Basquiat Is Larger Than Life at the Gagosian | Tracy's New York Life | A New York City Lifestyle + Travel Blog Tracy's New York Life | Best Lifestyle, Culture, and Travel Blog in NYC

Basquiat Is Larger Than Life at the Gagosian

by Joann Jovinelly

Untitled, 1981

For the first time in more than eight years, a vast collection of paintings by the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) is on view at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea. The last time a show of this caliber was mounted for the artist was in 2005.

The current exhibit is remarkable in scale, featuring more than fifty works, many of them on loan from private collections.

The results are breathtaking. Many of the paintings are massive in size—like they’re trying very hard to contain Basquiat’s energy—and yet the repetition in themes and language (many of his works include textual elements) bridge his beginnings as a graffiti artist with his later embrace of color blocking, lush, loose brushstrokes, and primitive, searching lines. Yet nothing here appears dated or off point; even nearly three decades after their completion, all of the work feels contemporary, almost timeless.

Installation view by Rob McKeever

As he was considered in his lifetime, Basquiat remains an original, using combinations of painting and drawing in oil stick and a mix of visual and written language that together create a kind of poetry not before seen in the 1980s, but co-opted today by many.

Warhol himself recognized Basquiat’s genius, and the two shared an exhibit of collaborative work in 1985 at Tony Shafrazi Gallery, then in SoHo, and the first time I’d seen Basquiat’s work in person. The card for the show was a photo of both artists in Everlast boxing attire, like they were about to go head-to-head in the ring.

Untitled, 1982

From the first minute I laid my eyes on the work, I felt Basquiat’s larger-than-life ambition. Little did I know that he was also a firecracker destined to burn fast and bright enough to self-extinguish just three years later. And though I was a know-nothing teenager at the time, I was also a painter and I followed closely the goings-on in the New York art world. 

That same year, shortly after Basquiat’s work was exhibited in the Whitney Biennial—as official an art world coming of age as one gets—he appeared at my door via the cover of the New York Times Magazine, looking as elite as one could in a three-piece suit and bare feet. I was smitten.

Wow, I thought, that was fast. In less than a decade he’d gone from living on the streets and writing his SAMO (SAMe Old shit) graffiti, to becoming an international art star. It was all the legitimacy I needed to run off to Manhattan, dripping turpentine in my wake. 

In Italian, 1983

Being a painter was suddenly a formidable job, and the art market was on fire with neo-expressionists like Eric Fischl, Julian Schnabel, and David Salle selling out shows.

With things still going strong economically, I entered art school in 1987. One month into the semester, however, the stock market crashed. Warhol had died earlier in the year while Basquiat's existing heroine addiction worsened, leaving the artist isolated and severely depressed. 

By 1988, the art boom was instantly over, and Basquiat—by that point emotionally sick and alienated from his meteoric rise in popularity and physically sick from his excessive drug use—was dead at 27.       

La Hara, 1981


FEBRUARY 7 - APRIL 6, 2013

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Photos courtesy of the Gagosian Gallery
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