The work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the most significant painters of the 20th century, is spread over four levels of Frank Gehry’s building.
The exhibition covers the painter’s whole career, from 1980 to 1988, focusing on 120 defining works. With the Heads from 1981-1982, gathered for the first time here, and the presentation of several collaborations between Basquiat and Warhol, the exhibition includes works previously unseen in Europe, essential works such as Obnoxious Liberals (1982), In Italian (1983), and Riding with Death (1988), as well as paintings which have rarely been seen since their first presentations during the artist’s lifetime, such as Offensive Orange (1982), Untitled (Boxer) (1982), and Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) (1982).
At a young age, Jean-Michel Basquiat left school and made his first studio in the streets of New York. Very quickly, his painting achieved great success, which the artist both sought out and felt subjected to. His work refers back to the eruption of modernity, that of the expressionists, but his filiations are numerous. The acuteness of his gaze, his visits to museums, and the reading of a number of books gave him a real sense of culture. Yet his gaze was directed: the absence of black artists being painfully evident, the artist imposed the need to depict African American culture and revolts in equal measure in his work. Basquiat’s death in 1988 interrupted a very prolific body of work, carried out in under a decade, with over one thousand paintings and even more drawings.
The exhibition is spread over nearly 2500m2. It is organised chronologically, but also by groups of works which define themes and invite comparisons. For Dieter Buchhart, “The exhibition follows his work, from the first drawings and monumental works to the later prints, collages and assemblages, shedding light on his inimitable touch, use of words, phrases and enumerations, and his recourse to concrete hip hop poetry. To the image of the African American man threatened by racism, exclusion, oppression and capitalism, he opposed warriors and heroes.”.
The exhibition is presented chronologically.
Pool Level (Gallery 2)
The exhibition opens with the exceptional trilogy of big Heads from 1981-1983. There follows, on the theme of the street - used as a studio, source of inspiration, living body - the presentation of a number of works, mainly from 1981-1982, which are striking for the energy of their composition, the intensity of the urban environment and its language. An example includes Crowns (Peso Neto). This first chapter of the exhibition closes with the great figures painted by the artist, the series of Prophets, and the striking portrait of a black police officer (Irony of a negro policeman).
Ground Floor (Gallery 4)
The second part of the exhibition includes a series of thirty drawings of heads, for the most part made in 1982. This hanging functions as a huge composition of faces which takes up the spectator’s entire field of vision - it highlights the importance of drawing for Basquiat. Further on, the graphic energy of a dozen works presented on the same level expresses all of the rage, protest and revolt of Basquiat. This is symbolised by great African American figures - boxers or fighters - who were also personal heroes: Untitled (Sugar Ray Robinson) (1982), St. Joe Louis surrounded by Snakes (1982), Cassius Clay (1982)... The use of letters, numbers, signs and text in the background shows the complexity of the compositions, for example in Santo #1 (1982), Self-Portrait with Suzanne (1982), Untitled (1982), Portrait of the Artist as a Young Derelict (1982).
Level 1 (Gallery 5)
“Heroes and Warriors” opens this sequence. A frontal figure of a black boxer, Untitled (Boxer) (1982), an iconic masterpiece, provides the link with the preceding section. The heroic figures wear haloes, crowns, or crowns of thorns… The emancipatory figure of Samson appears in Obnoxious Liberals (1982). The exhibition continues with paintings linking a long history and archetypes to the artist’s immediate surroundings, in compositions enriched with stories and fragmented text, such as Price of Gasoline in the Third World (1982) or Slave Auction (1982), which directly addresses the slave trade.
Another key painting, In Italian (1983), bears witness to Basquiat’s talent as a colourist. The concluding part of Gallery 5 is organised around music, and especially the figure of the jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, one of Basquiat’s heroes. Five works depict the legendary figure, whom he considers to be an alter-ego: CPRKR (1982), Horn Players (1983), Charles the First (1982), Discography (One) (1983), Now’s the Time (1985).
Level 1 (Gallery 6)
The room gathers together six paintings in which writing plays a central role, including Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown) (1983) and Hollywood Africans in Front of the Chinese Theater with Footprints of Movie Stars (1983), which depicts the painter surrounded by friends.
Level 1 (Gallery 7)
The space of Gallery 7 enables a grouping of four pieces - Lye (1983), Flash in Naples (1983), Napoleonic Stereotype (1983), Red Savoy (1983) - based on a similar motif: a grid on which the figures are superimposed, borrowed from history, art history or the artists’ immediate surroundings.
Level 2 (Gallery 9)
Two major groups of work are on display in this room. The first shows related paintings around the monumental Grillo (1984), including Gold Griot. These works include references to African culture which have been reinterpreted and spread by the diaspora, where the black figure is omnipresent.
The second group focuses on the relationship between Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. The portrait painted by Basquiat in 1982, Dos Cabezas, marked the beginning of this mutual fascination and introduces a series of works painted by both artists together from 1984. Warhol and Basquiat collaborated by freely mixing drawing and printing.
Level 2 (Galleries 10 and 11)
The last rooms are organised into two sections. One is centred around the large formats of the 1985-1987 period, mixing acrylic, oil pastel and collage. Graphic procedures which recall musical techniques of sampling create dense surfaces and shattered compositions, suggesting a multitude of different readings. The other section, whose title, Unbreakable, is drawn from the title of a piece from 1987, includes some of the artist’s last works, including the stunning Riding with Death (1988). The painting bears witness to the artist’s complex pictorial heritage, which mixes references to Renaissance art with iconic painting and the more radical currents of the 20th century, but which above all conveys a feeling of disarticulation in the furious and desperate rush into the void.
The exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat has been made possible through the collaboration of the Fondation Louis Vuitton and the Brant Foundation.