Jean-Michel Basquiat – “It’s About 80% Anger”

There was a time I thought Andy Warhol could have been a little more careful with his paint application.  And I thought Jean-Michel Basquiat was a talentless scribbler.

Installation View
Jean-Michel Basquiat at Gagosian
Untitled (L.A. Painting), 1982, on right

Which is only to say that I remember them alive and working, and that I spent much of my earlier life being stupid.

When Andy Warhol, who had a life-long fear of hospitals, died in one unnecessarily while his private nurse slept on duty, my heart broke a little for the sad irony.  And when Basquiat died the following year, of heroin and his own Warhol-broken heart, his art finally came alive for me.

Basquiat, In Italian, 1983
Basquiat, In Italian, 1983

Today I count myself lucky that from the societal margin of my high school and college days I lived a little bit of the Warhol era.  Today if someone compares my work to Warhol’s (unless what they’re saying is something like, OMG Andy Warhol would have hated your work), my heart sings.  No one compares my work to Basquiat’s, but I wish my work were good enough to encourage that.

Basquiat, Untitled, 1981
Basquiat, Untitled, 1981

Warhol, who was born the same day as my father, died in 1987 at the age of 58. Warhol’s reputation was long established – he was a game changer, an art-world phenomenon, and a genius at self-promotion.  But all of that only mattered because the art was genius, too.

Basquiat died at 27 in 1988.  He had been a street kid with a natural talent whose comment on his own art was, “It’s about 80% anger.”  The raw emotion of his work has not only stood the test of decades (this year will mark the 25th anniversary of his death), it still has an immediacy that is fresh today.

I am just back from Gagosian’s Chelsea Gallery, where more than 50 Basquiat works have been put on display.  (–february-07-2013)  Although the opening was last week, the gallery was packed.  And room after room after room are full of Basquiat’s anger, his scribbling mark-making, his comments on racial inequality, and his amazing, stunning use of color.  What courage it must have taken him to pour out his soul in the face of criticism and the fickleness of “experts”.  It is not just the paintings that make me want to cry, it is the story of the lost boy who gave us so much and then gave up on life.

Basquiat,Untitled (Two Heads on Gold), 1982
Untitled (Two Heads on Gold), 1982

For me, Basquiat and Warhol are forever friends and collaborators – the influence of each obvious on the other.  The influence of each obvious on me and on artists everywhere.

3 thoughts on “Jean-Michel Basquiat – “It’s About 80% Anger”

  1. Great art is often like hearing the perfect conflict ending or conflict summing comment from one of the participants; and so often, with that perfect comment and summary of the events, the artist turns around and walks out the door, leaving us to ponder their words after they’re gone.

    • My favorite quotation about this is from a John Baldessari painting that is in the Yale Art Gallery. It is called “Solving Each Problem As It Arises”:
      It can be subject matter of a religious nature, a scene in a foreign country. Whatever the subject, the professional artist makes exhaustive studies of it. When he feels that he has interpreted the subject to the extent of his capabilities he may have a one-man exhibition whose theme is the solution of the problem. It is surprising how few people who view the paintings realize this.

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