Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 11, 2016
Dieter Buchhart, ed. Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time Exh. cat. New York, London, and Toronto: Prestel, DelMonico Books, and Art Gallery of Ontario, 2015. 228 pp.; 150 color ills. Cloth $49.95 (978379135456)
Exhibition schedule: Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, February 7–May 10, 2015; Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Bilbao, July 3–November 1, 2015

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, the catalogue produced to accompany the first major exhibition of the artist’s works in Canada, takes its name from one of Basquiat’s 1985 paintings. In that Now’s the Time, white letters spelling out “NOW’S THE TIME”© and PRKR stand out against a black circle, collectively invoking a vinyl pressing of jazz legend Charlie Parker’s 1945 arrangement of the same name. The homage makes clear that Parker’s life and work mattered to Basquiat. Both were uncompromising black artists who articulated clear visions through a mastery of seemingly improvisatory aesthetics. They did so while struggling to control their intellectual labor in an often racist and exploitative marketplace that, for Basquiat, valued their work more than their lives. Curator and editor Dieter Buchhart’s choice of title, then, works at once as a multilayered reference and animating command. As Parker mattered to Basquiat, Now’s the Time speaks to the central question addressed in this intriguingly assembled catalogue: how, why, and to whom does Basquiat matter now?

In his opening essay, “Against All Odds,” Buchhart analyzes Basquiat’s art-historical impact. Too often, he states, do questions of Basquiat’s importance morph into discussions of the prices his works fetch at auction or the mythologies constructed around his life and death (12). Such foci resituate Basquiat back inside the very structures he worked against, mainly, “exploitation, consumer society, repression, racism, and genocide” (21). Basquiat lived this tension: Buchhart notes Glenn O’Brien’s description of “Jean-Michel—in designer clothes, pockets stuffed with hundred dollar bills,” yet unable to get a taxi (15). Buchhart argues that since Basquiat studied, and so often referenced, the lives of great black artists and athletes, he would have known that financial success was not an antidote to racism. Instead, Basquiat sought to construct visual narratives where “black people are portrayed as being people of the human race. . . . Just real stories” (17).

These “real stories” form the backbone of Buchhart’s short but rich discussion of Basquiat’s importance in both “Eurocentric” and “unbounded” art history (12). Buchhart divides Basquiat’s career into eight chronological periods, each one named for Basquiat’s engagement with new aesthetic techniques and political issues: Street, Heroes, Reclaiming Histories, Collaborations, Mirrored, Dualities, Sampling and Scratching, and Provocations. In “Heroes,” for example, Buchhart traces Basquiat’s 1981 transition to works on canvas, a shift that also reflected an increased interest in reclaiming African American individual histories from historical erasure through racist and capitalist exploitation. But rather than strict divisions, each section collectively builds on previous ones, slowly tracing Basquiat’s assemblage and sampling of techniques and ideas. Thus, while Buchhart discusses 1985’s Now’s the Time as part of “Sampling and Scratching,” it expands on ideas referenced in “Heroes.” Since Basquiat “saw art as a battle, filled with contenders, and with champions like Picasso and Warhol emerging on top,” in his vision black artists like Parker emerged as champions whom he sought to emulate (177). Like Basquiat, the heroes referenced in Famous Negro Athletes (1980–81) similarly were not “the usual colour nor the usual temperament” of those in their professions (176).

In “Reclaiming Histories,” Buchhart examines Basquiat’s work between 1982 and 1983, when he more forcefully engaged with histories of “racism, colonialism, and slavery” (15). Valuable here is Buchhart’s discussion of Obnoxious Liberals (1982), where Basquiat analogizes himself and the modern art market to a slave auction, and questions the extent to which Basquiat (as both his life and work) is or is not for sale. Though Buchhart stops short of asking how that analogy functions today, his engaging chronology effectively lays the groundwork for readers to explore the one hundred and forty pages of images of Basquiat’s work that follow with an eye toward his multilayered historical references, personal experience, and contemporary viewers’ positionality.

Those expecting further in-depth analyses of Basquiat’s art may be surprised by the tone and topics of the five essays that conclude the volume. O’Brien, who met Basquiat in 1979 and maintained a friendship with him until his death, uses his essay “Greatest Hits” to provide insight into how Basquiat navigated the demands of success. “He wanted the big money,” O’Brien notes, “but that’s because the big money was about respect” (177). Whether money meant respect emerges again as a theme, but O’Brien traces how, once fame had grabbed him, one could no longer easily parse Basquiat’s life from the dazzling performance he put on for an adoring New York art scene. “He was inevitable. A force of nature. A man possessed by whatever gods needed to get out in public around here” (176). O’Brien’s references to these otherworldly forces in Basquiat’s work come from Afro-Atlantic spirit religions (183), as well as allusions to the sheer volume of his work, an output that pushes the limits of what should be capable in a single life (178).

Perhaps, as Francesco Pellizzi continues in his contribution, “Black and White All Over,” Basquiat was able to take the quotidian and make it into something otherworldly in order to have it reflect back on the society from whence it came. In a reprint of an essay from 1989, Pellizzi explores Basquiat’s use of verbal and graphic forms, anatomical images, silhouettes, transparencies, and the contradictions of centrality and marginality, “as if all he came into contact with touched him, often painfully” (183). For Pellizzi, Basquiat’s strategy of repurposing marks his contribution as a black artist to an overwhelmingly white art history. Basquiat knew, as Pellizzi argues, “that for black culture to survive at this stage . . . it had to manage neither to be assimilated by nor to assimilate white culture” (193). Suddenly, he had brought voodoo, rap, and southern Baptist preachers to New York art galleries. Basquiat’s ability to engage with shunning, tension, and alienation through commoditization and fame continues in Olivier Berggruen’s essay, “The Fragmented Self,” where he explores Basquiat’s interest in anatomical representations and broken figures: metaphors for the “alienation he experienced as a black man in a white world ready to shun him at the earliest opportunity” (197).

Franklin Sirmans’s essay, “Basquiat Today,” turns around the question of alienation by asking not only of the continued impact of Basquiat’s work in auction houses and popular culture, but what today, at the age of fifty-five, would Basquiat have done or created? The question is absent in the rest of the volume, but brought into stark relief by Sirmans against another young black life whose creations will never be known: Michael Brown. In an homage following Brown’s fatal shooting in 2014, Atlanta rapper Killer Mike referenced Basquiat as an inspiration in the fight against “poverty, greed, and a war machine” (206)—as an artist who three decades ago shouted that black lives mattered.

Brown’s name—a name that should continue to matter to us, as so many names of black histories and personalities mattered to Basquiat—provides the narrative disjuncture to enter into Christian Campbell’s brilliant closing piece, “J.M.B.’s Dehistories.” Campbell presents seventeen text snippets that narratively push and pull against each other. A short study of Basquiat’s use of heads analogizes to royal decapitations, while a speculative definition of the word “Composition” marks both the canvas composition and the composure one exhibits in an art world meant to strike down those black kings, as Basquiat styled himself. Campbell ends with an imaginary email he sends to the artist: “BTW I like the new stuff you posted on Instagram—the pieces from the SMH show. Give my love to Suzanne” (215). This is the first time in the book readers are reminded of Basquiat’s own loves and desires, the first time he feels like a human being.

After his rise to success, few continued to label Basquiat a “graffiti artist.” “If they say you’re making graffiti,” O’Brien once told him, “tell them it’s unauthorized public art” (176). The shift in label reflected the values others placed in Basquiat’s work, derived from “the street” but no longer of it. Michael Stewart, however, had no adoring public to convince of his status as an artist, no white gallery walls against which to define his practice. And so, in the early morning of September 15, 1983, Stewart was beaten into submission by eleven white police officers for painting on a subway station wall at First Avenue. He died thirteen days later at the age of twenty-five. Stewart’s death “completely freaked out” Basquiat, said Keith Haring. “It was like it could have been him” (17). Painted later that year, Basquiat’s The Death of Michael Stewart presents a silhouetted black figure menaced by two cartoonish police officers; the word “Defacement?” hovers over the scene.

There is much to admire in Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time. It presents a refreshing focus on the centrality of Basquiat’s contributions to the art world, and does so through a dynamic group of contributions that reflect the multilayered readings and contradictions that Basquiat himself so favored. Yet it also makes clear that Basquiat honored and mourned the lives of Parker and Stewart because he lived in a world that, regardless of the success he achieved, valued black art much more than black life. We live in this world still. And so now, as always, is the time to change it.

Matthew Francis Rarey
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, Oberlin College