Tag Archives: Jean-Michel Basquiat

The scene: Haring & Basquiat

This to-do list by is  Keith Haring is a massive name drop even though mostly only first names are used: Whoopi, Jean Michel, Debbie … It is exhibited as part of the documentary part of the exhibition “Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” at the NGV. It shows the vibrant artistic scene that Haring and Basquiat inhabited.

The scene, the geographic-social environment that an artist lives and works in. The loose association that both inspires and documents them. Often appears as interesting as the artist themselves – Warhol’s Factory scene, the Dadaist or the Surrealists.

I wonder how the geographic-social environment contributes to an artist’s development and success or failure? How much their art is a product of a network of people talking, dancing and otherwise moving around (depending on the type of transport)?

Or is it all about the unique talent of the ‘great man’ independent from the city and its society? If it is all about the person then it is very surprising that two or more great artists, like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, would emerge at the same time and place.

Even if it is unique talent of the individual that created it is the social environment that gives meaning to the art. Without the gay club scene Haring would not have created his dancing figures or his art about AIDS. Without his black identity Basquiat would not have attempted to write art history. These topics were not so much chosen by the artist as determined by the scene.

Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were living in a particularly fertile art scene, that produced many other artists including the street artists, Jenny Holzer and Kenny Scharf. A self-selecting scene, volunteers who had congregated because they wanted to be artists and New York was the place to do it. It was a geographic and social circle that included various clubs, art galleries, flats and people from Madonna to William Burroughs.

The exhibition catalogue for “Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” does much to document their scene. It has many interviews, including one with Jenny Holzer and Patti Astor. And a map of lower Manhattan shows the tight geography where everything was within walking distance or a few subway stops. (I can’t emphasis enough how important a walkable geography is to a vibrant arts scene.)

This is the second of a series of posts about the “Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” at the NGV International. See also Haring/Basquiat @NGV and Under the Influence (Thanks to the NGV for the tickets to the exhibition.)


Under the influence

“His flesh turns to viscid, transparent jelly that drifts away in green mist, unveiling a monster black centipede. Waves of unknown stench fill the room, searing the lungs, grabbing the stomach…”           William Burroughs Naked Lunch

Keith Haring Untitled 1983 © Keith Haring Foundation

Both Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were influenced by William Burroughs; their shared interest in semiotics and proximity in the NYC art scene made it almost inevitable that they would meet. Haring was a friend of Burroughs, the invite-Keith-around-to-dinner-kind of friend and collaborate on a couple of books, as opposed to a ‘Facebook friend’. So Burroughs influence on Haring is extensive from Haring’s distinctive hieroglyphic iconography to his, not well known, cut up collages and performance poetry.

‘Lick Fat Boys’ by Haring owes much to works, in film and audio, by Burroughs and Brion Gysin, e.g. “Recalling All Active Agents” In these works words are rearranged and reordered to create new meanings. Haring’s cut-up collages of text and images look very similar to Burroughs’s pages of cut-ups with collage elements.

“Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” at the NGV documents this influence; including a list of people from Basquiat with Burroughs along with Prince, David Lynch and Godard (Burroughs is misspelt ‘Burrows’).

Although the exhibition documents Burroughs influence it then ignores it continuing to ignore it when it comes to interpreting the work. It describes the personal computer headed centipedes in Haring’s paintings as “caterpillars”. It is not a correct description for several reasons. Centipedes are used in many of Burroughs’s novels including Naked Lunch as a symbol of self-centred evil whereas caterpillars are not used as symbols of evil in anyone’s iconography. Centipedes are distinguished by having one set of legs for each segment of body, which is what is shown in Haring’s images even though they and all species of centipede don’t have a hundred legs. Finally, caterpillars don’t walk, they crawl, grasping on with their prolegs to pull their body forward until it arches; an iconic movement not depicted by Haring.

Keith Haring Untitled 1982 © Keith Haring Foundation

Haring and Basquiat had an influence on Australian art, especially its street art. The walls that Haring painted are still visible in Melbourne (see my blog post). His simple style of line drawn figures is not inimitable but few do. There is only a couple of Melbourne street artist openly and obviously influenced by Haring – Ero and Civil. Although the influence of Haring, in particular his dogs, on the iconography of clothing manufacturer Mambo has yet to be fully explored; the first appearance of the Mambo’s farting dog occurred in 1984 the same year that Haring visited Australia.

The influence of Basquiat’s visual style is even wider and more varied; from the work of street-artists from Anthony Lister to many contemporary/non-street artists.

How important is influence? Influence has so often been seen as a positive attribute however each iteration of this style weakens the effect, until it becomes bland and ordinary.

Civil, detail of mural, Brunswick

This is the second of a series of posts about the “Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” at the NGV International. To read the first post. (Thanks to the NGV for the tickets to the exhibition and access to media photographs.)


Haring/Basquiat @ NGV

“Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” at the NGV International is the world premiere exhibition bringing together two NYC artists from the 1980s. There are deeper connections than being in the same city, at the same time (both were raised Catholic and identified as men): both were known their work on the streets and for their drawn lines. Both are great artists who knew each other, drew each other, collaborated with each other. And yet are very different people and artists.

Recreation of Haring’s waterwall painting from 1984

“Crossing Lines” is a large exhibition with over 200 works by the two artists along with many documents, photographs and any other things that explain the NYC art scene that they inhabited. There are important major paintings from both artists are shown but it the early work that exhibition excels (at the same time causing it to jump around both artist’s short lives). For two artists with tragically short lives the exhibition does jump around in time a bit getting work to fit into themes.

It was great to see some very early work from off the street, including a panel where they both added their already iconic images: Haring’s dog and baby and Basquiat’s crown. There are more street art collaborations with Kenny Scharf, Fab 5 Freddy and LAII.

detail of street work featuring both Haring and Basquiat

It is a big exhibition for artists two artists with limited iconographies but there is more variety that I expected. To accompany this variety there is a great variety of exhibition spaces, along with large and small, there is music and silence and types of light (the UV light room with fluorescent colours). It is an exhibition that I could dance to. What to do with the long corridors that connects the galleries is always a problem for the NGV curators but this time they make it work with videos and enlarged photos.

A small local complaint that there was no any mention of a Haring visit to Melbourne in 1984 and that his work is still on its walls. (See my blog post.) The stolen, and later returned, door with his iconic radiant baby from the wall of the Collingwood Tech was on exhibition but without any explanation.

I had a lot of fun at the exhibition and it has given me a lot to think about, bringing together thoughts that have been going around in my brain since the 1980s. So I will be writing a series of posts about it: under the influence. (Thanks to the NGV for the tickets to the exhibition and access to media photographs)

Exhibition wall with the door from the Collingwood Tech

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What ever happened to the idea of the neo-renaissance artist in the 1970s and 80s? The artist who worked across media a diverse as paint and film, music and fashion. It wasn’t just Haring and Basquiat who worked in art, fashion and music. There were multiple versions of this idea, the prime example being Andy Warhol as photographer, film maker and the Velvet Underground’s producer.

It is about a way of life rather than a professional approach. A hiphop/punk utopia with the total merger of art, politics and life; painting in the afternoon and spinning records at night. This diversity of practice is so different from many current contemporary artists who are often focused on a single media and subject.


Gordon Bennett @ Sutton Gallery

The title of Gordon Bennett’s latest exhibition: “(Abstraction) Citizen” is just waiting to be deconstructed. They are tempting text to use as a springboard for an examination of Australia’s race relationship and representation.

The paintings themselves, Bennett’s series of double portraits invites more critical discourse about the dichotomy between words and identity, abstraction and representation, citizens and non-citizens. In Bennett’s painting the pink lines that make one face are on top of the black/brown X-ray, geometric figures that are reminiscent of figures by Jean-Michel Basquiat. In 1998 Bennett started to channel Basquiat in his paintings. Bennett saw similarities his Anglo-Celtic and Aboriginal ancestry and Basquiat’s Haitian/Puerto Rican, as well as, that Basquiat’s art that was an amalgam of visual images and ideas.

Underneath the double portraits of imaginary people Gordon Bennett has written words on the canvas, titling the portraits with text: “suburbanite”, “burgher”, “indigene”, “citizenry”, “colonist” and “population”.

The philosopher Max Stirner wrote: “…in order to be a real I, a ‘free burgher’, a ‘citizen’, a ‘free and true man’, they too see the truth and reality of me in the reception of an alien I and devotion to it. And what sort of I? An I that is neither an I nor a you, a fancied I, a spook.” (The Ego and Its Own p.225)

Max Stirner argues that identities like ‘citizen’ are alien abstractions; that I am not a citizen, a suburbanite, a burgher, an indigene, citizenry, colonist, or even population. The words that Bennett has written on his paintings are abstractions; they are not representational or representative of an individual. The words suggest a membership of an abstract group. It is also a reference to Bennett’s alternate identity as “John Citizen”.

Gordon Bennett keeps on changing his style of painting. I remember seeing his retrospective of twenty years of art at the NGV in 2007 and being struck by the variety of media, besides painting, that Bennett has used including videos and self-portraits in the form of installations with dressing tables. Bennett’s ‘cut & paste’ aesthetic appropriates everyone; he mixes Pollock with Pop Art, Phillip Guston with De Stijl, going from one extreme to another. He could, at this stage of his career be resting on his achievements and like many other established artists continuing to turn out trademark style paintings but instead he keeps on changing.

Gordon Bennett is a post-modern stylistic master of appropriation mixing Western and Australian aboriginal art with a post-colonial agenda. This sounds very serious but Bennett makes post-modernism visual delight. Gordon Bennett’s art will remain a critical favourite with his references and thought provoking work but his art remains fun and visually appealing.

Commemorative plaque @ Queensland College of Art, Brisbane


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