W.T.G.A.: Bacon vs Basquiat
The art world has never seen anything like them, before or since. Both of their work exposes a nerve and breathes with raw vitality. What on the surface appears to be slapdashery actually on further investigation reveals a surgeon’s precision. For two artists who received no formal training they are in complete control of their materials. One was born from the ashes of World War II and the other from the urban street art scene of NYC. In their lifetimes, both men wrestled with addiction and sometimes could be swept under by its weight. They never pulled their punches, they embraced their outsider status and could somehow wring the beauty from the ugliness of the world. Both their legacies have changed the face of art forever, but who is the greater artist?
They say that if you have a dream that all your teeth fall out; that you are worried about an issue in your life that is out of your control. According to dream logic; teeth represent power. No one knew this better than Francis Bacon, he was fascinated by teeth; actually the whole mouth in general. The mouth is the gateway into our insides. We can greet people with a smile or ward them off with a snarl. We can laugh or scream. In the paintings of Francis Bacon, it is that silent scream that we hear above all others.
The sound we hear from Basquiat is that of a myriad of words all spoken at once; poetry applied to the canvas, scrawled on and then crossed out. It is stream of conscience word association that acts as the mouth of the artist. It lets us in then spits us out again. Basquiat began his career with words as the graffiti artist SAMO. He reacted to the city he lived in by writing social commentary onto its walls. Text became a visual element that he carried with him throughout his career.
As Basquiat fragments words, Bacon fragments visual space. Often times in his paintings, two objects can occupy the same space combining to create a symbiotic entity. People and things seem to penetrate one another leaving them altered. Bacon sets his narratives into a world that is both flat and has depth all at the same time. There is a dramatic quality to his players that seem to find themselves performing for the viewer in an unforgiving arena. His subject matter can seem very harsh, but then he baths his paintings in vibrant flat fields of brilliant colour that radiate beauty. He entices and repulses in equal measures.
Unfortunately throughout their careers, both artists experienced the ugly sting of bigotry. It is hard to fathom that even as late as the eighties that some people had a hard time accepting a black contemporary artist. Throughout his career, Basquiat experienced many obstacles in being recognized by the art community as a serious painter. His radical style was too extreme for many and misinterpreted as naive. His freshness and freedom eventually prevailed but the pressure he felt throughout his career may have contributed to his short time with us. In the end, Basquiat refused to be marginalized as a novelty act and wore his much deserved crown with pride.
Considering the idiotic resurgence of homophobia the world is now experiencing we are reminded that prejudice is still alive and well. Francis Bacon didn’t hide his homosexuality in real life or his work in a time when that was not the norm. He helped to break down barriers and provide a much needed voice . His life was laid bare on the canvas. A few years ago while touring the Vatican I walked around a corner and came face to face with Bacon’s Study for Pope II from 1961. Considering Bacon’s sexual orientation flies directly in the face of the Catholic Church along with the fact that the majority of his Pope pictures show the pontiff in less than a flattering light, I find it an odd choice for inclusion in their holdings. I guess art trumps all.
Basquait’s star burned brightly and attracted the attention of many in the New York art scene including Andy Warhol. What tragically turns out to be the end of Andy’s career, the two artists did a series of collaborative paintings together sharing the same canvases. Although none of their combined pieces ever rose to the height of their individual works, the juxtaposition of Andy’s mechanical process with Basquiat’s expressive touch was quite complimentary. They developed a strong friendship through their partnership. The two would speak daily on the phone to one another and Andy was concerned with Jean’s drug abuse and health. In 1987 Andy’s untimely death due to complications from a routine surgery really hit Basquiat hard. Less than two years later, he too would die suddenly, this time of an overdose at the age of 27.
Basquiat’s career was ended before it really got started. He accomplished an incredible amount in a very short time. His painting instincts were always immaculate. You can witness the act of painting on his canvases and relish in his choices. All his paintings are masterfully executed but I would be hard pressed to find a definitive masterpiece among them. We never got a chance to experience him at the full height of his powers. Bacon has the advantage here by default. He had the opportunity to develop. One look at a painting like Study for a Head of George Dyer and you can see an extraordinary technique and touch that has been cultivated and honed over decades. Bacon’s legacy is impressive, as is Basquiat’s. But in the end, we are left with only one question: poor Jean-Michel, what might have been?