By Jasminee Sahoye
Described as nothing less than a game-changer for the art world, among other things, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s works will be among 100 large-scale paintings and drawings from private collections and public museums across Europe and North America at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) from Feb. 7 to May 10.
Although his career was cut short by his untimely death at age 27, his works, which confronted racism, class, Black history, politics and social hypocrisy, remain hugely influential.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Puerto Rican mother and a Haitian father, Basquiat first achieved notoriety as a part of SAMO, (Same Old), a group of street artists who spray-painted the walls of lower Manhattan with works that cleverly used and manipulated text to provoke the public. He came to develop a unique visual language, one that mixed images and text in a sophisticated and complex way and broke new ground in contemporary art.
Described by the artist himself as a “springboard to deeper truths about the individual,” Basquiat’s vivid and poignant works were always highly conceptual in their exploration of race, class and fame using the motifs of New York street culture. Though Basquiat was not a street artist, his work was intrinsically linked to the urban environment, beginning in conceptual graffiti, referencing street art in his paintings and using salvaged materials such as abandoned doors and packing crates as canvases.
Shiralee Hudson-Hill, interpretive planner at AGO, describes Basquiat’s works as having an immense energy and dynamism. “The reason they look so contemporary today is a testament to his genius and I think they will look just as relevant and contemporary and exciting, a hundred years from now.”
She talks about a section titled heroes and saints of the exhibition titled Now’s the Time. “Basquiat’s heroes were African American men who made it in a white world. They were boxers, baseball players, musicians, people who showed immense talent and creativity and broke through racial barriers to achieve success. But he felt they were not properly celebrated in society and he saw his canvasses, his paintings as a forum to paint these great black men …”
Hudson says that because of the artist’s heritage and where he grew up, he had many identities and tried to explore those identities in portraits of himself and others.
“His extraordinary talent helped establish compelling new forms of expressionist painting while confronting the most important and incendiary social issues of 20th-century North America. This exhibition offers a tremendous opportunity for AGO visitors to contemplate art as a tool of social provocation and to see how Basquiat’s approach and subject matter still reverberate in our world today,” says Matthew Teitelbaum, AGO’s director and CEO.
Basquiat’s renown grew as he started a noise rock band, appeared in Edo Bertoglio’s indie film Downtown 81 and struck up a friendship with Andy Warhol. In 1982, at 21, Basquiat’s first solo show sold out.
Experiencing sudden popularity, he found himself sharing ideas with David Bowie, briefly dating Madonna, appearing in music videos and gracing the cover of the New York Times Magazine. His work is collected by celebrities and institutions alike, and he has been referenced in the lyrics of many contemporary rap artists including Jay Z, Macklemore and Kanye West.
Jay Z paid $4.5 million for a Basquiat piece. He was eventually revealed as the anonymous buyer at Sotheby’s in Manhattan of a 1982 painting titled Mecca, showing the Empire State Building beneath a crown.
Renowned Austrian art historian, curator and critic Dieter Buchhart says, “Basquiat’s groundbreaking and provocative artistic approach, translated 1980s New York into a radical visual language. Inspired as much by high art – abstract expressionism and conceptualism – as by hip-hop, jazz, sports, comics and graffiti, Basquiat used recurring motifs to explore issues that he continuously grappled with in his life and art.”
On March 28, the AGO will host a symposium bringing together artists to talk about Basquiat’s work and legacy and why it’s now the time for Basquiat.
Tickets are on sale; discounted tickets are available on Wednesdays. For more info visit www.Basquiatnow.com.