Saving Basquiat: Seeing the Art Through the Myth Making at Gagosian
by Ben Davis, 2013
With over 50 paintings, “museum-quality” is probably the term you’d use to describe Gagosian’s Jean-Michel Basquiat show, which has been drawing rock-star crowds to West 24th street since it opened. But really, it might be better to call it “warehouse-quality.” The show is overwhelming and difficult to write about, partly because there doesn’t seem to be any idea behind it at all; the works are hung neither by chronology nor by theme. They are merely a spectacularly impressive collection of largish Basquiats from a number of private collections. In this way, the show replicates the tragedy of this artist’s short and chaotic life, where the feverish buzz of celebrity came to overpower any assessment of the works as individual objects.
Basquiat’s art is brimming with life — he worked fast, and painted everywhere, on everything around him — and it owes much of his continued cachet to the enduring legend of its unfiltered immediacy. But if you look closely, what you will see is that they are records, almost every one, of an almost crippling self-consciousness. These paintings are allegories, not just about race in general, but of Basquiat’s own
troubled status caught between communities, in a web of expectations that he couldn’t meet. Indeed, if you read them right, his works are actually a scathing indictment of the very audience that adopted them so eagerly, and of the fame that came to kill him.
Take a work from the Gagosian show like “Eyes and Eggs” (1983). It shows a tortured-looking figure with black skin, in Basquiat’s piquant expressionist style. (His figures, in general, have all been submitted to the scrutiny of some fiery X-ray machine, deformed and torn apart, teeth and ribs showing through flesh, genitals isolated.) The man’s smock bears a nametag that reads “JOE.” He is holding a skillet, and in it are two frying eggs, their blood-red yolks rhyming visually with the glaring sockets in his skull, as the title indicates, as if to suggest that he were actually serving an omelet of his own eyes. Such a work is not just of the baleful impact of the “gaze” — that standby of cultural criticism — but of something more complex: The figure is both subject and object; he is taking his own vision, his own perception of the world, cooking it up, and serving it up for his patrons to consume. ( . . . )