Why Basquiat Is More Relevant Than Ever

'He'd certainly have some very strong opinions about what's happening right now'

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Don't call it a comeback.

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Photo: Getty Images

But Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Brooklyn-born enfant terrible of the '80s art scene is enjoying an incredible resurgence right now. From the stellar retrospective at Toronto's AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) museum aptly titled "Now's The Time," to Brooklyn Museum's exhibit displaying the artist's notebooks (if you're visiting New York in August, consider it a must-see) for the first time, to the constant name drops in Jay Z's lyrics, to the Reebok capsule collections that feature his work, it's safe to say that Basquiat is the man of the hour. Why? Much of the renewed interest in Basquiat (and the increased visibility of his work) can be credited to Dieter Buchhart, the Vienna and New York based multi-hyphenate (artist, curator, and historian) who curated both the Toronto and Brooklyn exhibits. (Fun fact for you art fanatics: he also organised the beyond dope Keith Haring exhibit in San Francisco this past fall, "The Political Line.") Here, we catch up with Buchhart to talk to about Basquiat, the '80s New York art scene, and what Basquiat would think about the national conversation around of Blackness, inclusion, and police brutality.

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The Brooklyn Museum is displaying Basquiat's notebooks (image left) for the first time. Why are they important?
He developed his thoughts there, but he didn't stop there. The pages themselves are artwork. For instance, his "Famous Negro Athletes" series—there are different versions of this, he didn't do just one. In the notebook pages, you can see this. In a sense, the whole of Basquiat's oeuvre could be seen as a diary and a notebook: All of the works, including the actual notebook pages, are linked and have comparable status as independent artworks. Both as objects in their own right and as models for his word-based work in other mediums, his notebooks link Basquiat much more to artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Joseph Beuys, Hanne Darboven, Alighiero Boetti, and Joseph Kosuth than to the Neue Wilden or Neo-Expressionists with whom he usually is incorrectly associated. There has hardly been an artist who has renewed the history of artistic practice with drawing and the word in such a radical way.

Basquiat's enjoying an art world resurgence at the moment and it seems like he's everywhere, from Jay Z lyrics, to sneakers, to the Brooklyn Museum. What do you think is going on culturally that makes him so relevant now?
Several things. With the artistic material, the way he works, his use of paint, there is a way that he works–collaging–that really reflects our time. It's a relation that opens up portals, referencing, that's really similar to having many Internet pages open on the browser. His way of working with Black masculinity, racism, colonialism, police brutality; these are very topical themes and no one really works with those themes the way he did. And he's a great source of inspiration for artists and not just graffiti artists. He's subjected to artistic analysis by other artists.

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In the States, we're having these national conversations about Blackness, inclusion, and police brutality. What do you think Basquiat would have thought of this?
He experienced racism on a daily basis. He couldn't get a cab. If he were walking on the sidewalk, people would change the side of the street, so he'd certainly have some very strong opinions about what's happening right now. When he was talking to [art critic] Henry [Geldzahler], he said that 90 percent of his work is about anger and that pressure finds itself in his work. You see body parts, heads cut off—it's very strong. His work is brutal.

Photo: Getty Images

One thing that I noticed in the Toronto show was how political Jean-Michel was. Do you think people miss that reference and energy in his work?
Yes, often. People try to put him in a pop or Neo-Expressionist context, but it's not. You can go into the works in Toronto, which is why we organised it by themes, which are political. Again, the themes in his work reflect the tension in society and what's going on. He is much more a Concept artist then a Neo-Expressionist.

Millennials reference the '80s and '90s art scene quite a bit–Keith Haring, Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, Fab 5 Freddy. Do you still see that kind of energy in New York? Is it even possible with gentrification?
The energy is different, no question. But the beginning of the 1980s in New York was worse, so it was cheaper. But with the new ways of communicating and connecting, it's just hard to compare the times. However, the New York art scene, especially Brooklyn, is very good and young. But you're never going to get back to that war-zone-like scene in New York, though one could argue it's happening in Detroit.

Speaking of Millennials, a lot of us know Keith Haring and Basquiat's work because of the way that their art has intersected with commerce. As an art historian, how does that help you track what the public thinks of those artists and how does it affect their place in art history?
Merchandising does not affect their place in art history. The work doesn't become less because you reproduce it. Now, it's actually helpful to have mass reproductions because it's so hard to catch people's attention. It might even be an advantage especially in the post-Internet time. The span of attention of people is so short and so hard to catch that you can hardly evade a visual branding even for the greatest in art history. The permanent repetition of a visual is one way to achieve the necessary public attention.

Are there any Basquiat sneakers coming out anytime soon? My collection needs an update.
I don't know, you'd have to ask Reebok about that.

From the editors of ELLE.com

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