Basquiat and Modern Art

I've always liked good art, especially modern art.  I don't know anybody else that had a Picasso poster up in their college apartment, along with an M.C. Escher print.  They were next to my posters of the Clash and the Beatles. 

Some of Picasso's portraits are really cool because every day they look different.  Some days the subject looks sad, some days they appear to be angry, or happy.  I don't like everything he did, but some of his paintings are just amazing.  So colorful and complex.  It's almost like there is an optical illusion built into some of them.

To me, he really is THE guy for modern art.  He had so many different periods where he changed his style.  And there's so much of it, too; the guy was prolific.  His bold but simple lines are deceptive.  I always thought he put a lot more effort into them that it appeared, because it just looks so perfect to me.  Almost child-like, but almost like an alien at times, too.  A very unique artist, and among the first to become a superstar in his field while still around. 

Most importantly, there is a real humanity that cuts through it all, and over the time that has passed since he made them.  More than once I've just stared at some of his work in a gallery and felt a strange, emotional feeling come over me.  A very moving experience, that "hair on your neck standing up" feeling when something really connects.

To have something hanging on a wall silently creating this effect so many years and years later is really unique.  A lot of people, maybe most of the ones that ever see these paintings, will never experience that.  But some of us do.  It speaks to us, and that's a remarkable thing.  And to know it might continue to do that for a long time to come is good to know.  It makes one feel better about the world, and the people in it.  It gives me hope.

It's always cool to go to MOMA, for so many reasons.  Not the least of which is there is an entire room full of Picasso's.  it's completely mind-blowing, like a three-ring circus overwhelming the senses.  The fact that there are millions and millions of dollars in that room just adds to it.

The other figure that has loomed large for me in modern art is of course Andy Warhol.  His use of screen printing techniques & repetition was a huge education to me, and while his early '60's stuff is probably what he is best known for (the Marilyn's, the Double Elvis, the Campbell's Soup Cans, the Flowers series, the Brillo boxes) I'm amazed at what he did later in his career in the '70's & '80's. 

Checking out his career retrospective at the Whitney last year was a real trip, with the gigantic Mao that seemed be a couple stories tall (love the huge works), all of the commercial posters that he did, and it was really something to see the room full of all of the private portraits.  It just went on and on.  The color combinations as well as all of the different styles that he used when he painted over the screen prints just seemed endless and really spoke to his creativity. 

But the real eye-opener was the abstract work he did towards the end, especially the Shadows series that originally went around an entire room.  Abstract isn't what you think of with him, but he really gave a unique, thought-provoking take on it.  And the use of skulls at times really got my attention.  Seeing his signature silk-screened colors like that was unexpected.

They even had some of the collaborations that he did with Jean-Michel Basquiat there.  I had seen a couple at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, but these were different.  A lot of the bigger pieces that they did were here.  I knew that it wasn't well-received at the time, and I started recently looking more into Basquiat.

Being the times that we're in, I checked out some YouTube documentaries on him, and learned about his evolution from street graffiti guy to a full-blown modern artist, selling paintings for a lot of money and going from homeless to superstardom almost overnight.  His style threw me at first, because it seemed really basic and haphazard.  But it eventually became obvious how amazing his work was.  And thanks to his graffiti days, he could crank this stuff out FAST. 

While watching the excellent Radiant Child documentary & interviews, there was a mention of the Downtown 81 movie that he starred in.  Turns out he was filmed going around NYC just as he was starting to do real paintings, playing a rising artist in a small production.  I was able to track down a copy from archive.org and checked it out.

After a while, his voice-overs in the movie as he walks around town at all hours takes one almost to a Taxi Driver sort-of mood.  It's a NYC that doesn't exist any more, with all of the sleaze and trash as well as crime that aren't as visible downtown any longer.  One feels what a lost and exciting time it was as the early rap scene was planting the seeds of what would become hip-hop later, alongside the punk and pop bands of the time, like Blondie.  

Speaking of which, Debbie Harry shows up in this movie towards the end.  I also couldn't help but notice the great soundtrack, including the excellent 15 Minutes instrumental snippet by Chris Stein that ended up being used in a background loop for Andy Warhol's short-lived MTV shows called 15 Minutes.  There's a few episodes online of that, too, and it also gives you that feel of '80's New York.  The best parts to me are where they just wander the streets at night.  Quite a party at times, but you never know what you're going to come across.

It's a real shame that the collaboration with Warhol & Basquiat didn't go down well with a lot of folks.  It seems to me that Warhol was used to bad reviews but honestly didn't care.  He had been established for decades, and had developed a pretty tough skin.  Basquiat, on the other hand, was young and had only been on the art scene a few years.  Shooting into the stratosphere so fast, he was thrust into a bizarre world where he didn't know who he could trust.  He was devastated, and was never the same after that.  He quickly descended into a very sad time and died at 27.  

Now his art, along with Warhol's, are some of the most expensive works sold.  There's real edginess to Basquiat's work.  The street vibe really comes though.

It was very interesting to see Basquiat working in the studio.  He literally bopped among a bunch of things he was working on, with music (usually jazz) playing.  Sometimes he'd stop and just dance for a while.  His love of life was contagious, no doubt.

A very interesting fellow, who lived in a very interesting time.  

I think a lot of musicians are into art, more than a lot of music fans would imagine.  After all, museums are a great thing to visit when visiting a town and there's a lot of thought-provoking inspiration that a good collection can create.  It's a helpful tool for a musical artist, providing ideas in one medium that inevitably spills over to another.  After being filtered and manipulated into something unique, hopefully.

I'm always on the lookout for cool new modern art.  Have you found anything that really speaks to you?  Who do you like to check out?  Let me know in the comments below!

2 comments

  • Troy Collins

    Troy Collins Lancaster

    Rather than name check artists, movements, or styles that interest me, I'm going to address the final part of your write-up, which deals more with the cross-pollination between artistic disciplines. As someone who went to art school and majored in fine art, then went on to play music (very briefly), before deciding to write about it, I find the two worlds inseparable. Actually, all the arts - literature, cinema, painting, photography, sculpture, music, dance, etc. - come from the same creative drive, all are connected. It's what makes us human. I see mankind's ability to communicate abstract ideas through non-conversational means as our greatest gift. Sure, we are responsible for amazing technological and engineering feats, but those are all essential to advance the species – to stay alive and prosper (although some would mention the military industrial complex as well). Art, on the other hand, addresses the existential question of why we bother to do any of the aforementioned things. And for that I am thankful. Some of the most compelling art I've experienced was inspired by other art forms, so the idea that a musician, for example, would have no interest in the visual arts is an alien concept to me. But sadly, not untrue. Considering my own interests, it shocked me to finally meet people who were interested in one artistic medium, but not others: musicians who hate poetry; painters that hate sculpture; film makers that hate TV, etc. But, to each his own. I vote for experiencing more creativity in all the disciplines. As for the three artists you mentioned, they're all innovators and giants in their field. Their oeuvres are massive, so naturally, not everything that each did will appeal to every viewer, but they took chances, and that's what's important. Onward and upward, into the future.

    Rather than name check artists, movements, or styles that interest me, I'm going to address the final part of your write-up, which deals more with the cross-pollination between artistic disciplines.

    As someone who went to art school and majored in fine art, then went on to play music (very briefly), before deciding to write about it, I find the two worlds inseparable. Actually, all the arts - literature, cinema, painting, photography, sculpture, music, dance, etc. - come from the same creative drive, all are connected. It's what makes us human.

    I see mankind's ability to communicate abstract ideas through non-conversational means as our greatest gift. Sure, we are responsible for amazing technological and engineering feats, but those are all essential to advance the species – to stay alive and prosper (although some would mention the military industrial complex as well).

    Art, on the other hand, addresses the existential question of why we bother to do any of the aforementioned things. And for that I am thankful. Some of the most compelling art I've experienced was inspired by other art forms, so the idea that a musician, for example, would have no interest in the visual arts is an alien concept to me. But sadly, not untrue.

    Considering my own interests, it shocked me to finally meet people who were interested in one artistic medium, but not others: musicians who hate poetry; painters that hate sculpture; film makers that hate TV, etc. But, to each his own. I vote for experiencing more creativity in all the disciplines.

    As for the three artists you mentioned, they're all innovators and giants in their field. Their oeuvres are massive, so naturally, not everything that each did will appeal to every viewer, but they took chances, and that's what's important. Onward and upward, into the future.

  • Joe Olnick

    Joe Olnick

    Wow, very well put, Troy! While we have all certain preferences in art in all of the many forms that it can be presented, it ultimately is a reaffirmation of what makes us human. Taking elements of the various forms and recombining them in different ways is perhaps the basis of creativity, isn't it? The tricky part is creating something that is unique but still interesting, exciting, and accessible to the folks that experience it. When I first got into music, and how musicians work, I was struck by a couple of ideas that at first seemed impossible. One was that all music had already been created, and the job of the composer was to act as a conduit, or messenger. And the other one was that there were only a few truly original ideas that were recombined & repackaged endlessly. As time goes on, I think these are actually closer to the truth of the matter, and apply to all art forms. And to think it all started for me with "I just want to make some cool new stuff, and get it out there to folks." I work in music, but in today's world I have to think more in a multimedia frame of mind, with video, posters, web sites, social media, performances, promotions, and whatever is needed. I'll take the inspiration where I can find it!

    Wow, very well put, Troy! While we have all certain preferences in art in all of the many forms that it can be presented, it ultimately is a reaffirmation of what makes us human. Taking elements of the various forms and recombining them in different ways is perhaps the basis of creativity, isn't it? The tricky part is creating something that is unique but still interesting, exciting, and accessible to the folks that experience it.

    When I first got into music, and how musicians work, I was struck by a couple of ideas that at first seemed impossible. One was that all music had already been created, and the job of the composer was to act as a conduit, or messenger. And the other one was that there were only a few truly original ideas that were recombined & repackaged endlessly. As time goes on, I think these are actually closer to the truth of the matter, and apply to all art forms.

    And to think it all started for me with "I just want to make some cool new stuff, and get it out there to folks." I work in music, but in today's world I have to think more in a multimedia frame of mind, with video, posters, web sites, social media, performances, promotions, and whatever is needed. I'll take the inspiration where I can find it!

Add comment