The Commodification of Jean-Michel Basquiat

From Jacobin:

In April, Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure opened at the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Manhattan. Organized by the late artist’s family, the exhibition includes over two hundred Basquiat pieces, many previously unexhibited. As Lisane Basquiat, the artist’s sister and comanager of his estate, told Rolling Stone, the show is meant to offer “insight into Jean-Michel’s journey and the context within which [he] was raised and the way that he entered into his adulthood.” Indeed, the lengths to which the exhibit goes to broker an intimate encounter — the space designed by architect David Adjaye includes a reproduction of the artist’s childhood home and his studio — are indicative of Basquiat’s immense cultural standing. Try to imagine anyone taking the trouble to recreate the childhood home of Joseph Beuys or Louise Bourgeois.

That Basquiat holds such lingering distinction while many other artists of his generation have receded is certainly understandable. His art is kinetic, politically trenchant, and deeply iconic. As Dick Hebdige wrote in 1992, “Basquiat’s work is as complexly coded and oblique, as passionate, as technically sophisticated, as intellectually daring as a saxophone solo by Bird or Coltrane.” Even for the uninitiated, such elements are readily apparent.

Basquiat’s celebrity was, of course, significant in his own brief lifetime. Easily surpassing the standing of both Julian Schnabel and Keith Haring, he was one of the brightest stars of the 1980s art world at a time when contemporary art was gaining marquee status. He dated Madonna (apparently repossessing and painting over works he had given her after she broke up with him). And he was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine.

But in recent years, his fame has become stratospheric. He has been name-checked by Jay-Z and Nas, and at auction his paintings have fetched some of the highest prices ever commanded. In 2017, Untitled (1982) was sold for $110.5 million, at the time the highest price ever paid for a work by an American artist and still the highest price ever paid for the work of a black artist. Yet it has been ultimately through merchandizing where Basquiat’s stardom has been the most evident.

Gap, Amazon, Urban Outfitters, Uniqlo, and Old Navy sell clothing featuring his artwork. Three different footwear companies have offered Basquiat additions in recent years. There are keychains, throw pillows, iPhone cases, scented candles, and a Basquiat edition of Uno.

For deep-pocketed consumers, WACKO MARIA, Valentino, and Coach have released Basquiat-branded items. As Coach’s creative director Stuart Vevers told Essence in 2020, the artist “embodied the creative, inclusive spirit of New York and was a force for change in his community. I am proud to celebrate his work and values and help bring them to a new generation.”

And herein lies the problem. Sanitized and caricatured by corporate marketing schemes, Basquiat’s work has been defanged. Today, Basquiat the artist has become Basquiat the brand.

. . . .

In 1982, he held his first solo show at Nosei’s gallery, notoriously selling out the first night. Art dealer Bruno Bischofberger introduced Basquiat to Andy Warhol that same year, a collaborative relationship that would further propel Basquiat’s stardom. When Warhol died in 1987, it reportedly affected him considerably and he began using drugs more heavily. He died of an overdose in 1988.

While Hebdige certainly isn’t wrong to assert that Basquiat’s formally complex work resists facile interpretation, the themes of exploitation, racism, and imperialism are nevertheless explicit in many of the pieces. Numerous paintings — though typically not the ones licensed by Walmart — evocatively explore race, framing contemporary racial inequality through the longue durée of racial violence. Untitled (History of the Black People) (1983) references both the Egyptian and Atlantic slave trades. Taxi, 45th/Broadway (1984–85), dramatizing Basquiat’s own experience of being unable to hail a cab, depicts contemporary conditions of racial inequality.

. . . .

The contemporary branding regime not only largely obscures these critical aspects of Basquiat’s paintings, it also occludes the contested nature of his work in the context of the art world. Indeed, many of the things Basquiat’s art is now seen to epitomize — originality, authenticity, iconoclasm, and the vibrant, bohemian world of 1980s New York — are aspects that many of his early critics were eager to dismiss as affectations. That Basquiat holds immense critical standing today largely follows from critics’ efforts to oppose the racialized dismissals of his work and his legitimacy as an artist.

In a 1988 article, Robert Hughes saw the artist as nothing more than a dilettante. Basquiat, he argued, was “a small, untrained talent caught in the buzz saw of art world promotion, absurdly overrated by dealers, collectors, and, no doubt to their future embarrassment, by critics.” For Hughes, Basquiat’s success was a product of critics’ search for “a wild child, a curiosity, an urban noble savage.” As for the art itself, Hughes merrily cast it as “a run of slapdash pictorial formulas” with “mostly feigned” brio. In his acid New Yorker article from four years later, “Madison Avenue Primitive,” Adam Gopnik similarly portrayed Basquiat as a poser, a “corny” and “derivative” artist who gets by on an “ersatz primitivism.”

Yet, just as there were critics ready to dismiss Basquiat and accuse their colleagues of reverse racism, there were others who recognized the significant critical work being done. In 1993, bell hooks, writing on a Basquiat exhibition held at the Whitney, observed that he “takes the Eurocentric valuation of the great and beautiful and demands that we acknowledge the brutal reality it masks.” Moreover, instead of seeing pure egoism and braggadocio in his work, as he is often understood today, hooks identified the layered meaning of his depictions of wealth and status: “Fame, symbolized by the crown, is offered as the only possible path to subjectivity for the black male artist.”

Link to the rest at Jacobin

Jean Michel-Basquiat, Untitled (1982).

PG has always been intrigued by the style of a great deal of written art criticism and reviews. Here’s an excerpt from a review of a 2005 retrospective exhibition of Basquiat pieces at the Brooklyn Museum. It’s not clear whether the author had ever actually met the artist who had died almost twenty years earlier.

Of course, Basquiat saw plenty of stories as well, especially in modern art. And they, too, have a way of shifting into the present tense. Word painting derives from collage, and any combination of ego and facility recalls Pablo Picasso. However, Cubism dismantles vision, along with the distinction between painting and citation from the past. Basquiat imports words and images into a single field of paint.

A confrontation of word and male image also makes me think of Pollock before drips, as in the pretend arithmetic of Man and Woman. However, Pollock in his thirties was still seeking the Jungian unconscious. Basquiat is daring the conscious viewer to deal with the facts.

His performance was far too much a one-man show, but his present tense lives on. His reputation did fall for a while after his death, which may explain why the retrospective draws most often on private collections built, no doubt, in a headier climate. The show can afford to pick and choose where Basquiat would not, but far too much appears thoughtless and repetitive nonetheless. It does not, however, look irrelevant. The dead ends of a short life and a short-lived East Village scene have acquired new meanings.

The same black serves for text and drawing, like the mix of words and images so prevalent in painting now. The focus on “attitude” extends to photography now—and not only in the inner city. Women today portray themselves as conscious, proud, dangerous, or hurt. Cecily Brown or Chloe Piene could well be using Basquiat’s scratchy line, fierce color, and assumption of a white, male audience. One can see him as the missing link between Cy Twombly’s classical repose and a woman flat on her back. One can see him as the bridge between the eras of Jungian and drug therapy, with all the attendant gratifications and side effects.


PG is feeling more than a bit Jungian himself at the moment. He’s decided that it’s a good time for him to reconnect with his deep feelings, thoughts, and beliefs in this very moment so he can to get back in touch with his unconscious mind to see how it’s doing.

He will note that such intense Jungian exercises frequently lead to him falling asleep for awhile.

So he’ll make a couple of additional posts and let his unconscious mind hang out by itself for a bit.