Opinion

Barbie’s Back, as Basquiat?

The latest from Mattel suggests another 20th-century artist has become just a recognizable style easily packaged for kids.

The new Basquiat Barbie is photographed in a generic looking Soho. (all images courtesy Mattel/Barbie, © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, licensed by Artestar, NY)

She’s wearing a crown, donning images of colorful paintings that now cost millions of dollars, and she has her hair arranged in an X, who is she? Basquiat Barbie, of course.

The newest body dysmorphia-inducing plastic toy for children uses the work of renowned artist Jean-Michel Basquiat to transform artistic practice into yet another trinket to buy. [The Barbie body type occurs in less than 1 in 100,000 adult women, though Ken, on the other hand, is more realistic at about 1 in 50 adult men.]

The back of the doll

What’s peculiar about this Barbie is that it resembles the socialites that frequent blue chip openings of Basquiat’s painting more than the artist himself. In product shots, the doll is set against a generic-looking “SoHo” backdrop, complete with colorful graffiti and cast-iron storefronts. This is Basquiat-collector-triumphant, not the artist.

Some of his most famous works appear on the doll’s suit: the hair is styled like the artist’s expressionist locks, and the crown is, of course, his ubiquitous symbol Basquiat’s image and work reduced to the most recognizable parts.

The release of this doll reminded me of J. Faith Almiron’s excellent essay on the 2019 Basquiat exhibition at the Brandt Foundation. Here’s the kicker:

Beyond the high volume and overwhelming demand, Basquiat exhibitions diversify the demography of its attendees. Unlike any other artist before or since, Basquiat invites everybody into the museum — art nerds, hip-hop heads, immigrant kids, post-colonial ex-pats, rebels young and old, everyday Black and Brown folk, thirsty celebrities, and indeed rich white people too. Basquiat hails you to revel in his glorious defiance, then take a piss on the walls of an oppressor.

The Basquiat Barbie is retailing for $50, and I have a feeling a lot of collectors’ kids will be getting one.

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