Thursday, April 9, 2015

Jean Michel Basquiat and the Joy of Original Sources

Recently my local PBS station aired Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film Basquiat.  I had never seen it before but after watching it, I wanted to do a little digging into the movie’s subject.  Jean-Michel Basquiat occupies a near-mythic position in the art world and it’s hard at times to separate the art from the man.  Over the years, Basquiat has become the poster child for the excesses of a live fast and die young lifestyle, and I think that even today discussion of his celebrity equals or outshines discussion of his art.  Was he always seen this way?  I wanted to go back and explore how Basquiat was viewed and talked about before he died.  How did his contemporaries feel about him?  I decided that a good source to re-visit wasRené Ricard’s essay entitled “The Radiant Child.”  Not only was it written by someone who knew him, it’s also one of the first in-depth critical responses to his art.

René Ricard was a critic and poet, and aspects of his relationship with Basquiat play into the myths and legends that continue to surround him to this day.  For example, it was supposedly Ricard who told Basquiat “I can make you a star”, bolstering the narrative that Basquait was a special and unique breed of artist who was destined for greatness (this exchange is featured in Schnabel’s film, where Ricard is played by actor Michael Wincott).  Ricard’s essay was written at a time when Basquiat’s career as a professional artist was only a few years old.  He had been known as a graffiti artist for a while, but his foray into fine art was still evolving.  Would Ricard’s essay be a gushy promotion of Basquiat’s art, or something else?  I had never read it before, so I didn’t know what to expect.  After reading it, I feel that “The Radiant Child” functions today as a fascinating glimpse of how Basquiat’s career was changing perceptions of what could constitute art in the 1980s.

The article first appeared in the December 1981 issue of Artforum.  What surprised me most about the essay perhaps is that even though the article is most closely associated with Basquiat’s career, it discusses other artists as well.  It’s so associated with Basquiat today, by the way, that a documentary on him produced in 2009 was called The Radiant Child even though that title comes from work made by Basquiat’s contemporary Keith Haring.  Basquiat is talked about at length in the article for sure, but other artists are mentioned and discussed in an effort to place graffiti art squarely within art historical practices.

The goal of “The Radiant Child” is not to only bolster Basquiat’s career, but to place him within a history of art making that was evolving outside of the traditional art museum and art education system.  Basquiat is held up as an exemplar of that movement, but he is part of a movement that also includes other important artists.  Basquiat (as well as Haring and Judy Rifka) are the artists who were transforming graffiti art into in to fine art.  In Ricard’s words:

“Artists have a responsibility to their work to raise it above the vernacular. Perhaps it is the critic’s job to sort out from the melee of popular style the individuals who define the style, who perhaps inaugurated it … and to bring them to public attention.”

-René Ricard, “The Radiant Child”, ArtForum International, December 1981

That statement really brings into focus that reasons why Ricard saw Basquiat as so transformative.  He came from the realm of street art, but his paintings weren’t just re-creations of his graffiti tags.  They referenced graffiti art, but looked like works of art that belonged in an art gallery.  Again, Ricard says it best:

“…what the pictures are internally about is what matters. If you’re going to stand up there with the big kids you’ve got to be heavy, got to sit on a wall next to Anselm Kiefer next to Jonathan Borofsky next to Julian Schnabel and these guys are tough they can make you look real sissy. There’s only one place for a mindless cutie and it ain’t the wall, Jack”

I love that quote because it gives a pretty good sense of Ricard’s voice.  He abandons art speak at this point in the article and addresses would-be graffiti artists in the vernacular of the 1980s.  It is here where he lays out his thesis for the entire article (and perhaps for the whole graffiti art movement):  You can come from the streets, and you can try to move from painting on a wall to painting on a canvas, but your work has to say something.  Just writing your tag (a “mindless cutie”) on the wall isn’t going to cut it.  Basquiat’s paintings didn’t look like his graffiti.  They included aspects of graffiti (writing, symbols, etc.) but aimed to transform it into something else, perhaps something that’s hard to describe.  Ricard basically says that Basquiat’s art is important because it looks like art.  Far from being a bit of pretentious critic-speak, saying that it “looks like art” is an effort to place Basquiat within art history.  He might not have had the same training as someone like Anselm Kiefer, but he created art that can be discussed and interpreted the same way. 

The article, as it appears in the December 1981 Artforum

When I set out to read Ricard’s article for this post, I wanted to go right to the original source.  You can read it on-line (Artforum has itavailable on their website), but so much is missing there.  For starters, the artwork that Ricard uses to illustrate the essay isn’t there, making the text seem kind of sterile.  As mentioned above, Ricard doesn’t only discuss Basquiat in the article.  He also mentions Alain Jacquet, John Ahearn, and Joe Zucker, among others.  Examples of their work are reproduced in the original article along with documentation of some of Basquiat’s street art.  But, one wouldn’t know this from reading it on-line (the only way one can access the article as it originally appeared is by having a paid subscription to Artforum- not cheap by the way).

So, I went to my campus library and found the original issue.  Picking up the actual magazine and leafing through it shows me so much more about the art world in 1981 than the on-line version of the article ever could.  Mainly, the article is given context that can be experienced in a very tangible way.  On Artforum’s website, the article is presented alongside every other article without a sense of chronology.  The magazine, however, is a snapshot of the early 80s.  The articles, along with gallery advertisements and exhibition reviews, give a clear picture of what was happening at that moment.  One can flip through a year’s worth of old magazines and chart an artist’s success (or failure).  Artists who were lauded in their time might be forgotten today, but conversely an artist who received little attention when they first started showing their work could be much celebrated now.

When I was studying art in college, old magazines formed a large part of my education.  In breaks between classes I would flip through the bound collections of magazines in the library, watching decades of art making unfold before me.  Seeing everything side by side matters, and that’s something that gets lost on the internet.  Devoid of context, Ricard’s article loses its immediacy and impact.  Today we know that Basquiat became a star, but in 1981 that wasn’t so certain.  In the pages of that magazine, Ricard makes his case for including Basquiat among the greats, a poet extolling the virtues of an artist who was not yet a household name.  It was that magazine, that physical object, where someone might have learned about Basquiat for the first time.  One can travel to the past, in a way, through these old sources.  On-line, stripped of its illustrations and jockeying for attention with all the other articles Artforum presents on their website, this is lost.  The article’s importance gets buried in a sea of data.

Next time, a new topic.  It might be something you've never heard of (or read).

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