“Every line means something”
There is that fine line between reality and fiction, truth and untruth, face and mask, genuine and fake, real and imagined which we all claim to know… and it seems to me that nowhere in life that line is more blurred than in art… fortunately, or unfortunately. In fact, there’s those ‘six degrees of separation’ which some claim to have we all in the planet at a short distance from each other through a chain of interconnections, but in reality always seem to keep us apart… as if at such a short distance we could all claim to ‘know’ each other, but never quite so… or maybe not! Whatever the case, I always think of these things when I think about Jean-Michel Basquiat. And, when I think about Basquiat, I always think of the strange, often devious, ways in which issues of identity, authenticity and the like are resolved, or unresolved, in (or through) art and in life in general…
“I cross out words so you will see them more – the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them”
"The History of Black People"
In the words of Robert Knafo, one of his biographers, “In his short life (1960-1988), Jean-Michel Basquiat came to personify the art scene of the 80s, with its merging of youth culture, money, hype, excess, and self-destruction. And then there was the work, which the public image tended to overshadow: paintings and drawings that conjured up marginal urban black culture and black history, as well as the artist's own conflicted sense of identity. He was, all at once it seemed, the ultimate party animal, a wannabe street kid and graffitist hiding his black Brooklyn middle class roots, an advocate and interpreter of the marginal and dispossessed at the court of the mainstream, an angry black aspirant to the all-white art canon, a precocious talent, a creature of cynical marketing and a fraud, a proto-multiculturalist, an American original.”
Indeed, in his angry aspiration to that "all-white art canon” he met Andy Warhol, the ring-master of the so called 'Neo-Expressionist movement' and of clever, cynical marketing fakery - some, certainly Knafo, would call it fraud - to whom in their first encounter he sold a postcard for one dollar, and went on to date Madonna while keeping his “real life” heroes Malcolm X, Jimi Hendrix and Charlie Parker close to heart until he died of a drugs overdose aged 28. Born of a Haitian father and a Puerto-Rican mother, his art is perhaps the best, albeit most disturbing, expression of a misplaced Black/African identity in spite of Knafo's claim of him being “an American original”… or maybe not… or maybe yes... because that’s what makes for “American originality”: misplaced identities, isn't it? Anyway, I’m not an art critic and after all here’s what he thought of them: “I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life… I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.”
I also always think of Basquiat when I think of that movie, made out of a stage play, “Six Degrees of Separation” (1993), featuring Will Smith (in what I think is his best role ever!), Donald Sutherland and (Sir) Ian McKellen among other fine actors such as Stockard Channing, who was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar for her role in it. Why? I haven’t got the faintest idea! Having seen it twice, I don’t recall anything in it relating to Basquiat… but maybe he was just away from the plot by six degrees... because Paul (Smith) - while presenting himself as "the son" of Sidney Poitier (something also evocative of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"), whose father was in reality, as Basquiat's, of Haitian descent - plays the ultimate faker and double-crosser in his angry quest for an all-white cultural "background" and behavioural and literary canon... or just because Louisa (Channing) and Flanders (Sutherland) play rich NYC art dealers, while their South African business partner Miller (Mckellen) brings them all to his “reality” about race relations… or, probably, because Paul eventually dies, just as Basquiat very young but not of drugs, in prison, when he was finally taken back to the "reality" of his own social and racial condition, or, put shortly, when he was taken back to "where he came from"!... I don’t know. There’s a movie that’s really about him though, “Basquiat” (1996), starring David Bowie, Dennis Hopper and Benicio del Toro, which I haven’t seen yet.
You can find Basquiat works (mostly print copies) and memorabilia pretty much everywhere these days. And it can come cheap too, from as low as ₤3 to an average ₤30 per print, on eBay for instance, unless you are well off enough to get a signed copy at something like ₤1200… but it doesn’t seem really to go over ₤2000-₤3000 on average, so apparently you don’t need to be very rich to buy something signed Basquiat these days (of course I'm not talking about the really pricey originals here - most of them held in museums and not for sale anyway; or auctioned by big houses, where they can get to millions of pounds)*.
I’m not rich, old or new, so I got mine some 12 years ago (a print copy titled “1960”, which apparently is rare since I couldn’t find it anywhere on the web…) for ₤10 at the ever so popular Camden Market!
*E.g. his Untitled (1981) sold one month after this post was written by Sotheby's (New York) for $14,600,000 or his Grillo (1984) sold by Phillips de Pury & Company (London) yet a month later that same year for £4,948,000!