Friday, July 30, 2010

Did You Know? :: Jean-Michel Basquiat, "Flash in Naples," 1983

Jean-Michel Basquiat was an artist from Brooklyn, New York. He was born December 22, 1960; he died August 12, 1988, after a short but meteoric career during which his work was popularized and made famous in part by his associations with Andy Warhol, Al Diaz, Julian Schnabel and the musical performer Madonna.

As a child, Basquiat showed an affinity and skill for drawing, and was encouraged to create art by his mother, who was Puerto Rican by descent, and his father, who is of Haitian descent. As a result, Basquiat was fluent in Spanish, French and English from an early age.

In late 1977, while a student at City-As-School high school in Brooklyn, Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz started spray-painting graffiti art on buildings in lower Manhattan, adding the signature of "SAMO". The graphics were messages such as "Plush safe he think.. SAMO" and "SAMO as an escape clause". In December 1978, the Village Voice published an article about the writings. The SAMO project ended with the epitaph "SAMO IS DEAD" written on the walls of SoHo buildings.

Basquiat dropped out of high school in September 1978, at the beginning of his senior year. He decided to leave his home and began living with friends, earning money by selling T-shirts and postcards on Manhattan's streets, and working in the Unique Clothing Warehouse on Broadway. By 1979, Basquiat had appeared on Glenn O'Brien's live public-access cable show TV Party. In the late 1970s, Basquiat formed a band called Gray with Vincent Gallo, Shannon Dawson, Michael Holman, Nick Taylor, Wayne Clifford. Gray performed at nightclubs such as Max's Kansas City, CBGB, Hurrahs, and the Mudd Club. Basquiat starred in an underground film Downtown 81 which featured some of Gray's recordings on its soundtrack. He also appeared in Blondie's video "Rapture" as a club disc jockey.

In June 1980, Basquiat participated in The Times Square Show, a multi-artist exhibition, sponsored by Collaborative Projects Incorporated (Colab) and Fashion Moda. In 1981, Rene Ricard published "The Radiant Child" in Artforum magazine, which brought Basquiat to the attention of the wider art world.

In late 1981 he joined the Annina Nosei gallery in SoHo. By 1982, Basquiat was showing regularly, and alongside Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi, became part of what was called the Neo-expressionist movement. He was represented in Los Angeles by the Larry Gagosian gallery, and in Europe by Bruno Bischofberger. He started dating then-aspiring performer Madonna in autumn 1982. That same year, Basquiat met Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated in 1984-1986. He was also briefly involved with artist David Bowes. Basquiat worked on his paintings in Armani suits and often appeared in public in these same paint-splattered $1000 suits.

By the mid 1980s, he had left Annina Nosei gallery, and was showing in the famous Mary Boone gallery in SoHo. On February 10, 1985, Basquiat appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in a feature entitled "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist". He was a phenomenally successful artist in this period, but increasing drug use began to interfere with his personal relationships. After Andy Warhol's death in 1987, Basquiat became increasingly isolated, and his drug use and depression increased. After attempting to quit heroin use during a trip to Hawaii, Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in his New York studio on August 12, 1988, at the age of 27.

Selected Bibliography
Deitch J, Cortez D, and O’Brien, Glen. Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981: the Studio of the Street, Charta, 2007.

Fretz, Eric. Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography. Greenwood Press, 2010.

Hoban, Phoebe. Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (2nd ed.), Penguin Books, 2004.

Marshall, Richard. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Abrams / Whit
ney Museum of American Art. (Catalog for 1992 Whitney retrospective, out of print).

Marshall, Richard. Jean-Michel Basquiat: In World Only. Cheim & Read, 2005.

Marenzi, Luca. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Charta, 1999.

Mayer, Marc, Hoffman Fred, et al. Basquiat, Merrell Publishers / Brooklyn Museum, 2005.

McCluskey, Danny. "Jean-Michel Basquiat: Art Capitalism Mascot or Radiant Child?” Cameron, 2009.

Tate, Greg. Flyboy in the Buttermilk. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Thompson, Margot. American Graffiti, Parkstone Press, 2009

Looking at Flash in Naples

  • Ask guests what they see in the mixed media piece Flash in Naples.
  • Ask guests if they know who the Flash character was. Ask guests what they think about comic book art.
  • Explain that the Flash is a name shared by several fictional comic book superheroes from the DC Comics universe. Created by writer Gardner Fox and artist Harry Lampert, the original Flash first appeared in Flash Comics #1 (January 1940). Nicknamed the Scarlet Speedster, all incarnations of the Flash possess "super-speed", including the ability to run and move extremely fast, use superhuman reflexes and seemingly violate certain laws of physics.
  • Explain that Basquiat was fascinated by symbols, Roman mythology, comics, and numerous other narrative references.
  • Writer, curator and gallerist Fred Hoffman called Basquiat’s work “a rich compendium of figurative imagery and references” with “an array of specific textual references to Greek mythology, Roman history, African tribal culture, systems of monetary exchange, and natural commodities, as well as states of health and wellbeing.”
  • Explain that the neo-expressionist movement in contemporary art was influenced by Pop Art of the 1960s, and formed in reaction to the late 1970s fascination with conceptual and minimalist art.

Did You Know? :: Pablo Picasso, "Musical Instruments and Fruit Bowl on a Pedestal," 1913

Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Clito Ruiz y Picasso, known as Pablo Ruiz Picasso, was born October 25, 1881; he died April 8, 1973.

Pablo Picasso, Musical Instruments and Fruit Bowl on a Pedestal, Fall 1913. Oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 32 inches. Private Collection. © 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Picasso was baptized Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Crispiniano de la Santísima Trinidad, a series of names honoring various saints and relatives. Added to these were Ruiz and Picasso, for his father and mother, respectively, as per Spanish law. Born in the city of Málaga in the Andalusian region of Spain, he was the first child of Don José Ruiz y Blasco (1838–1913) and María Picasso y López. Picasso’s family was middle-class; his father was also a painter who specialized in naturalistic depictions of birds and other game. For most of his life Ruiz was a professor of art at the School of Crafts and a curator of a local museum. Ruiz’s ancestors were minor aristocrats.

The Blue Period (1901–1904) consists of somber paintings rendered in shades of blue and blue-green, only occasionally warmed by other colors. This period’s starting point is uncertain; it may have begun in Spain in the spring of 1901, or in Paris in the second half of the year. Many paintings of gaunt mothers with children date from this period. In his austere use of color and sometimes doleful subject matter—prostitutes and beggars are frequent subjects—Picasso was influenced by a trip through Spain and by the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas.

The Rose Period (1904–1906) is characterized by a more cheery style with orange and pink colors, and featuring many circus people, acrobats and harlequins known in France as saltimbanques. The harlequin, a comedic character usually depicted in checkered patterned clothing, became a personal symbol for Picasso. Picasso met Fernande Olivier, a model for sculptors and artists, in Paris in 1904, and many of these paintings are influenced by his warm relationship with her, in addition to his increased exposure to French painting. The generally upbeat and optimistic mood of paintings in this period is reminiscent of the 1899–1901 period (i.e. just prior to the Blue Period) and 1904 can be considered a transition year between the two periods.


  • Arguably the seminal art movement of the twentieth century, cubism enjoyed only about 12-14 years of prominence before the events of World War I and its aftermath helped to extinguish the avant-garde spirit that brought Cubism into being.

  • Works in several different cubist styles (see below) are marked by visual abstraction, obfuscation, temporal disorientation, avant-gardist rejections of past values, and the breakdown of class and art hierarchies such as “fine” and “folk” art.

  • It is hard to overstate the extent to which Cubism developed in a period of rapid change and impending war, shaped by a coalition of artists committed to an idealistic conception of society opposed to war.

  • Cubism is generally broken into two categories, Analytic Cubism and Synthetic Cubism (see below). However, the two were not distinct movements so much as an evolution of the experimentation of the avant-garde style.

  • 1907-1909 was a period of intense interest in all things “primitive,” especially children’s art, and art from the so-called “primitive cultures” of Africa, Oceania, and indigenous cultures, to which the Primitivist Modernists attributed an authenticity of vision and spontaneity of expression that they felt had been eroded from the contemporary styles of their art forms.

  • Between 1909-1912 Cubism was widely explored, and the avant-garde experimenters revolted against nineteenth-century academic techniques of perpectival illusionism and the related assumption that a painting must represent a single moment in time and be seen from a fixed point in space (or, for that matter, depict a single position in space). The works of this period experiment with multiple viewpoints, distortions of form, ambiguous spatial relations in part in response to new theories about space and time being developed concurrently.

  • 1907-1914 Cubism has a kind of cultural-political motivation in its subversion of nineteenth-century academic art styles, as well as the development of a kind of French artistic nationalism following the success of cubism.

  • 1912-1914 is the period during which Cubism explodes conceptions of art beyond painting, and reaches into fields of design, architecture, and beyond, through the advent of collage and assemblage sculpture. Collage represented another rejection of academic tradition (oil on canvas) and assemblage problematized traditional sculpture by exploding the dichotomy between “high” and “vernacular” art through the use of everyday materials.

Analytic Cubism (1909–1912) is a style of painting Picasso developed along with Georges Braque using monochrome brownish and neutral colors. Both artists took apart objects and “analyzed” them in terms of their shapes. Picasso and Braque’s paintings at this time have many similarities. Synthetic cubism (1912–1919) was a further development of the genre, in which cut paper fragments—often wallpaper or portions of newspaper pages—were pasted into compositions, marking the first use of collage in fine art.

Analytic Cubism is one of the two major branches of the artistic movement of Cubism, and was developed between 1908 and 1912. In contrast to Synthetic Cubism, Analytic cubists "analyzed" natural forms and reduced the forms into basic geometric parts on the two-dimensional picture plane. Color was almost non-existent except for the use of a monochromatic scheme that often included grey, blue and ochre. Instead of an emphasis on color, Analytic cubists focused on forms like the cylinder, sphere and the cone to represent the natural world.

During this movement, the works produced by Picasso and Braque shared stylistic similarities. Both Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque moved toward abstraction, leaving only enough signs of the real world to supply a tension between the reality outside the painting and the complicated meditations on visual language within the frame.

In Paris in 1907 a major museum retrospective exhibition of the work of Paul Cézanne opened shortly after his death. The exhibition was enormously influential in establishing Cézanne as an important painter whose ideas were particularly resonant among young artists in Paris. Both Picasso and Braque found the inspiration for Cubism from Paul Cézanne, who said to observe and learn to see and treat nature as if it were composed of basic shapes like cubes, spheres, cylinders, and cones. Some believe that the roots of cubism are to be found in the two distinct tendencies of Cézanne's later work: firstly to break the painted surface into small multifaceted areas of paint, thereby emphasizing the plural viewpoint given by binocular vision; and secondly, his interest in the simplification of natural forms into cylinders, spheres, and cones. However, the cubists explored this concept further than Cézanne; they represented all the surfaces of depicted objects in a single picture plane, as if the objects had had all their faces visible at the same time. This new kind of depiction revolutionized the way in which objects could be visualized in painting and art.

Synthetic Cubism was the second main movement within Cubism that was developed by Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris and others between 1912 and 1919. Synthetic cubism is characterized by the introduction of different textures, surfaces, collage elements, papier collé and a large variety of merged subject matter. It was the beginning of collage materials being introduced as an important ingredient of fine art work.

Considered the first work of this new style was Pablo Picasso's "Still Life with Chair-caning" (1911–1912), which includes oil cloth that was printed to look like chair-caning pasted onto an oval canvas, with text; and rope framing the whole picture. At the upper left are the letters "JOU", which appear in many cubist paintings and refers to the news-paper titled "Le Journal.” Newspaper clippings, sheet music, and like items were also included in the collages. Whereas Analytic Cubism was an analysis of the subjects (pulling them apart into planes), Synthetic Cubism is more of a pushing of several objects together. Less pure than Analytic Cubism, Synthetic Cubism has fewer planar shifts (or schematism), and less shading, creating flatter space.

Thinking about the Altered Landscape

Patricia Nelson Limerick’s essay in NMA’s 1999 book The Altered Landscape considers the meaning of the word ‘altered’ as it is used to describe the work of the ‘New Topographics’ artists and their followers. Limerick is an accomplished writer and historian who deals with issues of the American West. About ‘altered’ she writes:

“This flexible and hardworking word supplies three rich meanings for the price of one. After two hundred years of American colonization, the West has indeed been altered, in the sense of changed, made different, modified. In cheerful and positive terms, it has been reshaped and resewn in order to make a better fit for the needs and habits of the humans who have colonized it. And in the glummest of terms, the West has been castrated, neutered, and robbed of its power.”

Limerick looks at the validity of all three definitions and leaves the answers to the viewer. She asks, “Can one celebrate and admire these photographers and still find much of their work irritating? You bet! A photograph can attract and still scrape and scratch at the viewer’s mind.” She points out that this work can irritate us because it doesn’t come with packaged answers. We have to figure it out ourselves – ultimately a satisfying task! And she believes that whatever the passion and convictions a photographer may have, “taking a photograph requires the photographer to calm down, think, plan, and hold still – a discipline, regrettably, forced on few other professions.”

She talks about walls of buildings – “the most easily recognized lines between the human sphere and the natural sphere” – and how the different photographers consider them. She talks about light: “And light, artificial light, just as much as natural light, is a wonder and a miracle, as a number of these photographs remind us. Over the last century, night has been transformed; starlight and moonlight may hold onto a magic that a light bulb will not match, but starlight and moonlight nonetheless dim when they compete with the radiance of electrical light. Lewis Baltz’s photograph of a construction site at night returns us to the familiar slippage of the border between inside and outside and suggests that anything may happen in this luminous place; a prophet might come upon a vision; hope might get a new life; a new life might be conceived and born. Of course, it is a construction site; of course it is an artifact of the despoliation of a more-or-less intact Western landscape; of course it is an imposition of sovereign, arrogant human will on the earth. The house is also quite a beautiful arrangement of line and light.”

“ The West has been altered, adapted to a better fit with human activity, and one element of that adaptation is that the nights are a lot brighter. It is a great deal easier after sunset to read, write, cook, sew, and look at one another than it was a century ago, to spend the evening watching TV or using a computer. Dams, coal-fired plants, and nuclear power plants made this possible. And now some people tap into these omnipresent power lines, turn on their computers, and write impassioned denunciations of the injuries inflicted on the West by the production of cheap electrical power.” But as a counterpoint to that she points out that, “All the exercises of power recorded in these photographs, exercises in earth-moving, dam building, house-constructing, road making, and power distributing have trashed landscapes that someone loved.”

Limerick feels that whether or not we are religious, we do subscribe to the story of the loss of Eden; as if we, through our relentless development, have lots our chance to live in Paradise. “By altering the Western landscape, by neutering it and stripping it of its power, we arranged for our departure from Eden. Americans themselves barred their own way back to Eden, and barred it not with a dramatic flaming sword, but with the sheer prosaic passage of time and the even more prosaic development of business and real estate. We locked the door back to Eden – not with swords, cherubim, and many-headed beasts, but with subdivisions, parking lots, commercial shopping strips, dams, highway interchanges and power lines.”

She speaks of some of the Altered Landscape photographs that depict places where nature truly has been savaged by development. And yet she reminds us that Nineteenth-Century America, with its civil wars, slavery, mistreatment of Native Americans and widespread poverty was not a paradise. “The great consolation of the historian’s life comes in the dozens of reminders that the past holds no golden age. Life today is a mess. Fortunately, life in the past was also a mess...Let me put this gently; those who see in the desecration of Western nature a ratification of the legend of the Fall, those who think that we are now living in desperate and declined times, would find some relief for their terrible sense of loss if they put down the newspaper and read a little history.”

Limerick speaks of two Wests: “ the out-of-doors, wide-open-spaced, dirt-dominated rural West, and the enclosed-spaced, walled-off, indoors, asphalt-covered urban West.” They are “trying, not very successfully, to work out a virtually agreeable zoning code. The loudest voices from the rural West ask for the freedom to make a living from the land; they demand their right to continue to practice ‘traditional’ land uses that are, in fact, barely a century old. The most audible requests from the city, meanwhile, ask for the rural West to be defined primarily as a place for urbanites to drive, hike, ski, ride mountain bikes, camp, romp, stay in bed-and-breakfasts, admire views, and recover from the pressures of life in the city. She points out that so many in the cities never consider where their food comes from, where their lumber comes from, or how it is that heat and light appear in their homes. “There is a chance that these fine-tuned urbanites would starve, or freeze, or spend their evenings in the dark if they succeeded in imposing their standards on rural America.”

Lastly, Limerick writes about aerial photography which shows “the surface of the planet as a canvas marked by geological and biological forces and by acts of the human will. Viewed from the vantage point of the sky, the transformation of the world by patterns of electric light at night leaves one stunned and speechless. Viewed from above, roads become hieroglyphics carved into the earth. In their arbitrariness and cryptic logic the roads become riddles in dirt.”

“The photographs in the Altered Landscape collection permit us to respond to ourselves, and to the messages we have marked into the earth. The photographers themselves do not pose a detached and omniscient group of observers. They admit, instead, to being part of the species that does both the looking and the marking.”

--Kathleen Durham