I stepped out of the elevator at the High Museum of Art and was greeted by a wall with small bios on two influential artists of the 20th century. I was attending the press conference for the Jean-Michel Basquiat and Vik Muniz art exhibition which opened to the public February 28. Before being able to read the information so craftily painted on the walls before me, my eyes were immediately drawn toward the Jean-Michel Basquiat quote painted above twenty-two pages of his “Unknown Notebook” exhibition. It read: “The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings. I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them.”
As a student who currently takes AP Art History and frequently visits the High Museum of Art, I can attest that the art world reserves most of its admiration for Eurocentric art. It was a welcomed surprise to see the High, a museum best known for hosting collections of European paintings and American art from the 19th and 20th Century to hold an exhibition featuring a black artist that not many are aware of (FYI: The High does have more than 500 pieces of African Art in its permanent collection in the museum’s lower level). While walking around the exhibition, three bodies of work in particular crafted by the hands of Jean-Michel Basquiat stuck out to me.
Unknown Notebook, 1987
Written on a sheet of paper from his composition notebooks, this is my favorite piece by Basquiat. It reads: “Love Is A Lie. Lover =Liar.” Even though the line was featured in his notebook from the year of 1987, it is still a common motif in the modern art age and is embedded into many people’s personal lives. There is little variety in the way Basquiat wrote the lettering, as all of lines he wrote had a similar handwriting. There’s a sense of unity among this body of work in comparison to the other pages from this notebook. The pages in the notebook all feature the same iconic imagery that can even be seen in his later works of art. This piece calls upon the many relationships Basquiat had in his lifetime. During the age of his street art movement and Madonna’s rise as a singing star, the two had an affair. The quote “Love Is A Lie. Lover =Liar” could possibly be attributed to the fallout he had with his long-time girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk (which, in turn, led to the creation of a piece that highlighted a catfight between Madonna and Mallouk). Even though their relationship was not quite ideal, Madonna not only served as his muse, but also motivation for him to act on his urges to paint in the middle of the night.
Untitled (Return of the Central Figure), 1983
Crafted on silkscreen, this is not only one of Basquiat’s largest pieces, but one of his most iconic and recognizable works. Implemented throughout the painting are text-image drawings that speak to Basquiat’s expressionist style, a style that ventures into the culture that was dominant in the early 1980s. While looking at this body of work, I took note of a small pyramid that was drawn underneath some words. This could be Basquiat’s way of paying homage to his close friend Keith Haring, an American painter who created many contemporary pieces focusing on social justice issues such as sexuality and HIV. Also located in this image is the term “despotism,” which is defined as the exercise of absolute power done in an oppressive manner. It is no secret that Basquiat held an unorthodox perspective toward politics and the government. This can also be seen in his painting, “Irony of the Negro Police,” which displays his opinion that a Negro policeman is a ridiculous position to have. Overall, the “Return of the Central Figure” speaks to many social issues that often fall under the radar.
Untitled (Ideal), 1988
The work of Basquiat often spotlights the obstacles he faced as a black man in a world that only seemed to admire the works of white men. His “Untitled (Ideal)” is his perspective of him being an artist of his time and reminded me that the term “Ideal” was motif in previous paintings.
Despite being viewed as a modern Van Gogh (an artist who receives greater recognition for their art after their death), Basquiat was able to create art that is now held in high regard by those who are able to now take in all of his masterpieces. Whether it be from his work as a guerilla artist, to his admiration for work that incorporated chaos, he is rightfully regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.