Basquiat at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris
Jean-Michel Basquiat belongs to a group of artists that quickly came into their own voice and prowess as an artist, but only produced work for a brief time before an untimely demise. Tomasso Masaccio, Egon Schiele, Franz Marc, Eva Hesse, and many more belong to this unfortunate club, too. However, since he passed thirty years ago, Basquiat still feels as fresh and relevant as ever. A new comprehensive exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris illustrates the sweeping and vast body of work this artist was able to create in just a decade.
This is an expansive exhibition, even by the sprawling standards of the Fondation Louis Vuitton. Curated by Dieter Buchhart, this show follows a fairly traditional style of chronological and thematic layout. However, the work is anything but standard. Over 120 works by Basquiat have been assembled to explore his oeuvre with a comprehensive lens. One major theme here is Basquiat’s assessment of race. Outrageously, he was the first African-American to ever achieve canonical status and instant celebrity. So, when growing up, the artist was deeply aware of the absence of people of color represented in art. Works like Irony of a Negro Policeman and Slave Auction directly confront both the subtle and blatant forms of racism that black bodies experience not just in America, but across most of the Western world.
Basquiat’s knowledge of both art history and street art (he was formerly known as the graffiti artist SAMO© in the 1970s) also led to works that were layered in references. During a time when figurative work was truly out of style, Basquiat decided to do anything but minimalist. Picasso, Rembrandt, Da Vinci, and Warhol can all be seen here through stylistic cues or appropriations. Varied mediums coexist in the works, too. Basquiat practiced collage, painting, printmaking, drawing, and assemblage. Basquiat wasn’t just limited to visual art, but music as well. His paintings reference jazz and soul musicians, and the artist frequently collaborated with musicians during his life.
All in all, this is a dazzling and emotional exhibition. It combines the classic hallmarks of Basquiat: brash color and brushwork, searing social criticism, and innovative uses of materials and styles. However, one cannot help but feel the melancholy in the galleries. Basquiat was only 27 years of age when he died of a drug overdose. Considering how resonant his work still feels- especially in this political moment -you have to wonder what he could have produced.