Oct 10th, 2018, 02:59 PM

Jean Michel Basquiat on Display

By Carolina Galbiati
Image Credit: Carolina Galbiati
On display are 120 of the finest works of the brilliant Jean Michel Basquiat, prodigè of Andy Warhol and street-art artist that changed post-modern pop art.

On October 3, the Fondation Louis Vuitton launched the special Exhibition of the works of Jean Michel Basquiat, the artist from the 1980s who shaped the pop art movement in the Manhattan's Lower East Side. The exhibition takes over four of the floors of the highly-acclaimed architectural building created in 2006 By Frank Gehry, an internationally renowned architect.

The chefs d'ouvre are displayed in a chronological manner, grasping accurately the moods and movements that defined the artist's journey until his early death at the age of 27. The way in which he portrays the racism and classism in an arising capitalistic and elitist New York, all while transmitting the pleasures of color and texture onto big, structured canvases, makes the exhibition a must-see, especially for people who don't know the artist yet.

His work delights all audiences by meshing culture, sex, and death in our decaying culture. With more than 100 works, Foundation Louis Vuitton exposes his last artwork for the first time in Paris, which is perhaps his most important one - Riding with Death. Kept for the end of the exhibition, in the middle of a spacious room, this oil on canvas work portrays Basquiat's thoughts on death. What is most exceptional about this painting is the timeliness: the piece seems like more of a reflection on Warhol's imminent death, the pop-art fellow artist who deeply influenced his career and created with him his most famous collaborative artworks. Other hidden treasures are Obnoxious Liberals (1982) and In Italian (1983). 

Image Credit: Carolina Galbiati

What is most captivating about Basquiat's work is the cultural dichotomies his art is subjected to. Born from a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother in the middle of the center of the Hip Hop, Punk and Street Art movements, the artist explores the ideas of individuality, greed, color, and power, critiquing the effect of such hierarchies in contemporary society.

For some of his early works, he used lots of pieces of paper glued to the canvases to indicate the per capita of each state's average income, a commentary on the way in which we define humans through their numbers and monetary value. Even if the piece, like most of them, is abstract, the form and color through which these modern issues are juxtaposed with one another create a synergy of bold, incongruous statements that allow the viewer to reflect on the modern structures of humanity. With the use of color and thick, overlapping paint he molds his manifestos into shapes of heads, objects, and skylines, which show his essential relationship with the streets of downtown New York and how significant the people and the landscapes were for his art.

Image Credit: Carolina Galbiati

Image Credit: Carolina Galbiati

What makes this exhibition remarkable and a must visit is Basquiat's incredible influence on contemporary art and political and social discourse. Thanks to his collaborations and close friendship with Andy Warhol, he was able to achieve unsurmountable fame and inspire many artists who, sick of the rules and restrictive snobbism in the art world, wanted more. The way he made his primitive and street/graffiti style become the center of the art market and of all of the world's attention, without attending a single art school and without any source of nepotism or any connections, shook the art.

The elite market had completely shifted by the mid-1980's, and Basquiat, Warhol and fellow pop artists took center stage for what would be an unfortunately short period of time. By the time Basquiat became famous, so did heroin. The drug was stronger than ever and trafficked more than ever, especially in downtown New York City. His friends became more and more concerned about his drug abuse, which grew until Warhol's death in 1987. Not long after that, Basquiat left New York for Hawaii, then came back to the city "cleansed", or so he said. A year later, in 1988, he was found dead of a heroin overdose in his apartment in NoHo, located in downtown Manhattan. He was only 27. Destroyed by his own world, he is viewed as one of the revolutionary artists of the 21st century. He is still represented visually and metaphysically in the fashion, art and music industry.

Image Credit: Carolina Galbiati​​​​​​​

To truly understand the motive and creativity behind pop art one must comprehend the context of its manifestos. The pop art movement is a visual art movement, a discourse that comes from more recent, gruesome periods of history: the industrial revolution, the factory work industry and supermarket/fast food culture- a critique of a more contemporary world of capitalistic desires, the failed American dream and the perversion of the mass culture of production. Originating in Britain and America in the 1950's, the ideology behind it was wholly inspired by the rising new working class and the rich world pop culture, as artists were in awe of the rise of commercialization and increased mass production.

The movement spurs from abstract art and surrealism, and that can be observed by the way that the art does not represent a viewer's utopia or its surroundings. It shows us the beauty or horror of mundane objects, critiquing our society and the modern world.

The aim, if there was any, was to elevate everyday, popular life and its objects to the levels of fine art, allowing the medium of low-class culture to enter the sphere of the upper-class fine art lovers. The subject matter shifted from morality, classicism, and heritage to comic books, cans of soup, and reproduction of posters of celebrities as iconography.

Andy Warhol's Marylin, Reproductions on canvas. Image Credit: Pixabay/Flickr

A great way to see the exposition is in the order in which Foundation suggests, which means going through the display of Egon Schiele's work first. The museum naturally leads you to the show before Basquiat's as a preamble from one or two artistic generations before pop art. Egon Schiele's 100 portraits, drawings, and gouaches captivate the essence of the "Viennese spirit of the early 20th century" perfectly, as the curator's critique says on the foundation's website. His work is said to represent the peak of early expressionism. 

Schiele's most famous work, Image Credit: Carolina Galbiati

The exhibition will be at Fondation Louis Vuitton until 14 January. For more information on Basquiat and ticketing, please click here.

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