Ever since the Greeks ran things in the western world there’s been a fine line between graffiti as art and graffiti as senseless juvenile vandalistic crap – a stroll down just about any street in any city will supply ample evidence of that. It’s unlikely though that those who dared to leave their mark on the walls of ancient Athenian streets later became painters whose canvasses commanded prices of upwards of $3 million. That’s of course what happened with some of the works of the world’s most famous graffitero-turned-collectable artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose pieces form the show’s backbone. But Street and Studio, showing through October 10, is about a lot more than rebellious graffiti and illicitly created murals, and ventures well beyond the legendary rise and self-destructive fall of the young neo-expressionist who died from a heroin overdose at 27.
The show chooses 1980 to begin its focus – the year before, New York graffiti artists Lee Quinones and Fab 5 Freddy were invited to exhibit in Rome – a year when the urban styles and their stylists were thriving, when hip hop culture was on the verge of exploding, and the art market on the edge of inflating out of any reasonable control.
In an adjacent room, Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 low budget cult classic, Wild Style, the first hip hop film, is screened continuously. From another, Blondie’s Rapture (Basquiat made an appearance in the video) loops quietly in the background. All things considered, an appropriate soundtrack when getting lost in the late Ramm:Ell:Zee’s Gothic Futurism, or exploring the contemporary world of Montreal-based duo, Seripop. I particularly enjoyed the few pieces from Jenny Holzer‘s Survival series: ‘Savor kindness because cruelty is always possible later’, and ‘I Am not free because I can be exploded anytime’. (Holzer, originally from Gallipolis, Ohio, is a fellow Ohio University alum). Today’s street artists will appreciate the pieces by Xavier Prou aka Blek le Rat, the Godfather of the stencil graffiti that has proliferated in all corners of the globe over the past three decades.
But it’s Basquiat, the “primitive” who captivated the decadent and greedy 80s art scene in his native New York, that dominates. In hindsight, it’s easy to see why. The rising art stars of the time were as much engrossed in themselves as they were in their work. Toss in Basquiat’s story, that of an extremely talented self-taught high school dropout with a destructive penchant for heroin who slept in cardboard boxes and on park benches in Washington Square Park, and you have the makings of a game-changer for the monied early 80s crowd. His close friendship with Andy Warhol adds an intriguing subplot to the narrative. As did his self-professed desire to become rich and famous.
On an artistic plane the chord he struck was very real. Raw, edgy and hyperkinetic, with a great talent for using color, his critical acclaim and celebrity were not unwarranted. Simply put, the world had never seen anything quite like it. He quickly became a commodity but couldn’t quite manage the strength to make it all last. The title of an unauthorized biography published a decade after his overdose, ‘Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art’, is apropos. So was the headline of the book’s review in The New York Times: Hyped to Death.
For further exploration, a couple great Basquiat links: PlushSafeHeThink, a very good info resource, and New Art, New Money, a 1985 piece in the New York Times on the mid-80s art scene in general, and Basquiat in particular. PlushSafeHeThink also has a reprint in full of the 1981 Art Forum story, The Radiant Child, which propelled Basquiat into the wider consciousness.
And a short video clip of Street and Studio: From Basquiat to Séripop via theartview: