A roman candle whose arc over the New York art world blazed all too briefly, Jean-Michel Basquiat died from a heroin overdose when he was 27. The son of Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, he came of age in the early 1980s when New York was still a center of creative ferment, and neoexpressionism was ascendant. But Basquiat was also very affected by Southern folk art, as this resonant exhibition curated by Franklin Sirmans for Prospect.3 makes clear. Here his emotionally charged style may recall the inchoate fury of disturbed self taught visionary artists, but he was crazy like a fox, and the polar paradoxes found in his work--for instance, violence and the sublime--recall the Afro-Caribbean parables of his ancestors. Consequently, his interweaving of fierce emotional energies has as much in common with voodoo or jazz, as it does with the expressionist legacies of Europe and America.
Exu, a Macumba spirit of the crossroads, above left, is a vortex of eyes, spears and slashing yellow and crimson brush strokes within which we see the snarky demon himself leering amid the chaos. Dating from 1988, Exu is one of Basquiat's last works but recalls his early days as a grafitti artist. Zydeco, top, a vast, wall-size painting, is more lyrical and harks to Louisiana's Creole-Cajun heritage as an accordion-playing figure appears amidst an array of vintage audio-visual equipment that resonates a cryptic mythic significance. Also vast is King Zulu, his wall size 1986
opus featuring a grinning, tragicomic black-man-in-blackface mask
floating in a field of blue flanked by horn playing jazz musicians,
perhaps a reference to Louis Armstrong's reign as King Zulu in 1949. As
iconic as Giocometti figures in shades and zoot suits, they seem to almost hover around the mask as we sense an
invisible system at work. Similarly, his anatomical expressionist work, Back of the Neck, above, presents us with a visionary universe of symbols that may only be fathomed intuitively and never cerebrally, in what may amount to Basquiat's final, unspoken challenge to late 20th century culture. ~Bookhardt
Basquiat and the Bayou: Paintings and Works on Paper by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Through Jan. 25, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600. Left: Untitled (Cadmium), 1984, by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
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