Basquiat and the Black Art World, 1993

A Day At the Races, Lorraine O’Grady on Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Black Art World

© Artforum International Magazine Inc. 1993*

O’Grady’s column on the occasion of Basquiat’s first retrospective, at the Whitney Museum, was the first to examine Basquiat’s relation to the black art world. It discusses her personal relationship to Jean-Michel and analyzes the mainstream art world’s “primitivist” responses to his work.

Projecting an endearing combination of self-effacement and plantation cynicism, Shacquille O’Neal, the #1 NBA draft pick, said in a recent TV profile, “I’ve got three different smiles: the $1 million smile, the $2 million smile, and the $3 million smile.” It went beyond playing the game: with a $40 million contract and limitless prospects for endorsement, O’Neal was a winner. His situation seemed to shed light on the art world’s own black-player-of-the-moment. For there is no doubt that the most bizarre aspect of the recent Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art was its aura of sport. Analysis of the work was put on hold, pending results of two different horse races.

First: could Basquiat’s prices hold with this much exposure? Answer: yes. The match race between Basquiat and Julian Schnabel continues. At the big New York and London auctions following the opening, Schnabel’s best was $165,000; a Basquiat made $228,000. His prices are at 50 or 60 percent of the earlier bull market and steadily rising. His work has become more, rather than less, financially interesting now that its obsessions with colonialism,

creolism, and history can be plugged into the market’s three-year-old concern with multiculturalism.

Second: would jamming 100 pieces together help or hurt his critical reputation? Answer: maybe; the air still hasn’t cleared. But he certainly wasn’t done in. Initially, the gushing catalogue may have been checked by the vitriol of a Robert Hughes. But getting the contending views out, like piercing a boil, seems to have eased the way for tougher thinking. In the end, the gradually changing perceptions of a Roberta Smith, from “savvy imitation” and “illustrational stylishness” (1982) to “roiling, encompassing energy” (1989) and on to “a distinct form of visual speech” and “one of the singular achievements of the 80s” (1992), stand to gain credibility.

Still, there was something embarrassing about all the hysteria, including my own. It was an uncomfortable reminder that more was at stake than a game. (At some point between the Greeks and the free-agent clause, sport gave up its pretense to a cultural meaning beyond narco-catharsis.) The barely submerged violence for and against Basquiat was a sign that even the ’80s ( … )

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