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An Outsider's Look At Jean-Michel Basquiat

To many, Jean Michel Basquiat is a mystery; his art, his persona, his cryptic messages he tagged all over NYC. To anyone unversed in art
history, his paintings come across as either child-like or genius. As one
artist put it in the movie, “Modern Art A Complete History”, to be a genius is
to be a child all over again, whenever you need to be one. Jean Michel was
certainly a prodigy, by the age of twenty-seven, upon his death, he had left
the world with his modern art opus, a collection of brilliant yellow, blue, and
black, multi-colored paintings and a hodge-podge of unusual word art.


A fine example of his talent is “Arroz Con Pollo”, a witty and striking painting done
in his trade mark style of paint layers, skeletal figures, and seemingly random
scrawls in black and red. His genius is evident in not only his choice of color
contrast, but also his unique composition. Two figures stand beside each other,
one holding her breast, the other a black painted skeletal shape looking off
the canvas, casually holding a platter with a well-drawn cooked chicken with
steam coming off of it. A touch of wit is shown by a fork floating in mid-air
right beneath the chicken. The right side corners are a light red and forces
the viewer to rotate their attention around the painting. Nothing is empty,
every piece is vibrant, from the well-formed figures to the abstracted black
lines creating a border-like aura.


Some people called him an outsider artist due to his lack of academic training, but
this blogger disagrees. According to his Wikipedia file, Basquiat spent many
hours roaming about the New York Art Museum since he was a youth. This would
give anyone a good grasp of art tradition, and with Basquiat’s natural affinity
for the arts, these masterworks must have imprinted themselves in his mind’s
eye.


Another factor which might have affected his work was his mother, who encouraged his
artistic abilities before becoming ill from paranoid schizophrenia. From my
readings of schizophrenia, I have found that it is common for those diagnosed
with this illness to speak cryptically. It is apparently an extension of an
internal reality that nobody else perceives. I am not saying his word art is an
artistic expression of his mother’s illness and influence, but her sickness may
have affected his perceptions as well, as is the case for healthy relatives of
a person with schizophrenia.


At the time of his death, he had achieved fame, recognition in the Art World, and
financial stability. Some might say that he died too young to be ranked with
the top artists like Picasso, but his art speaks against this. His creativity
in his compositions, color choice, meaning, and image representation is
entirely original. While we will never know how he might have developed had he
lived longer, we will always have his images of his early genius. True genius
knows no laws. True genius can be found in the very young, the very old, the
sick, the healthy, the professional and the outsider. That is the beauty of genius.
One encounters it and it is as surprising and delightful as a child finding an
Easter egg in an unlikely spot.



Post-script: I was at Barnes and Nobles, purchasing a small copy of “Basquiat”, a collection of his art along with critical essays. The
cashier had not heard of Basquiat. She took one look at the cover art (Untitled
Head) and exclaimed, “What is this drawing? Painting?” She had to know! “Painting,
it’s Basquiat,” I told her. “It’s cool,” she said, holding the little book up
to eye-level, not even scanning the price, just staring at the book as though
time had frozen. Behind me, people in line shifted. I smiled, feeling grateful
to the Cosmos for giving me the chance to reveal Basquiat to a new person,
someone who reacted with instant curiosity and intrigue: that is the beauty of
Jean-Michel Basquiat, his ability to capture our attention time and time again,
for generations to come.



Here are some books that are interesting to read:


Basquiat edited by Mark Meyer publisher: Merrell Publishers Feb. 2010


The reviews are not positive for this book (cheap reproductions) but it’s affordable and a good beginner’s guide.


Schizophrenia Genesis by Irving I. Gottesman: W. H. Freeman; 1 edition (September 15, 1990) An in-depth
look at the illness of schizophrenia. A little technical but it’s fascinating
and okay for the lay-man. I found a copy at Fresno City College library.


Basquiat: the Movie 2002 release date starring Jeffrey Wright. I love this
soundtrack and the actors are top-notch.


There is a new book coming out in October about J.M., it can be
found on amazon:


Jean-Michel Basquiat by Buchhart, O’Brian, Basquiat, and Pratt.
Hatje Cantz publisher coming out October 31, 2010 for the low, low price of
40.95. Buy it if you can, the reviews are positive on amazon!



Thanks for reading!


A.P.

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Comment by Emily Redondo on September 9, 2010 at 12:15pm
Nice post, thx
Comment by SIN on September 9, 2010 at 11:36am
Awesome post! I love this guy. I do own a few of his books, including the children's book he illustrated. Thanks for the post. I recently compared an artist to him. He is similar in person.

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