“Art World Explained: Expected to Fetch”
Thirty one years after the death of Jean-Michel Basquiat, his art has finally transcended the last velvet rope of the art-world elite: the one that cordons off the exclusive 100 million dollar club where names like Leonardo Da Vinci, Picasso, and Warhol, nonchalantly roll off the tongues of wealthy collectors. This is that rarified world where masterpieces by historic artists trade back and forth through auction houses, like highly prized baseball cards.
Actually, Basquiat didn’t just transcend the velvet rope — he trampled it and kicked it into the abyss when one of his paintings sold for an Earth wobbling $110.5 million, thus becoming the most expensive American painting ever sold at auction. And according to a May 2017 New York Times report, it was the “…first painting created since 1980 to crack the 100 million dollar mark” at auction.
Oh, and, Ahem…did I mention that Basquiat was Black?
This fact is of major significance in the art world because it will affect the landscape of the global art market in the same way that “Wakanda” will affect superhero film making forever more. It changes global perception about what is bankable because in the Art World, just as in Hollywood, money talks.
In the art world, however, money doesn’t just talk; it vrooms up and down blue-chip thoroughfares with bullhorns and loudspeakers, honking all the way.
This record-blasting $110.5 million sale of Basquiat’s painting has affected the art world’s gravitational pull on the investment world and left each sphere a lot more tilted on its axis. Deep pocketed collectors are all riled-up, excitedly looking for clues as to which artists might be next up. And in the investment world, confidence strengthens around the concept of art as a solid and viable investment alternative. As this confidence seeps throughout the art market, it eventually benefits other artists. But this time, a significant number of them will be Black. Yes, in the art world, Black is becoming the new green where it matters most: on the secondary market auction level.
Some may disagree with this statement because the traditions of art commerce have not flipped 180 degrees overnight. But where some might prefer to look at the cup as being half empty, I prefer to focus on the fact that there is finally water in the cup at all. And it is now being used to plant an acorn that will dig roots deep into the fertile earth of the art world and become a mighty oak. Despite the fact that African-American artists have been, and continue to be, underrepresented in the Museum world, the International art-fair world, and the top tier gallery world – let us not forget this one simple fact: It is the deep pocketed collector’s influence on all of the above that holds the power to change the art world. With the $110.5 million purchase of Basquiat’s “Untitled” by Yusaku Maezawa, a billionaire collector from Japan, the idea of African-American art as a premium investment instrument has gained a powerful, new ally. This is not to say that Maezawa purchased “Untitled” because it was created by a Black artist, but it certainly is to say that when Maezawa paid $110.5 million for the painting, he did so without letting the fact that it was made by a Black artist, stand in the way. Not to mention that Basquiat’s work screams from a particularly Black perspective, echoing influences from African-American art predecessors such as Romare Bearden (see Bearden’s “Baptism” for example). The point is, for Maezawa, the power of Basquiat’s painting was what ruled the day.
This creates new precedence in the upper tiers of the art market where there is a tendency for art by African-Americans to never even see the light of day, let alone rule it. So Maezawa’s presence in the room is significant. He has not just quietly entered the 100 million-plus collectors’ club — he is holding court in his own roped-off VIP section; popping bottles with his feet propped up defiantly. Now the art market caters to him. Maezawa is the kind of collector who has the money and power to affect the art market, from top to bottom.
Historically, collectors who have understood their power in the art market have had far more impact on its structure than any historical art movement. The collectors are the ones who inevitably shape art movements, thus, create the art markets. In fact, the commercialization of the art market as we know it (for works by living artists) is largely the result of one single collector: the late Robert Scull. He was a collector of Contemporary art who, in 1973, used his extensive marketing expertise and media influence to herd excited buyers into a Sotheby’s auction where he flipped his collection of works by living artists for astonishing profits. This auction set new price-points for the entire Contemporary art market in America and catapulted its status as a major player in the International art game. Additionally, market values skyrocketed for the artists whose works sold in the Scull auction: artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and William de Kooning, just to name a few. According to an article by Baruch D. Kirschenbaum regarding the documentary produced about the Scull auction, “a Jasper Johns painting purchased by Scull less than ten years prior for $10,200, sold for $240,000 at that auction.” Profits such as this, then and now, create exciting headlines. They attract new speculators and investors, in addition to devoted art lovers who have the means to preserve the best works in their own private collections.
Maezawa’s power in the art market is already being felt, and he is using it generously. The first stop for his prized $110.5 million Basquiat painting was the Brooklyn Museum — Brooklyn being Basquiat’s birthplace, thus honoring him in the place where his life began. After a world tour, the painting will end up in a museum Maezawa is building in Japan. This tour has already started a new International trend regarding the way people look at the art market and who can represent the highest caliber.
Collectors have always been the lifeblood of the entire art market. Brother and sister collectors, Leo and Gertrude Stein, had a tremendous effect on the art careers of Picasso and Matisse; Charles Saatchi (collector first, then gallery owner) had a tremendous effect on the careers of Damien Hirst and the YBA’s. The list goes on. There will continue to be collectors who have, not only great sums of money to buy art, but also, great visionary ideas for the artists whose works they acquire. Many prominent museums, both private and public, have been started with the works of individual collectors.
Maezawa undoubtedly has great vision for his prized Basquiat masterpiece “Untitled,” but he also has a remarkable advantage that previous generations of collectors could never have dreamed of: Maezawa has social media –that magical push-button access to the whole wide world. Upon winning the $110.5 auction, Maezawa went straight to Instagram with the first photo. In effect, he was taking the high-brow world of art collecting far beyond the formal setting of white-gloved auction houses; he was “taking it to the street.” This is a saying Basquiat, himself, would have known well. Maezawa is single-handedly taking Basquiat’s “Untitled” from the status of art-world star to the status of pop culture super star. The painting is quickly gaining fandom beyond the art world.
However, Maezawa is not alone in this quickly-expanding power base of influential collectors. African-American celebrities are also among the tastemakers that have stepped up to forge this movement forward. Long leading the charge have been former basketball player, Grant Hill, and his wife, the renowned singer, Tamia, with an extensive collection of African-American art and a non-stop advocacy for a wider appreciation of it on all levels; and Rap Industry mogul, Jay-Z, has included Basquiat’s name in his verses, long before the headlines. He and other music moguls such as Sean Combs, stride coolly through the collectors game, sprinkling acorns around with their million dollar purchases; while the producer and rapper, Swiss Beatz, has stepped up as a leading collector, arts organizer, curator, and spokesman for African-American artists. There are many other contributors to this movement, too many to mention here, but the seeds are being sewn everywhere. The growing presence of major celebrities in the art game is garnering the attention of a generation of previously uninterested potential collectors. Significant changes are also happening on the institutional level. The work of the late artist/writer, Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum — the first museum solely devoted to African-American History and Culture — laid the first cultural cornerstone for such monumental endeavors as the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture championed into reality by Dr. Lonnie Bunch III. Meanwhile, respected African-American curators are in place at other prestigious museums, bringing context to the conversations around African-American art.
Auction houses, museums, the International art-fair market, and collectors are all stepping up their games when it comes to including and showcasing works by African-American artists and their works are breaking auction records all over the secondary auction market. Signs indicate that this will only continue. So, yes! Things are changing.
However, as I have said for more than a decade, it is critical to understand that there is more than one art world: there is the art world where some collectors and speculators buy for investment reasons, and there is an art world where people buy merely because they love the work and want it in their lives. They want to surround their families with the brilliance and creativity of artists who they respect, and they want to pass that mission along to new generations as a point of cultural pride. When it comes to the “collecting for investment purposes” world and the “collecting for the love of the art” world, collectors like Maezawa, Jay- Z, Combs, Swiss Beatz seem to inhabit both categories; the first, maybe just by default. After all, once you pay millions of dollars for a painting or sculpture, you will likely be keeping a keen eye on its future value in the market place. As for the market level where collectors are buying solely to enhance their personal lives, things there are also changing for African-American artists. Organizations like the Chicago Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta and their annual Gallery D’ESTEE show is steadily creating new collectors that see themselves as “getting in on the ground floor” of an exciting shift in the art market. This show attracts new collectors of all races. All of this is fantastic news for African-American artists, overall. However, not all artists are currently positioned in the “sweet spot,” and they will feel the pain until the market self-corrects. This will happen from the top down as the upper tiers of the art market (in response to collectors like Maezawa) expand their presentation of African-American art; and from the bottom up as sales activities at the top excite new investors and bring them into the market at various entry levels. Eventually, the collectors’ base for African-American art will expand across the board – attracting even more celebrity tastemakers from sports, entertainment, and business.
There is one catch, however. In order for the culture to succeed in this changing market, collectors like Jay-Z and Combs have to maintain the same cultural savvy in art collecting as they used to build themselves into the businessmen they have become. They have to steadfastly protect themselves from the game of words that proliferate in the art market, and resist being told by art experts what to love and who to invest in. Experts will continue to court them heavily… many of whom have no vested interest in uplifting African-American culture, aside from the profit they will personally earn or generate from the influence of these celebrities. Collectors like Jay-Z and Combs will, hopefully, remain focused on the fact that — through their buying power in the top tier art world — they are also shaping the future of African-American artists. They must resist being told how their culture should look to them in the context of contemporary art and instead make it clear to the art experts that they are calling the shots for their own cultural identity. If they stick to buying the African-American art that resonates with their hearts, rather than just investment portfolios, proud images of their culture will be emblazoned on the highest levels of the market where they have traditionally been absent; apparently considered unworthy of inclusion in the art historical canons and conversations. By leveraging their buying power, Black celebrities, along with collectors like Maezawa, will change the entire art world from top to bottom.
Basquiat’s paintings have already started the ball rolling and given it unprecedented momentum. But, on the one hand, while news of the $110.5 million sale has shaken up things in the art world; on the other, it also sends many current owners of his work speeding toward auction houses with their pieces; each hoping to cash in on the excitement. This brings another force whirling into play: the effect of all this excitement on Basquiat’s actual legacy.
When the $110.5 million recording breaking sale tilted the art-world on its axis, a profusion of experts slid to the forefront: curators, art dealers, historians, investors, researches, critics…all with their formal opinions and clipboards; just as they did in the early 80’s when Basquiat first entered the New York gallery scene. And, just as the experts did back then when they whipped out white gloves and popped open briefcases packed with art history litmus strips and ornate words – they have begun another dissection of Basquiat’s creative intentions. By now, every color, symbol, word, brush stroke, paint layer, technique has been analyzed in an attempt to penetrate the encryption of Basquiat’s artistic language, and to sentence him to the sterile context of art historical canons reserved for blue chip artists.
In the art world, there is an obsession to categorize everything: artists, art movements, art canons, art ethos, art mediums, art everything…as if all artists in a particular generation meet to decide what style everyone should collectively go after, next. In fact, traditionally speaking, artists have never created movements, the art experts do. While artists might decide to group together and try new styles and approaches, or take a unified stand against the establishment — it has been traditionally the museum level that has decided which groups of artists deserve to stand out at any given period in art history. Now that role is equally played by auction houses, thanks to Scull; and International art fairs choked with blue-chip dealers. Still category is key.
After all, once experts can categorize works-of-art, they can control the elasticity of the boundaries around those categories. They can decide who gets in and who gets left out; who is knighted and who is not. And when the category of “Conceptual” art was created, there became even less of a requirement for experts to adhere to any boundaries… even adjustable ones. Now they can simply include whichever artists they desire to be in the room and brand them with the blue-chip rubber stamp, regardless of the quality of work. All of this, in turn, affects the alchemy of artists. After all, what artist doesn’t want to eat? What artist doesn’t want to exist at the top of the food chain? And so we have ended up with an art world where too many artists are desperately standing on their heads for the attention and validation of experts, instead of channeling true creative inspiration into art. We’ve all seen the evidence of this in the art world. We’ve all been confronted by works with zero visual power: works that are accompanied by long elaborate narratives designed to prop them up and convince the viewer that the work is somehow altering life on Earth, as they know it, even as the viewer stands there feeling nothing from their encounter with the work. And isn’t this the least we should be able to expect from “visual” art?…that it be “visually” moving in some way. Now, the words tell us what to feel while the art speaks nothing. At this point, the game of words is now palpable.
Not every handful of rocks placed on a pedestal, is art. And not everything created by an artist will be “art” to you. That’s as it should be. We should all get to choose our definition of what “real” art is to us. But there are currently way too many experts operating on the belief that they should decide what art is for all the rest of us; that they should tell us what’s worthy of our attention and money, and what is not.
When you encounter a work that leaves you totaling scratching your head saying “what makes that thing “art”?!… it’s not so much that the particular work has gone over your head. It’s more likely the case that the work simply does not have the heart or merit you expect to result from creative talent. You are well within your right to be unimpressed when art doesn’t speak to you. It’s called freedom. Too often, the art we are presented with is a byproduct of an art-market commerce system that is built upon shock value, rather than sincere creative energy. After all, creative energy is the intangible, magical force that art freeze-frames and encapsulates for us to witness. The most moving work always manages to emanate with the fingerprint and energy of its creator.
The unfortunate thing is – artists, by nature, are the sincerest creators. Even in the absence of an art market, artists would still create art. However, there is, in fact, an art market and artists who desire to be successful in it, are being tacitly conditioned by the current market structure, to fit in, or be left out. The market literally makes it a constant sacrifice for artists to remain true to themselves.
This is where Basquiat enters the art world conversation as a rock star.
Basquiat refused to fit in, even back in the early 80’s when the highbrow, rarified world of art presenters – from galleries to museums — was known for its virtually complete absence of African-American representation. And even when the chance of a Black graffiti writer from the streets being invited beyond the velvet rope, was unimaginable, Basquiat entered that esoteric world against every odd without giving up his soul to do it. He entered the territory with his freedom intact, dreads jutting every which-a-way, with an aura that defied anyone to try to make him invisible. His bold, unapologetic arrival reverberated across the art world; and coupled with his striking, unbridled approached to the canvas, his paintings blasted onto the scene like the Singularity.
Part of what makes Basquiat such a significant artist to me is that he made exactly what he chose to make – exactly how he chose to make it – and with an energy and intensity that could only flow through him. Art does not get any purer than this. Basquiat’s work was as complex as it was pure. He was a man whose mind travelled in and out of intellectual disciplines — from Science and Anatomy, to Literature, to Musical genres that included Classical, Jazz, and Hip Hop. His canvases resembled something out of a Leonardo Da Vinci manuscript crossed with a graffiti wall. Basquiat didn’t cram himself or his art into categories. But that did little to stop the experts from swooping in to categorize him and take ownership of his legacy. Experts, then and now, only needed to open their ears, rather than their thesauruses, to hear what Basquiat had to say about his own artistic intentions.
In a 1983 interview with Marc H. Miller, Basquiat referred to working on his canvases as “putting a lot down on it and taking a lot away” in a process that was “…random rather than logical.” This is the ritual of many artists. Most great art is not created by artists merely replicating blueprints in their minds, but rather, it is arrived at through a totally immersive process whereby the visceral self in lock-step with the technical self, struggles toward an aesthetic conclusion. When you add listening to music to the process of painting, which Basquiat was known to always do, the process becomes even more magical and immersive. After all, we are electrical beings and internal circuitry is activated by inputs to our senses. As an artist paints to the sound of emotion-inducing music, the heart rate is affected. Additionally, electrical signals, caused by hearing, fire simultaneously with those caused by sight, creating activity in multiple regions in the brain. Add the stimulus of painting with vibrant colors to this equation which creates even more chemical reactions, thus electrical signals and it is easy to understand that creating art while listening to music can literally be a full-body, magical experience that effects creative output.
In Basquiat’s magical process, he arrived at an artistic language of expression that only he could speak and he translated that language into brilliant creative expressions. Looking at many of his works, I feel as if I’m visually experiencing the random echoes of his mind: the conscious and subconscious screams and whispers of being who he was, how he was, when he was, and where he was in his life in America. To me, each canvas is a complete ecosystem with intentions as clear and precise as a Miles Davis composition. “It is what it is,” without apology, pretense, or long-winded explanations. For every mark and brush stroke that exists on Basquiat’s canvas, he had his own reason for putting it there, or crossing it out, or partially painting over it, or repeating it; and his art radiates with that sincerity and uniqueness.
Basquiat said in an interview that even when he used source material, it wasn’t copying because the source material was an old idea being put through “his new mind.” For me Basquiat’s canvases are in themselves source materials, primed and ready to be put through our new minds, for whatever interpretation we might form for ourselves. He definitely left that part up to us. But, while it is one thing for any expert to experience and share their own interpretations of Basquiat’s work, it is quite another for experts to try to rewrite Basquiat’s own reasons for why he created the work.
During Basquiat’s lifetime, he resisted attempts by experts to put words into his mouth. He resisted their tendencies to reconfigure his artistic intentions to suit themselves. In fact, he had a clear resentment for it. According to Basquiat’s friend and creative contemporary, Fred Brathwaite (known to the world as hip hop artist, Fab Five Freddy), while he and Basquiat were at a museum listening to an expert discuss Picasso’s painting “Guernica” Basquiat challenged the expert’s authority saying, “What gives you the right to speak for Picasso about his work? Similarly, Basquiat squared off with experts who tried to tell him who he was, and what he was trying to say through his art. When an interviewer tried to link Basquiat’s work to the ‘Expressionists Movement,’ Basquiat treated the term as redundant saying, “I’m a painter…my work is supposed to be ‘expressive.’” Like, duh? And when the same interviewer tried to pin his work to the concept of ‘Primitism’ Basquiat stared at the interviewer not too kindly and said, “Primitism? You mean like an ape?” That particular expert, Marc H. Miller, eased up on the suggestion.
Little did Basquiat know that his work would eventually sell for $110.5 million and become the epicenter for the kind of experts that tend to speak so loudly about an artist’s intentions that they drown out the artist’s own voice.
With Basquiat, as is the case with any artist, there is but one true expert on the subject and meaning of their works, and that person is the artist. However, being long laid to rest, Basquiat experts are free to run rampant with his legacy. Some have taken his complex creative genius and distilled it down to simplistic terms with an orderly catalogue-worthy narrative. But, this is what experts in art do: they find things to be expert on. It just so happens that Basquiat’s canvases are rife with enough ideographic symbolism, suggestions of conflict, and intriguing compositional choices — as to supply endless generations of experts with the infrastructure upon which to build their own legacies and reputations. Yes, in the art world, everyone’s looking for a reputation, from the top to the bottom.
This is not to say that real experts and respectable art dealers don’t exist in the art world, but it is to say that art world commerce, especially at the top levels, largely depends upon collectors being told by experts exactly what to perceive, and then how to value that perception; rather than the collectors being permitted to freely experience the work and draw their own conclusions.
This is just plain bad for humanity and artists as creative and influential social forces. Artists should be defining what art is, not narratives designed by marketing gurus. No expert should have the power to tell a collector that they are a better judge of what the collector should value, or that they are a better judge of what the collector should feel on a visceral level when they experience art. In no other art form do people allow others to tell them what they should feel: not in music, not in film, not in theater, not in dance, and not in literature…but in visual art, we tend to wait for the experts to speak. Basquiat understood how this game made room for both he and his art to be exploited.
In interviews where Basquiat is asked to explain his work, he leaves it on the viewer to be moved, or not moved. This is what many, many artists long for: to have their work move the viewer on a visceral level, even before the first word is exchanged.
Visual art should have the power to speak on its own, whether or not the artist can supply a long-winded narrative for every drop, spot, and dot on the canvas. Likewise, not every painting an artist creates needs to have the goal of reinventing the social-political role of the doorknob as it relates to symbols of access in the Western Hemisphere. And not every painting needs to be hopped-up on steroids of social conflict, or whatever might be the art keywords of the day. Art is the byproduct of a creative human species and the human species comes with an inexhaustible supply of cultures, ideals, emotions, reflections, and sentiments. When artists are allowed the freedom to explore all areas of their humanity without being edited out of the conversation as a result of cultural differences, all areas of human emotion will be explored. Creative skill will evolve to unimaginable levels and deepen the experience of existing.
Conversely, no matter what art is now, or what it might become, creative skill should never be edged out of the equation. Just as in music where lyrics and musical styles might vary with each singer, the singer should still be able to sing. The musician should still be able to play.
Visual art should, at its very least, be suggestive of an artistic talent of some kind. Otherwise, why are we calling it art? Would you call a piano, an auto part? Somewhere in art, an artistic voice should be speaking and that should be evident somewhere in the work.
Publically, Basquiat let his art do the talking, even at the very beginning when he was tagging buildings with text and phrases with his street-art partner, Al Diaz, under their co-created name brand, SAMO. Later Basquiat would evolve into painting professionally, and his artistry would reveal a brilliant alchemist of the visual cortex. He seemed to intuitively know how to use imagery to control the eye, and how to use color to strike the visual cortex at wavelengths and frequencies that delivered optimum impact. He knew how to draw the viewer in and keep them intrigued. His pieces have holding power.
That makes it hard to watch Basquiat’s complex canvases be force-fed into inadequate categories by so many who have never really bothered to learn about him, from him, in the words he left behind regarding his work. In Basquiat’s own words, when asked about why he painted certain things, or used certain symbols, he would reply, “Would you ask Miles Davis why he put a certain note where he did?”
Not only do too many art experts want to explain each and every note Basquiat played, some want to rewrite the songs in a whole different key for collectors. But this is where Basquiat’s true legacy finally wins out with the acquisition of his piece “Untitled” for $110.5 million and this is where all artists just gained a champion collector.
Yusaku Maezawa didn’t rely on a game of words to make his decision about purchasing Basquiat’s painting. Instead, he did exactly what most artists want collectors to do. Maezawa looked at the painting and allowed its raw, unconstrained visual power, to astound him from head to toe. When he first saw the painting he said, “I felt so much power, I almost cried!…It struck me with such energy and excitement.”
In other words, for Maezawa, Basquiat’s work had the ultimate wow factor: that “hit” as some artists call it. The “hit” is that moment when a work-of-art hits the viewer like a G-Force and takes their breath away. This is the power of art and, like Maezawa, true art-lovers and collectors don’t need to turn to experts for validation of what they should feel. They don’t ask for permission to value what they love. Those are the kinds of collectors that I hope Jay-Z and Sean Combs are because they are now at the forefront of a new movement. Together, collectors hold the power to restore the art community to a place of true creativity, and to demand the presence of the art they value, at the very top of the art world.
Art dealers have a place in this restoration too. They have to allow artists to explore and evolve.
Of the experts I have heard speak soulfully on Basquiat’s work, Larry Gagosian, a long time dealer of Basquiat’s paintings when the artist was living, seems to get it right. He speaks respectfully about Basquiat’s legacy and allows him to remain the protagonist in his own story, rather than treating him like a mere byproduct of art-world commerce. So, Basquiat’s true legacy is not without its champions.
In fairness, there are areas in the art world where expertise outside of the artist’s talent is required. Certain things in an artistic practice can be quantified by experts, on expert scales. Vermeer, for example, could be judged on a technical scale for the way he replicated natural light…or Michelangelo on his depiction of anatomy. But, with abstract, or expressionistic art, or conceptual art, there really is no technical scale to consult. The success of a particular work remains exclusively in the eye of each and beholder. They either like it, or they don’t. For me, the best works always start with a hit and radiate with the artist’s unique creative perspective. Fortunately, for collectors, there are still many artists producing exciting work.
Recently I came across the work of another artist whose canvases resonated with that all-elusive hit: a Chicago artist named Jesse Greene, previously known by the graffiti tag, Dense 83. In many ways, I would place his style squarely along the lineage of Basquiat’s legacy. If Basquiat’s work pinpoints the Singularity itself –that precise moment in art history where street art crossed the dimension into high art — then I see the art of Jesse Greene as that period following the Singularity where the complex microorganisms of that explosive moment have gravitated together and coalesced into orderly new life forms.
I remember seeing Greene’s work in a group show more than a decade ago and was first impressed by his potential as a figurative painter. I didn’t know about the graffiti side of his art until hearing about a fairly recent show and learning that Greene and Dense 83 were one in the same person. As it relates to Basquiat, I see some obvious similarities.
Jesse Greene, like Basquiat, has evolved and mastered his own unique language system that combines the grit of graffiti with shape-shifting symbols that seem to reference everything from African Adinkra-style symbolism — to the visual sleekness of Ethiopic script — to silhouettes suggestive of social-political origin. For much of the same reason that Basquiat’s work affects me personally, so does the art of Jesse Greene. His canvases present a complex assemblage of ideograms that speak directly to the subconscious mind. However, whereas Basquiat used a uniquely complex casts of anatomical figures as his central characters, Jesse Greene seems to imply his protagonists through the pareidolia effect of paint splatters. Like ink blots in a psychological evaluation, a single drip of paint on Greene’s canvas morphs into an onlooker; another splat becomes a man staring upward, or a silhouette of a kneeling figure. There is a limitless cast of characters to be identified, or imagined. And his work has that masterful, alchemist-level color quality to it, where he chooses to employ color. But even on canvases where color is not used, his blacks and whites intrigue with a powerful, self-invented typography that beckons to be decoded. In reading his bio, although he has a very intelligent point of view about life itself, Jesse Greene doesn’t seem to rely on fabricated narratives to substitute for substance. Just as it was with the art of Basquiat, the art of Jesse Green “is what it is.” And whatever that amounts to seems largely left to the viewer’s own subconscious to answer.
For a similar reason, but in a different medium, Najee Dorsey succeeds. His collage paintings are shadowed with an almost chromosomal familiarity to those of the great Romare Bearden, but Dorsey presents his own unique mastery of the college medium. His reimagined vignettes of African-American life and culture seem to supply a status update to the world first introduced in Jacob Lawrence’s “Great Migration” series. With that same proud countenance, Najee Dorsey’s protagonists continue to confront and survive the aftermath. His collages appear to be rendered with a Cubist perspective where planes and dimensions of reality are divided and reassembled into something familiar, yet, with a fresh, new sense of place and subject matter. His canvases are choked full of pictorial messages that beg to be analyzed and decoded as if modern day hieroglyphs. Like the great masters before them, Najee Dorsey and Jesse Greene are in full command of that all elusive “hit” factor that many artists long for. Their work, like Bearden’s, Lawrence’s, and Basquiat’s, reverberate with creative freedom, rather than conformity and provide an artistic continuity of both ethos and legacy.
It is a rare artist who can create their own unique ecosystem of expression. But, when you come upon such works, they strike with such power and distinctive language that you would recognize the artist’s work with, or without, a signature.
Such was the mastery of Basquiat, and this is the legacy he leaves for young artists who will hopefully, likewise learn, to go within and uncover the utterings of the soul itself. As Basquiat said during an interview, “I don’t think about art while I’m painting, I think about life.” This is what all artists should do: they should allow themselves to be conduits of creativity as they explore life, and as they process the unique internal and external terrain of experience. Only then will their individual voices emerge and resonate with uncontrived and unmistakable authenticity. Collectors are now starting to back them up more than any other time in history, and collecting work by African-American artists is on the rise. The acorns have been firmly planted and the roots are digging deeper into the soil as they create.
DEBRA HAND is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer. She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park. Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma; Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.
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