basquiat’s last works in terms of the uniqueness of his hand, its emotional urgency and so forth.

This show provides plenty of evidence of Basquiat’s graphic industry, but not much that he ever tried to deal with the real world through drawing. He had no idea how to discipline himself into making a creative accord between its forms and the marks on paper or canvas. He just scribbled and jotted, picking up stylistic pointers from older artists he admired, among them Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet. He could only rehearse his own stereotypes, his pictorial nouns for “head” or “body,” over and over again.

Consequently, although Basquiat’s images look quite vivid and sharp when one first sees them, and though from time to time he could produce an intriguing passage of spiky marks or a brisk clash of blaring color, the work quickly settles into the visual monotony of arid overstylization. Its relentless fortissimo is wearisome. (An exception is some of the works on paper, which attain a delicacy of placement and interval absent from the paintings.)

Much is made of Basquiat’s use of sources — vagrant code-symbols, quotes from Leonardo or African bushman art or Egyptian murals. But these are so scattered, so lacking in plastic force or conceptual interest, that they seem merely the result of browsing and doodling rather than looking — homeless representation. For polemical purposes, any rough sketch of a cartoon African carrying a crate next to a white with a topee and a gun can be turned into a “devastating” indictment of colonialism — but this doesn’t make Basquiat into an artist with an articulate social vision. As for his poetic effusions and snatches of writing, they are mostly fey blither.

The life was so sad and truncated, and the art that came out of it so limited, that it seems unfair to dwell on either. Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? Basquiat had talent — more than some of the young painters who were his contemporaries, though this may not be saying much. The trouble was that it did not develop; it was frozen by celebrity, like a deer in a jacklight beam. In the ’80s Basquiat was made a cult figure by a money-glutted, corrupt and wholly promotional art-marketing system. He died in 1988, a year before the bull market collapsed and took his prices down with it. Now the same system, bruised but essentially unchanged, is trying to revalidate those prices in hard times by strumming on the theme that Victimhood Is Powerful. What has descended on Basquiat is not the “silent purple toga of Immortality” — it’s the loud purple haze of hype, all over again.

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