Tag: Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now is the Time at the AGO


Oh the eighties, what a decade; a decade of excess – “Everything counts in large amounts.” From the hair to the shoulder pads to the laser discs, everything was bigger and bolder in the eighties and the art market was no exception. The stock market was booming, Japanese investors fell in love with everything Impressionism and art became a status symbol along with an appealing place to invest your money. In the seventies the highest price paid for a piece of art at auction was 5.5 million for a Velasquez. The eighties would shatter that record repeatedly with paintings going for 10 times that amount. Van Gogh‘s Irises was the big winner but everyone benefited from the trickle down effect. Contemporary art of the time reaped the most rewards. If you can’t afford a real Van Gogh, how about a Van Gogh in waiting. Nobody wants to be the one who passed on overlooked genius. Collectors and dealers were ravenous for the next big thing and many artists of the eighties both cashed in and were cashed out because of it.

Number 4  1981

Number 4 1981

This was the climate when a 20 year old Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) took the art world by storm, burned bright, started to fade and then was dead only 7 years later. 27 years after his death, The Art Gallery of Ontario is staging the first major retrospective of his work in Canada entitled: Now is the Time. They have assembled an impressive collection of roughly 85 works consisting of both paintings and drawings spanning his entire career. Unfortunately his entire career was a mere 8 years long, cut short by a drug overdose. It begs the question – what could have been? He is now and forever: a young talent never allowed to fully develop as an artist, eternally suspended in a decade of contradictions.

A panel of Experts 1982

A Panel of Experts 1982

The major contradiction that can be observed about the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat is that it can be misconstrued as simplistic, childlike or poorly executed by the casual observer; when in fact he is in complete control, a savvy and clever draftsman who orchestrates what he decides to put down or omit. (He would intentionally cross words out to draw more attention to them.) Basquiat is a self-taught artist whose compositions are constructions comprising of expressionistic flourishes of paint, wordplay, sketchbook drawings and iconography. They are all done with a sense of urgency and an almost disregard for themselves that make them crackle with energy. Now is the Time does a wonderful job of channeling that energy.

Quality 1983

Quality 1983

Part of that crackle I believe comes from Basquiat’s roots as a street artist. He started on the streets of New York as a teenager spray painting social commentary on the sides of buildings under the name SAMO. Graffiti by its nature is a speedy process that translates in his technique and onto his canvases.  The early eighties saw the first big boom for the gallery system to adopt street artists with Jean-Michel and Keith Haring being the standouts. As much as Basquiat was initially brought in as a street artist, his influences also included Picasso, Jean Dubuffet and the Art Brut movement along with mark makers like Cy Twombly. His art is steeped in art history along with what was going on in New York at the time. Throughout his career he employed a cut and paste sampling approach to composition not unlike early hip-hop records of the time.

Horn Players 1983

Horn Players 1983

Basquiat was heavily influenced by music – especially jazz. He embraced it for both its improvisational qualities as well as where it fits into the story of black history. Music and professional sports were two avenues afforded to young black men to improve their stations in the racially biased society of the mid 20th century. These are motifs he returns to again and again throughout his career and Now is the Time (which is a Charlie Parker reference) does a wonderful job of highlighting this through the inclusion of many works and accompanying commentary. Race and racism also factor into the work of Jean-Michel. Being among only a handful of recognized black visual artists at the time, he was in many ways a lone voice using his art to draw attention to the inequalities inherit in the system.

Black Soap 1981

Black Soap 1981

When it comes to assessing the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. No one piece leaves me gob-smacked but seeing so many works together provides the proper breath and scope of what his contribution was. Over the course of his brief career he created 1000 paintings and 2000 drawings, not all with the same results. In some cases his critical filter may have been impaired by the drugs along with the huge market demand that he constantly repeat himself and not allowed to fully develop made the work suffer. One of his dealers at the time notoriously would sell his works as the more desirable “early Basquiats” (1981-1984) as opposed to the “late Basquiats” (1985-) while he was still alive. Some feel that he may have been exploited by an art world that only saw dollar signs.

Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat Win $1 000 000 1984

Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat Win $1000000 1984

An artist that was no stranger to dollar signs was Andy Warhol. In the mid eighties the two artists struck up an unlikely friendship and collaborative practice. Critics accused Andy of using Basquiat by riding on his popularity and getting his name back in the headlines.  Its obvious by looking at their 4 collaborations in the show that the two are having fun and their relationship was based more on friendship than business. Of the many works they did together the juxtapositions are kind of interesting but mostly fail to live up to either of their solo work.

Now is the Time does a nice job of surveying the work of an artist who was gone way too quick. Make sure to make your way to the Art Gallery of Ontario to feel that crackle, if only for a brief moment.

Feb 7- May 10


W.T.G.A.: Bacon vs Basquiat

bacon vs basquiatThe 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?


Francis Bacon Three studies for figures at the base of a crucifixion 1944

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.


Jean-Michel Basquiat Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown) 1983

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.

Bacon Study for a Bullfight #1 1969

Francis Bacon   Study for a Bullfight #1 1969

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.

Advantage: Bacon

Jean Michel Basquiat Trumpet 1984

Jean-Michel Basquiat Trumpet 1984

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.

Francis Bacon  Triptych Studies from the Human Body 1970

Francis Bacon Triptych Studies from the Human Body 1970

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.

Jean Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol Arm and Hammer II 1985

Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol   Arm and Hammer II 1985

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.

Francis Bacon Study for a Head of George Dyer 1967

Francis Bacon  Study for a Head of George Dyer 1967

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?

Winner: Bacon

6 Degrees of Harry Potter: Part II


Time to connect the dots once again. This is a little exercise I like to call 6 Degrees of Harry Potter. You’ll notice this is part II, you can find part I here. Last time we ended off with Dumbledore himself Michael Gambon so that’s as good a place as any to start.

I really wanted to start with his involvement in the BBC series The Singing Detectivewhich is a brilliant piece of writing. Gambon plays a cantankerous writer of crime fiction who has a horrific skin ailment and finds himself at the mercy of others while confined to a hospital bed. On the series, he starred opposite to Joanne Whalley who was in Willow and Gossip Girl among other things. This was a very tempting path to venture down, but then I recollected that Mr. Gambon also shared the screen with non other than the great Bill Murray in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Murray channels his inner Jacques Cousteau to captain a vessel of oceanographers in search of the elusive Jaguar shark. The film showcases Anderson’s trademark set-pieces, quirky dialogue and some odd little stop motion sequences. Willem Dafoe plays Murray’s insecure second in command. He also has a small cameo as an electrician in Julian Schnabel’s Basquait.


I’m not a fan of Schnabel’s art whatsoever, but I like a few of his movies. Basquait tracks the short explosive career of graffiti art-star Jean Michel Basquait. (I am on the other hand, a big fan of Jean Michel’s art.) The New York art world during the eighties is the backdrop for this tragic true story. The atmosphere of the film is electric and the performances are compelling. David Bowie as Andy Warhol is priceless. Along with the thin white duke, the cast includes Jeffery Wright, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper and Benicio Del Toro.


Del Toro also plays the drug addled lawyer Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas alongside Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson. Depp developed a tight bond and friendship with Thompson while preparing for this role. He lived with him at his house – Owl Farm for several weeks trying to better understand the writer. After days of hard living, Depp would retire to the guest bedroom to read and have a smoke before sleep. On one occasion, Hunter popped his head in to say good night and casually commented that Depp may want to extinguish his smoke. Turns out, the end table he had been using all along was actually a barrel full of gunpowder. The film never really captures the mad genius of the book or its author but Terry Gilliam does a decent enough job.  


Crazy is also an underlying theme in Gilliam’s The Fisher King. It is a delightful little gem of a film that plays to everybody’s strengths. Robin Williams plays a broken man after the death of his wife and Jeff Bridges plays a shock-DJ down on his luck that feels compelled to help him.


Jeff Bridges is also of course  The Big Lebowski. A  film that truly gets funnier every time you watch it. The follow up to the critical darling Fargo; it didn’t make a huge splash on its release but has since gone on to achieve cult status. There is even a shop that is all things Lebowski called the Little Lebowski  located in Greenwich Village NYC. The film has it all: bowling, kidnapping, the Coen brothers, whale sounds, conceptual art, German nihilists, a Busby Berkeley dream sequence, a Vietnam vet, a rug that really tied the room together, Jesus and Steve Buscemi.


Steve Buscemi plays Nucky Thompson on the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire. He is a ruthless gangster at the top of a bootlegging empire during prohibition in Alantic City. Martin Scorsese and Mark Whalberg share producing credits. Nucky’s wife is played by Kelly Macdonald  who also played the ghost of Helena Ravenclaw in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II.


And so goes another 6 degrees of Harry Potter.

Who’s the Greatest Artist?


An impossible question to answer, a very controversial proposal, a polarizing proposition, a can of worms wrapped in a barrel of monkeys, but why not throw it against the wall to see if it sticks.

Here ladies and gentlemen for your contemplation is the bracket and its combatants. (If you are offended by the premise of pitting our artistic maestros against one another, let me remind you that when it comes to competition; the arena of art is essentially the Colosseum.) Just like the ancient Romans who would throw any two things together to see who would win: bears vs lions, giraffes vs tigers etc, I have assembled a who’s who of radically different styles.

Choosing the artists was a very daunting task. There are some no-brainers along with a few perhaps surprises. I can already hear the criticisms: “How can you include Basquiat and not include Ruebens?” When mining the entirety of art history:  the artists I did not include breaks my heart. People that almost made the cut: Titian, Giotto, Vermeer, Mondrian, Joseph Beuys, Caravaggio  Artemisia Gentileschi, Bridget Riley, Miro and on and on. You’ll notice that the bracket rests heavily on the dead white man western side of things. This aspect I do regret, but I feel history has conspired against us in this regard. We are slowly making amends for this in the twenty first century by broadening our millennial-long narrow mindedness and finally becoming more inclusionary. You will also notice that no living or contemporary artists made the show. I believe time is the greatest critic of art and we haven’t gotten back far enough to see their whole picture yet.

The artists I did choose I believe most people would concede their place here among some of the greatest of all time. (I realize there is noway to satisfy everyone.) I did try to put together some unlikely and highly contested match-ups. It’s really hard to find sparing partners for Da Vinci and Michelangelo; Renoir’s cute flower girls would be no match.

But how to ascertain who is the superior artist, there must be parameters. The artists will be judged on: historical significance, masterpieces, innovation and influence, technique and overall impact.  Over the course of the summer I’ll be weighing the titans of art against one another in a series of posts to eventually crown a winner. Any and all suggestions are welcome in the comments.

This idea was formulated by looking at the search terms on my WordPress dashboard. Last year about this time, I wrote a review comparing the Picasso show at the AGO with the National Gallery’s Van Gogh exhibit. I entitled the piece Van Gogh Vs Picasso, and it was meant to compare the two shows, not the two artists. Over the past year I have noticed quite a few search queries that read Who’s better Van Gogh or Picasso? It is like people out there are asking the great genie that is the internet to tell them who is the greatest artist of them all…..I’m no genie but I know a fun challenge when I see one.


  Related posts:

W.T.G.A.: Picasso vs Rembrandt

W.T.G.A.: Goya vs Rothko

W.T.G.A.: Dali vs Warhol

W.T.G.A.: Da Vinci vs Duchamp

W.T.G.A.: Bacon vs Basquiat

W.T.G.A.: Cezanne vs Kandinsky

W.T.G.A.: Velazquez vs Van Gogh

W.T.G.A.: Michelangelo vs Matisse