Jean Michel-Basquiat
edited by Rudy Chiappini
[Skira books]

Like a million people before me and a million after me, I spent some time at the tail of the last century obsessing over Jean Michel Basquiat. I think he's one of those iconic figures of a loosely defined 'youth culture' that a certain kind of person gravitates towards at some point in their lives. You know how it goes; there's James Dean walking down a rainy New York street (and there's Dylan doing the same); there's Kerouac and the Beats; there's Warhol and the Velvets; there's De Niro and Cassavetes. And so it goes.

And also as these things go, you find them drifting in and out of your life forevermore. Sometimes they haunt your daydreams with a half-forgotten line of song or film dialogue, and sometimes they pop up at the most surprising moments as you turn a blind corner only to be confronted by a New Generation discovering the same things all over again (making you feel inordinately old in the process). Sometimes too it's just that a new book is published and that you can't resist picking it up to refresh your memories, to rekindle an old spark, to see if the flames of your passion can still rise. Which is the case with this Skira publication of Basquiat; a collection of images, essays and interviews that deftly merges a lot of the pleasantly familiar with some previously unseen delights. And I have to say it is a delight to immerse again in these images.

So is it still a cliche to say how much Basquiat's paintings are fabulous evocations of an age and a rage? (In an interview with Henry Geldzahler Basquiat says his work is 'about 80% anger'). I'm not sure. Like all of those previously mentioned icons of Popular Culture, it's a love/hate thing. I know of many people who can't take the importance given to him, don't rate him in the slightest. I think these people are wrong of course, think that such people are guilty of looking at the Art dislocated from the cultural context associated with it. Which in some respects is fine of course, but it's just that I happen to think it's pretty much impossible to look at Basquiat paintings without at least a slight understanding of the roots of Hip Hop culture in the New York of the late '70s and early '80s, at least a rudimentary understanding of the state of play in that city at that time. And anyway, remember that, as the great Dave Godin once wrote, 'context is everything'.

I keep saying that if I had a time machine, I think the only two eras I would really like to visit would be New York in the mid-late '60s and New York in the late '70s and early '80s. They seem to me, admittedly through the rose tinted shades of cultural mythology, to be eras of extreme possibility, eras of deaths and births and then again, deaths. There is little I love more than the scratchy, edgy noises that were being made by the likes of Suicide, Talking Heads, Bush Tetras, James Chance/White; the void of PIL; the scotch-taped Hip Hop beats and sharp tongue rapping of the Furious Five or Crash Crew: all sounds that seemed to at once record and amplify the fractures opening in culture at that time. Obviously I romanticise it, but I just have to look at footage or stills from that time and place and I fall apart. The colour and pattern that explodes on the subway trains, that seems to fall across every free fragment of surface in the environment, a snow storm of text, a multi-layering of meaning and inference.

And Basquiat, it seems to me, so succinctly captures the fracturing of the world in his best paintings. He's a cartoon artist of course: obsessive, compulsive and addictive to the point of ultimate self-destruction. Much like the Abstract Expressionists of the '50s with their alcoholism and macho posturing, Basquiat makes explicit a physical involvement in the art of painting, makes the drugs, sex and self-immolation an intrinsic element of the work. However, more than any of the other New Expressionists at the time, like Schnabel for example, Basquiat triumphs in that his painting makes very explicit connections to the everyday world of the Pop consumer, making the paintings much more accessible. Unlike his hero Warhol, however, Basquiat loads his connections to the Popist world with more obvious contempt and self-loathing, instilling in his work an eerie prediction of later evaluation of the decade with its glorification of money, corruption and extreme loss of empathic concern.

Of course there are other Basquiat books out there, and if all you really want is a flavour of the man's work then the Taschen four ninety niner is always going to be hard to pass over. For anyone wanting a more in-depth investigation, however, this Skira effort is to be applauded, not least for that excellent interview with Henry Geldzahler. And for anyone wanting more, particularly those seeking that sense of contextualisation, can I recommend you track down the occasionally pretentious but evocative and compelling Downtown '81

Now where the hell is that time machine?

    Alistair Fitchett 2005