Why Basquiat became such an idol?

Jul 19, 2023 | Art Word, Authentications & attributions, Cutural Heritage, Exhibitions, Fakes

Paris, an artist, two exhibitions

From April 2023 to August 28, the Fondation Louis Vuitton presents “Basquiat x Warhol, a Four-Handed Collaboration“, an exhibition on the fellowship between Basquiat and the king of Pop Art, and his mentor, Andy Warhol, who was over thirty years older. Between 1984 and 1985, Basquiat and Warhol produced around 160 large-scale canvases, most of which are now on display at the Vuitton Foundation.

Warhol found creative vitality in the contact with this “younger brother“, while Jean-Michel Basquiat gained spontaneity and drew inspiration from many subjects of pop culture. The spark between the two artists ignited during a meeting organized by Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischoberger, who proposed a collaboration among three artists from his gallery: 55-year-old Andy Warhol, already at the height of his career, Francesco Clemente (31 years old), and Jean-Michel Basquiat (23 years old). They produced about fifteen high-quality canvases. At the same time, Warhol and Basquiat began meeting daily to work together, truly collaborating. It was the beginning of an osmosis that developed over two years. While each retained their own style and vocabulary, Warhol resumed using brushes, and Basquiat occasionally used screen printing. However, the failure of their joint exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in the fall of 1985, coupled with harsh criticism from the press, brought their collaboration to an end. Nevertheless, their sincere friendship survived.

In Paris, Basquiat is featured in two separate exhibitions, one at the Fondation Louis Vuitton and the other at the Philharmonie de Paris (an auditorium with concert halls located in Parc de la Villette in Paris). The Philharmonie explores the music that Basquiat collected and that inspired the young American painter, from Charlie Parker to Rammellzee.

Basquiat Soundtracks” is the first exhibition dedicated to the role of music in Basquiat’s art. It explores his sonic imagination and examines the numerous references that punctuate his works. The presence of music in Basquiat’s works is predominant. As a hybrid artist, from poet to music producer, and passionate about comics, his painting is a synthesis of his experiences as a young African American in the 1980s, from the Brooklyn district to Italy (where he would come ten times throughout his life). Basquiat’s paintings are noisy; they always represent music through the portrayal of talkative characters or the noise of his very comic-like machines. The “Basquiat Soundtracks” exhibition is a perfect complement to the Fondation Louis Vuitton’s exhibition, deepening our understanding of an artist who narrates and writes the history of the United States (and the art market) through music. Yes, Jean-Michel always painted to the sound of music, as well as in the presence of certain specific illicit substances that ultimately took his life at the age of 27 due to an overdose.

Basel, Fondation Beyeler, with The Strokes’ album in the ears and an Italian novel in the pocket

In Basel, at the Fondation Beyeler, from June 11 to August 27, 2023, there is a rather summery Basquiat. The Fondation Beyeler offers Basquiat’s works created in Italy for his first solo exhibition to the public for the first time. Eight large-scale canvases that Basquiat painted in the summer of 1982 in the city of Modena for an exhibition project that ultimately never came to fruition.

More than 40 years later, the Beyeler Foundation brings together these works, now held in private collections in the United States, Asia, and Switzerland, including many of Basquiat’s most famous and expensive pieces.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was 21 years old when he traveled to Modena, invited by gallerist Emilio Mazzoli, upon the recommendation of Italian artist Sandro Chia, who also recommended him to gallerist Annina Nosei.

Jean-Michel Basquiat is one of the most sought-after artists in the art market and also among the most counterfeited. Although a serious scientific analysis campaign has not yet been conducted to determine the materials and techniques he used, some of his forgeries have been exposed through scientific analyses, while others were easily identified due to anachronisms, such as being painted on a cardboard with a logo that was used six years after the artist’s death.

His character has become an iconic symbol in music, fashion, and popular culture. Just look at the recent Tiffany’s advertisement featuring the Knowles-Carter couple (Beyonce and Jay-Z), where a massive Basquiat painting is seen. Beyonce wears the iconic ensemble of Audrey Hepburn in the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and Jay-Z recreates the famous 1985 cover of The New York Times, titled “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist” (with the same hairstyle and pose, but this time the man is not alone; he gazes at the audience while admiring the woman, Beyonce, like a Venus). It has sparked a storm of debates. Some adored it, while others criticized the use of art for advertising purposes, or the failure to condemn diamond mining and the exploitation of African workers.

I adored it for the musical aspect and the central role of an African American female artist who has managed to leverage and maximize her art in the 21st century. However, it is important to see Basquiat not only as an embodiment of a luxury world steeped in the American Dream but rather as a great independent poet who could express human emotions simply with a few pencil strokes, a brush, and lots of music.

I invite you to read the Italian book by Anna Ferri, “Basquiat. Viaggio in Italia di un formidabile genio” (Basquiat: Journey in Italy of a Remarkable Genius). An autobiographical novel written during the pandemic and published before the Swiss exhibition, where the author tries to find and see the painting on which her mother modeled for Basquiat in Modena. One of the paintings presented this year at the Fondation Beyeler might be the painting in question. It is an emotional experience for a daughter trying to find her mother’s face in a privately held painting that holds high commercial, artistic, and, above all, emotional value.

While Anna Ferri writes a novel about Basquiat, the sixth album of the American band The Strokes, released in 2020, uses a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat from 1981 titled “Bird on Money” as its cover. The opening track, “The Adults Are Talking,” is undoubtedly the music I listened to the most during the lockdown, and it echoes the ongoing public criticism we still hear about Basquiat’s works: “They look like drawings made by kindergarten children and are worth millions.”

The moral of the story is that to understand Jean-Michel Basquiat, one must love music, be as free as a comic book character, and not stop at first impressions. I promise you’ll love him endlessly.

Marine Butera