Painter In The Fast Lane

The Village Voice discovered Jean-Michel Basquiat when he was 17, spraying epigrammatic graffiti on Soho buildings under the tag of SAMO. When he was 20-and already hot, hot, hot-the art dealer Annina Nosei let this self-taught painter and club-crawler use her gallery basement as his studio. ("I'd have to make eight paintings in a week, for the show the next week," Basquiat later complained.) In three years he went from sleeping on friends' couches to staying at L'Ermitage and dining at Mr. Chow's during frequent visits to L.A., his faux-primitive paintings selling for tens of thousands of dollars. And when Basquiat died, in 1988, at 27, from a cocaine-heroin overdose, it seemed to be an epitaph for the overheated '80s art world, already sinking in excess. Obviously, there's a pretty good movie here. But the immediate question is, what kind of retrospective exhibition does it make? Until Feb. 14, 1993, New York's Whitney Museum of American Art is trying to address that question (before shipping the show on to Houston; Des Moines, Iowa; and Montgomery, Ala.).

Basquiat became the emblematic artist of the '80s because he got so famous so fast, with so little art training and so little restraint. He was also black. That fact puts a special spin on the subject, especially at the Whitney, where sculptor David Hammons protested the museum's overwhelmingly white exhibition record by doing the unthinkable for an unbankable artist-declining to be in the Biennial exhibition in 1991. Director David Ross, who's been criticized for playing it safe in his two years at the Whitney, says, "I loved [Basquiat's] attempt to come to grips with who the black man was." He even refutes Basquiat's own bitter comment that he was a "mascot." Ross says the artist wasn't "the pet of the art world, but a fighter." And in the show's impressively designed catalog, Yale professor of art history and African-American studies Robert Farris Thompson injects a note of racial superiority: "When Jean-Michel gets going... [white abstract painter Cy] Twombly's creams and grays vanish in the maelstrom of Afro-Atlantic vividness."

And a maelstrom this show is, sort of. Basquiat's brief career merits only one museum floor, but to prove he was no fluke means cramming it with about 90 works. It's a kind of virtual-reality Basquiat head trip: it's hard to tell where one painting leaves off and the next begins. Almost all of them are festooned with words and feature a skull-like face. Basquiat's touch with paint and economy with drawing are impressive. In pictures like "Irony of Negro Policeman!" (1981), his racial commentary is searing. Basquiat's torrential pop literary references will provide dissertation fodder for the next century and beyond. And he was a remarkably prolific artist despite-or because of-the contraband fuel in his tank.

But Basquiat's work as a whole is less art brut than art cute. Where Jean Dubuffet (one of his influences) crushes figures into crusty road kills, Basquiat turns his into almost decorative little glyphs and sticks them into nicely boxed compositions that are no scarier than an episode of "The Simpsons." Basquiat reaches too far afield for too many words and symbols to appropriate. (A typical fault of the self-taught artist is having too many unedited ideas rather than not enough.) The effect is like piping an AM talk show into the gallery. And, in the 1984-85 collaborative paintings he made with Andy Warhol (at the behest of a big-time Swiss dealer), both artists are at their worst-Basquiat nervous and Warhol leaden.

What if he hadn't died, the art world asks. What if he'd had a blue period, a rose period and long, quiet years in Nice or St. Croix? It's useless to speculate. Better to ask, what if Basquiat's work had been truly brilliant in a single dominant aspect--color, composition, density of words, political anger-instead of merely good in all of them? As it is, says Kinshasha Conwill, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Basquiat was "one of many [black artists], not the most talented, not the least talented." But in the '80s, the most notorious. The tragedy is that, the way Basquiat played it, notoriety won out in the end.