February 2020

Arts & Letters

Stopped in the street: ‘Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines’

By Quentin Sprague

Untitled (Pollo Frito) [detail], 1982, by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Private European collection, courtesy of John Sayegh-Belchatowski © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Early death meant the work of these renowned artists never fully emerged from ’80s New York subcultures

Basquiat, Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic of the young American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, is bookended by a visual metaphor that would seem trite if not handled so earnestly. Early in the film, Basquiat, played by a young Jeffrey Wright, looks up at the jagged canyon of New York City’s skyline. He’s still a relatively unknown graffiti-adjacent artist bumming around the East Village, young and hopeful. Against the sky he sees a surfer paddling wildly to catch a cresting wave. Later, the promise has vanished; fame has all but eaten the artist alive by the time the camera captures him wandering unsteadily through the city in the final stages of what will prove a fatal heroin habit. He’s only 27. He stumbles, appears lost; a crashing wave soon overcomes the scene. Wipeout.

There are many factors that played into Basquiat’s untimely death, but Schnabel, who before becoming a filmmaker was one of the most successful American painters of the 1980s, squarely implicates the art market among them. There’s nothing new in this – Basquiat is often held up as a cautionary exemplar of a particularly 1980s-style boom-to-bust mentality that inflated reputations and prices overnight – but it nonetheless points to the not insignificant challenge of assessing the work left in the wake of such a short and meteoric career. Can it be read on its own merits, separate from the perfect storm of money and hype that in part created it? Can it be seen free from the myth?

In some quarters, the answer in Basquiat’s case has always been a resounding “yes”. The Whitney Museum of American Art honoured him with a retrospective in 1992, just three years after he died, and while there are plenty who see him as little more than a product of hype over substance, in recent years the acclaim has only risen. But although the museum shows have continued, some nonetheless look (seemingly without irony) to the art market for further proof: his auction record, set in 2017 for an untitled 1982 painting, stands at US$110.5 million.

Now, with an exhibition pairing the artist with his friend and sometime collaborator Keith Haring, the National Gallery of Victoria is on board too. But if a more conventional museum survey might be expected to draw the work away from the circumstances that created it, isolating selected “masterpieces” on unadorned walls, Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines, guest-curated for the National Gallery of Victoria by Dr Dieter Buchhart, seeks something else. The two artists came from the same underground scene that boiled over at the intersection of music, club culture and graffiti: it’s here, in the social dynamics of the time, that Buchhart aims to locate their works. Much of it is celebratory, but there is also an unavoidable sadness to the venture. Haring also shone brightly and briefly: he died only two years after Basquiat, at 31, taken not by drug addiction but by AIDS, as one of the many gay artists of his generation (David Wojnarowicz and Félix González-Torres, for instance) whose potential was tragically cut short by the disease.

Basquiat is clearly the better artist of the two, at least on the merits of the work alone. It’s perhaps no coincidence that he was the one to strive most fully to reach beyond the scene that birthed him, to be granted acceptance not only in the streets and clubs of 1980s New York, but in the finest of that city’s high-end galleries. (Haring also made the transition, but he seemed far more intent on bringing the club scene into the gallery; Basquiat seemed intent to leave it behind.) But to view their work together is to understand the culture of the day more fully. And what a culture it was. Graffiti was moving at speed from the street to the worlds of art and fashion; so too were hip-hop and new wave. Fame, particularly the 15-minute Warholesque variety, was in the air. Figures such as the recently crowned pop-princess Madonna (she and Basquiat briefly dated) were regular patrons at venues like Club 57 and CBGB.

All this echoes in the work of both artists. Basquiat most obviously draws from the pastiche and sample-heavy culture of hip-hop and early dance music, but the blunt energy of both forms (think Melle Mel’s “White Lines”, from 1983, a snippet of which soundtracks a short film projected in the exhibition) similarly underpins the flat and busy line paintings of Haring. Ideas such as the sample, the cut-up and the remix recur in the exhibition, but as compelling as it is to see the period lionised, there’s also a clear risk to the approach. Foregrounding the exuberance of the scene is also a kind of mythmaking: it too can risk obscuring a clear view of the work itself.

Haring undoubtedly engaged with the defining issues of his time. His best painting in the exhibition is a mural-scale anti-racist screed titled Prophets of Rage, from 1988. But it’s Basquiat who suffers most from the exhibition’s approach. His work was always cut through with a sharper edge. From the very beginning he actively inserted himself into a broader cultural lineage, which included other black American figures in whom he saw something of his own narrative, whether it was the unnamed hobos from whose visual lexicon he drew, or complicated icons of music and sport, like Miles Davis and Sugar Ray Robinson. The son of a well-to-do Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, he, like Haring, was an upper-middle-class kid, but his colour meant he was acquainted with struggle. It was said that even at the height of his fame, when he dressed in Armani suits and carried thousands of dollars in his pockets, he would have to hide while his white girlfriend hailed a cab. He was infamous as a bad boy of American painting, but this too, it seems, was an oversimplification. His early muse Suzanne Mallouk recalled after his death that his “crazy behaviour had nothing to do with being an enfant terrible. Everything he did was an attack on racism …” It’s this that separated him from the 1980s scene with a resoluteness that Haring, on evidence of the NGV exhibition at least, never quite achieved, nor perhaps truly sought to the same degree.

It’s surely a fool’s errand to wander through one exhibition and picture another, but it’s at times unavoidable. Some will view Basquiat’s paintings at the NGV and think of other well-known black American artists, either from the same generation or later, who take racism not only as their subject, but as a kind of defining crucible of American identity: figures such as Kara Walker, or David Hammons, or the incendiary Pope.L. It’s a perspective that gestures towards another exhibition entirely, one that’s not only harder and more provocative, but also more timely given the tenor of America’s current political discourse (not to mention its unsettling parallels here in Australia).

But there’s also another, simpler, reason to cast one’s mind beyond Crossing Lines. With any artist whose life has been cut short, one can’t help but imagine what could have been. A late painting of Haring’s – an intriguing oddity from 1989 titled Walking in the Rain – suggests that a departure from his street-art background was ahead, while a number of the later works of Basquiat are among the best in the exhibition. Subcultures of the kind that flourished in ’80s New York perform an essential function: they cushion groups of like-minded people from the vagaries and injustices of the outside world. Artists have always found sustenance in such contexts, but for many it’s only when the scaffold of the surrounding scene falls away that their most singular work is made.

As the booming 1980s art market that carried both Haring and Basquiat to fame gave way to the following decade, both were only just getting started. If nothing else, Crossing Lines displays how productive each of them was – a combined outcome of the frenetic energy of the art market and of the scene itself – but what remains is nonetheless a snapshot: compelling and evocative, sure, but ultimately a small window shut well before its time.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer. His first book, The Stranger Artist, won the 2021 Prime Minister's Literary Award for nonfiction.

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