Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"You were born in the era of pop culture.
"Your life was full of drama.
"Your mother was institutionalised when you were still a child.
"You left when you were fifteen."
As someone who never had a great appreciation of art of any sort (other than the sequential variety of course!) in my younger days - and still struggle with pretty anything one would describe as pre-modern, being completely frank - I can personally say the work of Jean-Michael Basquiat had quite the impact once I finally discovered it.
That was through the 1996 arthouse film also entitled simply enough, 'Basquiat'. Ironically, I only watched it because I had heard David Bowie was portraying Andy Warhol which I was intrigued to see. Bowie gives a great performance, actually, but a young Jeffrey Wright (who has since graced many a Hollywood film and big TV show) totally engaged me as the doomed young street artist.
What completely blew me away, though, was seeing Basquiat's neo-expressionistic art, or 'ignorant art' as he himself refers to his early works in the film. I'd never seen anything quite like it, much like New York in the late '70s and early '80s, where he swiftly became lauded as an emerging artistic genius. By August 12th 1998, however, he was dead, aged just 27, of a heroin overdose.
This work, cleverly narrated by a character from one of his most iconic paintings entitled 'Flexible', seen here as a kind of extension / reflection of Basquiat, tells us some of the key points from his all too brief life. The starting point being his recuperation from being knocked down by a car aged 7 when a gift of 'Grey's Anatomy', a frankly seemingly bizarre choice of gift for a small child from his mother (though as mentioned above she ended up being institutionalised), sent his artistic curiosity into overdrive.
This work has quite an unsettling feel to it, in part due to the surrealistic, narcissist narrational conceit and also due to the intentionally primitive yet vibrantly alive art style which is all perfectly in keeping with the mercurial nature (and art style) of the man himself.
I think Basquiat's chaotic, unstable upbringing, which led to many questionable, indulgent, selfish, destructive and certainly immature life choices, clearly had absolutely everything to do with his artistic output. Consider the following quotation, which prefaces this work, then look at his art, and you'll see immediately what I mean...
"I don't think about art when I'm working.
"I try to think about life."
If I can fault this work in any way, it would be that it doesn't get into an evaluation of Basquiat's art. I guess that's not necessarily the purpose of a biography per se, but to me, the theme of "suggestive dichotomies" that ran through much, if not all of his prodigious output, explains so, so much about the man in its own right.
One is also minded to wonder what he might have gone on to create and just how huge he would have become culturally if he had lived even another ten years. But as fellow acclaimed street artist Keith Haring wrote as part of his eulogy, "He truly created a lifetime of works in ten years. Greedily, we wonder what else he might have created, what masterpieces we have been cheated out of by his death, but the fact is that he has created enough work to intrigue generations to come. Only now will people begin to understand the magnitude of his contribution."
Very true, very true. Hopefully this work will inspire other individuals to investigate Basquiat's art and make up their own minds and, who knows, perhaps even begin to create some art of their own.
Also available in this SelfMadeHero series and reviewed: GAUGUIN, PABLO (Picasso), VINCENT (Van Gogh), MUNCH.