New Yorkers have an emphatic cause for celebration: Jean Michele Basquiat (1960-1988) has come home. Fifty-nine of his exquisite paintings, all created in under a decade and mostly on loan from private collections, have been corralled into the Gagosian Gallery on W. 24th Street, in the heart of Chelsea. The oversized gallery space is reminiscent of an airplane-hanger. If Basquiat were a musician, this would be his arena show. Thousands of fans can now congregate and search for Basquiat's lost soul, one symbolic image at a time.
At the age of 15, the young artist made the streets his sketchbook. Along with his friend Al Diaz, he developed street poetry under the copy written moniker SAMO, as in "same old shit." Phrases like "SAMO FOR THE SO-CALLED AVANT GARDE" began appearing in 1976 and abruptly stopped once Basquiat declared "SAMO IS DEAD" within a few years. By 1981, he was showing in galleries all over the world, where collectors locked horns for paintings that in some cases, weren't even finished. It was a meteoric shower of success, disrupted by Basquiat himself, when a heroin overdose on August 12, 1988 ended it all.
Basquiat's work operates like a volcano: explosive, glowing, and mesmerizing. His paint is lava. Uncontrollable, unwavering, unpredictable. His path on the canvas is untraceable, but it's clear that he was there. A perfect mess, creating an evenly-weighted see-saw. With aesthetics on one end, and personality on the other, the paintings are suspended in perfect balance. Basquiat lived recklessly and painted fast-n-loose. But with the highest regard for the message. The harmony of seeing his work in person comes from our own restlessness being acknowledged.
Two Heads (1982) depicts a newly acquainted Basquiat and Warhol. Broad, swift strokes of black, tan, light blue, and mint are hurry together in this double portrait. The story goes that when Basquiat had his first visit with Warhol at The Factory, they took Polaroids of one another. An hour and a half after leaving The Factory, Basquiat completed this painting and dispatched his assistant to give it to Warhol. I'm not sure what you can accomplish in an hour and a half, but this might set some abstract bar of motivation.
If you can get past the hurried paint application, and the messiness of the artist's own footprints on the canvas, the sun rises. His drawing sensibilities are remarkable: there's the twisted shape of a foot, the impossible posture of a hand, and the incomprhensible depth of a moving bicycle. What's most irreverent? His color combinations. Bold and brave, the colors are untamed, giving each work it's own vibration and inconsolable temper.
His paintings are anything but the same old shit. Being in their midst is being in his midst: magnetic, electric, noisy, volcanic, and spiritualized.
Basquiat's last extensive show was held in 2005 at the Brooklyn Art Museum, a retrospective of over 100 works. Few and far between are the opportunities to see so many of his miscreant paintings together, collectively causing a beaming raucous. Boom, for real.