Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Boys from a Lost Generation

Jean Michel Basquiat

Keith Haring

Keith Haring Untitled 1982
enamel and dayglo on metal
Collection: Keith Haring Estate, New York

IT IS NEARLY thirty years since the post-punk explosion of art, music and media onto the streets of New York. The hip hop and graffiti cultures had been established at the beginning of the 1970s in a City already bankrupt, – it had required Federal financial assistance – and where the divide between rich and poor was never more pronounced. Between 1970 and 1978, the city spent over $52,000,000 trying to clean up the explosion of street art, deemed vandalism by the authorities. The Transit Police had made over 7000 arrests that were graffiti related. It was a moment in social history where Charles Bronson’s Death Wish (1974) violence gave way to Gordon Gecko’s Wall Street (1987) excesses. Mid-term, 1980, John Lennon was shot dead – on these mean streets not even legends were sacred. During this period of nimiety and flux in New York, a breed of young contemporary artists emerged that were to embody the zeitgeist of the decade and tragically, to mirror the crash and burn ethos of a culture which acknowledged no parameters. The counter-culture of the late 70s and early 80s evoked a tribal energy that blazed across the creative arts with a ‘can-do’ attitude sourced from despair, resolve and comic book heroics. Two of these artists have been celebrated and sewn together, if for no other reason than both died tragically young: Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Both were outsiders who crossed over to become feted by the mainstream artworld. They were friends, but in fact were very different artists with totally different perspectives.

In 1978, Keith Haring arrived in New York from Pennsylvania and a secure family background. It was a city alive with alternatives. The East Village and Soho had exploded with new galleries and music venues, most would burn out like butterflies after making their mark on art historical folklore – or not. Haring has often been categorised as a graffiti artist at this time. In fact as this book makes clear, his was a comparatively refined street art even then. He had spotted the blank, blackboard-like panels on the subway that awaited the advertising poster paste-up man. Using white chalk, he drew his stylised, totemic pictograms with a rapidity and fluidity that amazed his contemporaries and the travellers who stood by to watch. Haring had already schooled himself in art history and Tony Schafrazi remembers him confiding how, at the age of 15, an exhibition by the CoBrA group had made an indelible impression. Other influences, Haring noted in his journals, were Matisse, Debuffet, Christo and above all Pierre Alechinsky. Haring was no stranger to hallucinogenic drugs either, LSD was both popular and common at this time, and the art of the psychedelic poster also became a strong influence on his colour sensibility.

After a spell as a ‘go-for’ at the Tony Schafrazi Gallery, he got his first one man show in New York there in 1982. The ‘radiant baby’ icon, and the zoomorphic and anthropomorphic pictograms, were an immediate success and already familiar to an audience via the street works. Solo shows across the world followed on (Tokyo, Antwerp, Naples, London, Cologne, Milan) and Haring became regarded as a mainstream art star. However, the whole 57th Street cognoscenti didn’t sign up for the crusader from the world of hip hop. This was a time when high profile painters had a serious careerist agenda and could (and did) articulate their personal positionings with force. Artists like Schnabel, Baselitz, Lupertz, Clemente and Fischl seemed far removed from Haring’s social activist, gay rights and AIDS awareness public manifesto. Haring’s financial success enabled him to exercise his beliefs in the accessibility of imagery. Like Warhol (a friend and ally) with his Factory concept, Haring opened Pop Shop in New York (1986) and Tokyo (1988) selling cheaper versions of his art as prints, T-shirts and ephemera. This, and his work for Absolut vodka and Swatch watches, caused outrage and accusations of ‘sell-out’ at the time. By today’s standards, it seems truly visionary. Endearingly, Haring never lost the ‘Buddy Holly’ looks noted by Tony Schafrazi at their first meeting back in 1979. When he died of AIDS in 1990 aged 31, Keith Haring had become an industry. His friend and associate Julia Gruen maintains his estate to this day, true to the ethical stance of an artist who wanted art for all and the destruction of the concept of highbrow vs lowbrow art.

This Skira book, whilst technically a catalogue to an exhibition sponsored by Chrysler, is an absolutely outstanding example of the modern, illustrated biographical art book. Large format, magnificent and extensive colour reproductions, with a collection of incisive, highly readable texts by those most conversant with the artist (as opposed to the usual monotone, single critic essay). Authoritative contributors include Jeffrey Deitch; Julia Gruen; Arturo Schwarz; Fernanda Pivano; Tony Schafrazi; etc. It offers dual English-Italian texts and is a shining example of clear and fluent design.

Jean Michel Basquiat started life in New York City, born in Brooklyn in 1960, but left for Puerto Rico at the crucial age of 12 when his father, an accountant, was transferred to Mira Mar near San Juan. Much was later to be made of Basquiat’s imaginary street kid credentials by the media, but in fact his upbringing was decidedly American middleclass: his father Gerard, a Haitian professional; mother, Matilde, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican parents; two sisters; and a comfortable home in suburban East Flatbush. Matilde Basquiat was a consummate museum goer and JMB was a regular visitor to the Brooklyn Museum, Met and MoMA.

In 1976, the family returned to New York and JMB attended Manhattan’s City-as-School, a special institution for gifted and talented kids who did not fit into the traditional school system. It was here JMB’s productive association with multi-discipline graffiti artist Al Diaz began to expand his creative horizons. 1979 was a seminal year for JMB, not yet 20. He began a friendship with Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf and, crucially, was introduced by Mudd Club buddy Diego Cortez to Henry Geldzahler. Over the next two years, JMB contributed to significant group shows, notably New York/New Wave in 1981. Subsequently, Annina Nosei offered to represent Basquiat and provided a studio space in her basement. This in turn led to Rene Ricard’s highly complimentary essay in Artforum. JMB was launched with his first American one man show at Nosei’s Manhattan gallery in 1982. As 1983 drew to a close, Basquiat’s meteoric rise to celebrity seemed unstoppable. Now close to Andy Warhol, with whom he had a natural affinity; a girlfriend who was an editor at Interview magazine; signed to a Bruno Bischofberger/Mary Boone pact and exhibiting across the world.

But what a difference a year makes. Basquiat’s sense of roots and indentity were the subject of much self scrutiny. He was submerged in a predominantly white commercial artworld where power and money ruled the pecking order (true friend Annina Nosei had soon been outgunned and her ‘discovery’ seduced away). The death of black graffiti artist Michael Stewart, following a police arrest, had disturbed him greatly, but these ‘street’ concerns seemed light years away from the ‘me-me’ society he now inhabited. Basquiat’s drug taking was out of control according to close friends, and his subsequent, acute, paranoia was tellingly aimed at his dealers. His new girlfriend, Jennifer Goode, was unable to get him clean.

In 1985, a cover story for the New York Times entitled New Art New Money: the Marketing of an American Artist seemed to have a subtext that was incompatible with Basquiat’s sense of his own integrity. Between 1986 to 1988, the artist visibly disintegrated, whilst across the international art community, the trade in his works carried on remorselessly. The sudden death of Andy Warhol in 1987 devastated Basquiat. Warhol had seemed to understand Jean Michel’s alienation and cultural schizophrenia. Alone, without the much loved Jennifer Goode who had been defeated by the drug abuse, all attempts to detox came to naught. The headline news of 7th August 1988 – Artist Basquiat dead at 27 – was no surprise to the New York art milieu.

From Skira, this, in association with Credit Suisse and the Tricino Canton, makes a first class job of presenting JMB’s short career. The publisher’s trademark format – presenting a collection of authoritative essays and high quality full page reproductions (also included here are double spread fold outs) – is ideal to communicate the pulse of the New York artworld of the 80s. Editor Chiappini is director of the museums of the City of Lugano and he has assembled texts from Archille Bonito Oliva; the late Henry Geldzahler; Bruno Bischofberger; Luciano Caprile; RD Marshall; Jeffrey Hoffeld; a concise biography by Gaia Regazzoni and catalogue data by Luca Marenzi. Again, although technically a catalogue like the Keith Haring publication, this book is at the high end of artist monographs – and in particular represents excellent value for money.


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