The works of Jean-Michel Basquiat have become iconic. Paintings like “Self-Portrait” and “Untitled (Boxer)” immediately call to mind some of the most striking modern art of the 20th century. After hosting the work of Pablo Picasso in 2012, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) has decided that the ‘Now’s the Time’ for Basquiat’s work, pulled from public and private auctions, to be featured in the classy Toronto gallery.
The expo starts off with one of Jean Michel’s collaborations with Keith Haring. Haring, a friend from adolescence, helped create Jean’s original persona SAMO on the streets of New York City. Their work “Untitled (Symphony No. 1)” speaks to his graffiti roots with its torn newspaper clippings and classic graffiti lettering. Many of Basquiat’s early works are left untitled, leaving curators and collectors to include nicknames inspired by the content of the pieces. This proclivity alone suggests that titles somehow take away from discovering the meaning in the pieces themselves. Other pieces like “Now’s the Time”, which is a huge record caricature, or the spooky “O.M.R.A.V.S.” with its very relevant big brother listening theme, are very literal.
Basquiat’s dominant subject matter of “Royalty, Heroism and the Streets” was a contrast to the minimalist paintings that dominated the times. That struggle is evident in his work. His paintings expressed a frustration and urgency that gave his canvas life. His “Irony of a Negro Policeman” is a moving piece especially in this time of racial tension with law enforcement. Its ghoulish gaze and erratic persona is unnerving as is the word ‘pawn’ scribbled near the bottom. Much of his work looks like a collage – a melding of many images to create a uniform thought.
Jean Michel’s multidisciplinary style was born out of necessity more than creativity. Painting on doors and windows anything that he could find on the street to get out his creative urges.
“Busted Atlas 2” is one of his famous pieces strewn across a wooden stretcher that combined his familiarity with history and his street roots. His signature crown and copyright symbol are embedded in many of his works and serve as a connecting theme. The influence of his friendship with Andy Warhol is also very influential – there are stories of Jean Michel’s painting over Warhol’s work to add his own touch. “Don’t Tread on Me’s” dollar sign is authentically Warhol while the text and Gasden Flag-inspired snake is unmistakably JMB.
This is one of the reasons Basquiat is so revered, especially in the urban community. His portrayal of Black men as heroic figures or saints is not common in the high art world. However, his work, with its almost childish flair, is welcoming and doesn’t take a master’s degree to appreciate.
Basquiat’s use of Black images is especially moving. While taking in the exhibit, parents of different races explain the story of Jesse Owens to their children who can’t quite grasp “Dark Race Horse” – one of Basquiat’s more stark creations. This is one of the reasons Basquiat is so revered, especially in the urban community. His portrayal of Black men as heroic figures or saints is not common in the high art world. However, his work, with its almost childish flair, is welcoming and doesn’t take a master’s degree to appreciate. Curators at the AGO highlighted this connection by looping parts of Martin Luther King speeches in connecting corridors and featuring live beat boxers and spoken word artists during the weekends.
The tour ends with “To Repel Ghosts”, an acrylic painting on what looks like wood siding. It’s a fitting conclusion to a collection from an artist who shone brightly, and tragically succumbed to the ghosts that haunted him. The macabre message is a sad reminder that the heights of fame can also include a dizzying fall and that the biggest and brightest stars burn out the fastest.
Images, Credits and Captions: © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York