Books

The Cult of Jean-Michel Basquiat

What happens when an artist’s mythologized life distracts from his work?

Cover of Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi (all images courtesy Laurence King Publishing)

In 2017, an untitled Jean-Michel Basquiat painting picturing a skull against a bright blue background sold at Sotheby’s New York for $110.5 Million, making it the highest-selling artwork by a U.S. artist at auction. This astronomical price is perhaps unsurprising, considering that, since his early death in 1988 from a drug overdose, Basquiat has achieved tragic art world folk hero status and attracted a cultish following. Despite the short span of his career (he began making his SAMO© street art with Al Díaz in 1978), he produced hundreds of canvases in addition to notebooks full of poetry and writings, sketchbooks, and paintings on found materials. His works adorn T-shirts and other merchandise and are the continued subject of films and exhibitions, particularly in his native city of New York.

There were recently two exhibitions of Basquiat’s work in the city. The Brant Foundation’s downtown show, co-curated with Basquait scholar Dieter Buchhart, focused on the artist’s best-known works and presented him as a master of “sampling,” a technique that foregrounded the cut-and-paste culture of the web. (The show sold out of free tickets before it even opened.) Uptown at Nahmad Contemporary was a show of Basquiat’s work made from Xerox photocopies. These exhibitions came shortly after a show of Al Diaz’s work, installed in Basquiat’s former Great Jones Street apartment, which celebrated Díaz’s continuation of their collaborative graffiti art as SAMO©. And in July, the Guggenheim will open Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story, a small show focused on work made in response to the 1983 death of the young black artist Michael Stewart at the hands of New York City’s transit police. These exhibitions evidence a saturation in the Basquiat landscape, in public, commercial, and scholarly interest.

Spread from Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi

Enter into this landscape Basquiat: A Graphic Novel (Laurence King Publishing, May 2019), written and illustrated by Italian author Paolo Parisi, who has previously written graphic novel biographies of John Coltrane and Billie Holiday. Translated from the original Italian by Edward Fortes, it tells a specific version the young artist’s life through short chapters from the perspective of those around him — his father, his art dealers, his lovers — written using newspaper clippings, previously published biographies, and the artist’s own writings as source material.

Spread from Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi

The book opens dramatically with the police at Basquiat’s father’s door, notifying him of the artist’s death. With so many biographies and films about Basquiat, the story that follows is familiar: it paints a portrait of the ’80s downtown art scene to which young Jean-Michel fell prey. Featuring early accounts from Basquiat’s first curator, Diego Cortez (“Jean has something different, compared to the others. He reminded me of certain aspects of Cy Twombly and Franz Kline, but with this completely ‘pop’ sensibility”), and his on-and-off partner, Suzanne Mallouk (whose relationship with the artist is chronicled in Jennifer Clement’s book Widow Basquiat), the narrative flips between the perspectives of his peers to Basquiat’s own, giving the book a choppy pace suited to the ups and downs portrayed.

Parisi’s graphics are rendered in a shadowy color palette of bluish purple, red, green, and bright yellow, drawing from the aesthetics of noir comics to evoke the Gotham-like energy of grimy crime-ridden NYC. The unified color scheme runs throughout, but the layouts constantly change from traditional grids, to full-page artworks, to wordless spreads.

Spread from Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi

The most successful of these take advantage of the dual narrative potential of comics — combining different viewpoints of the same events in layered stories. Parisi presents a nice pairing of portraits across the page — Jean-Michel in his designer suit and Andy Warhol in his shaded glasses, each talking about the other. Later, as Basquiat begins to doubt the point of his artistic pursuits, he laments to Keith Haring, the two figures seated on a curb against a solid red backdrop. “Somehow you were always destined to end up in a gallery… Do you feel betrayed?” Haring asks. “I think so… Yes… Quite a lot…” answers Basquiat. Jean-Michel’s internal struggle becomes the dominant narrative of the book — gallerists Larry Gagosian and Mary Boone appear as scheming marketers above a disturbing drawing of Basquiat in chains with piles of green dollars showering down on him.

Spread from Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi

Parisi’s visuals are powerful — sometimes jarringly so, as with the image of the artist in chains — and his design choices effective. In other spreads, comics are juxtaposed with facsimile notebook pages of Jean-Michel’s writings. It’s this type of visual, verbal, textural play that makes the graphic novel an interesting form for the Basquiat story. Unfortunately, these are faux-fascimile pages of writings in which Parisi imagines notebook pages. Perhaps he was unable to get permission to reproduce originals, or perhaps the original Italian required some rewriting in this way, but actual reproductions would have been more effective here.

Spread from Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi

Italian audiences may be less familiar with this Basquiat narrative — young talent preyed on by those around him, sucked into a vortex of fame and drugs, who nonetheless created a body of work that would live on forever. But, as Mariah Fox writes in a catalogue accompanying the Díaz show, “A lot has been said, written, contemplated, dramatized, romanticized and sold when it comes to Basquiat, who was an archetypal, yet reluctant, upside-down artstar.” Reading Parisi’s graphic novel, her words ring true. What more can we gain from dramatizing Basquiat’s life? He deserves our sustained attention, but are we looking in the wrong place here? Fox notes that “It may seem impossible to uncover a fresh view of Basquiat,” while making the argument that the place to find a deeper understanding of his work is closer examination of his collaborative SAMO© writings with Díaz, which reveal more of both artists’ interiority.

The push and pull between biographical readings and formalist readings of artwork rages on. And when it comes to Basquiat, the story of his short life and untimely death is alluring. But I am interested in other readings — readings of his work. Like Fox, I want to turn to his own words. In Basquiat: A Graphic Novel, all the characters — who are fictional versions of real people — speak with words penned directly into their mouths including the artist’s own. But rather than read fictionalized speech bubbles (even well-researched speech bubbles, like Parisi’s), I wish we would turn more often to his artworks, which speak volumes through the words scratched into their surfaces.

Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi (Laurence King Publishing, May 2019) is available from Amazon and other booksellers for $14. 

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