Could We Call It Post-Basquiat?
By Shantay Robinson
Most artists strive to be genuine. Originality and authenticity are important to them. But being completely unorthodox is really difficult. The phrase “nothing new under the sun” comes to mind when thinking about ingenuity. People will tell you everything has already been done, which is why people get really excited when something is actually new and original. Most artists learn how to create art by replicating the styles and techniques of the masters they study. By studying art history, methods and styles seep into the consciousnesses of artists and they may or may not be aware they are replicating another artist’s style in their work. At the same time, some artists knowingly take a little bit of this from somewhere and a little bit of that from somewhere else, and they combine them to make something their own. And there isn’t anything wrong with this as long as they acknowledge they were influenced by a particular artist. Then there is the other side of the coin where artists openly borrow from those they respect as a way to pay homage. The little reminders of their artistic mentors are nice gestures and a way to connect the artist to a canon and a larger body of work. One such artist who is frequently borrowed from and whose methods can be found in a great number of contemporary artworks is Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Each time I write about or make reference to Basquiat, I feel a little guilty and a bit elementary, but I always proceed with it because he really is that important. And as the black artworld, we shouldn’t diminish his reach and acclaim just because it’s so pervasive. Treating any of the greats with respect is not doing them a favor. It is a favor to us in recognizing their greatness and sharing that with museum and gallery visitors who might not know it yet. While he passed away more than 30 years ago, there are still large museum exhibitions dedicated to his life’s offerings and his work still fetches top dollar at auctions. He’s considered a great, so as much as museum visitors and critics tend to want to see new works by emerging artists in museums, the museums and exhibition spaces are doing their job to educate those coming of age with knowledge of the masters. Each year a new population enters into museum spaces. So, they too need to know who the masters are. That is why every couple of years museums show work by those artists who are highly revered. And for those of us who know, these exhibitions of the greats are always a break from hit or miss shows. They allow us to see an artist whose work fills the galleries with greatness.
Basquiat is a hero to many black artists, so there is no wonder that we see evidence of admiration for him in their work. The crown, crude markings, and the words show up in paintings of not only black men but also black women and others. So much so that there is a section of work on art sales websites for art particularly inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat. These artists use the colors and shapes used in Basquiat’s work to make their own artworks for sale. They use symbols and signs. They extract portions of paintings and use them as their own. And they sell them. There’s a market for this work. People want to have something that is special and reminds them of someone they revere as special. Artworks inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat forward his agenda. He wanted to be known for his work, and this genre of work in his vein, allows those who own the work and really can’t afford an original Basquiat painting the ability to speak of him to their children and guests in their homes. While his work is quite easy to replicate, it was he who imagined the style. And he was able to produce a good amount of art in a relatively short time. Some of the work Basquiat inspires alludes to his tutelage with nods on discreet places on canvases that also occupy more original content. These nods allow the knowing art critic to make connections to contemporary work and Basquiat as inspiration. Some artists would shun the connections made between themselves and another artist but there is always someone who came before. Whether the inspiration is obvious or not is on the part of the artist creating contemporary work. For some, they relish in the obvious or the nod, but for those who do not recognize the influence in their work, that is unfortunate. Many artists are clearly inspired by Basquiat. For many of us, he’s our introduction to visual art. His reach is global as the most successful black artist who became an international superstar.
Regarded as the patron saint, at least as told by black male artists, Basquiat should be revered for the amount of success he had in his life and the success he continues to acclaim posthumously. Why do we revere Basquiat? Because at a time when the artworld was most homogenous, Basquiat made inroads for artists of color who came behind him. While his legacy includes the creation of a style which is replicated today, it also includes breaking down barriers and being a total badass at gaining respect from what was an extremely homogeneous club of white males. He shattered the glass ceiling for black artists who are part of contemporary art today. While the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement produced stellar artists, their work remained in black communities. They weren’t revered outside of the black art circles where they existed. Yes, artists like Jacob Lawrence made inroads, but others like Norman Lewis only made significant inroads after his death.
So, when I think of Basquiat, I’m not only thinking about his art but what he has done for the artworld. There are so many artists that came before him, who may have had more talent, been equally as original but didn’t receive the acclaim. He worked for that. He didn’t just simply create the work and hope that it made its way into the most important collections in the world. There was no social media to post works in progress and promote the shows he was in. Aside from his actual art, he is a genius for infiltrating the international art market the way he did. When I make mention of Basquiat when speaking of another artists, I feel like I’m making an important connection to an important artist. Because he is so widely seen, these connections come more readily for me. I don’t even think of it as biting or stealing his style but being inspired in an honest way by one of the most important artists the artworld will ever see.
Basquiat’s work, like the work of many great post-modern artists, is the epitome of most artists dreams of being totally original and meaningful at the same time. While many people scoff at Expressionism as something their kid could have done, so many others see the beauty in the unconscious hand of the artist. We follow where the artists lead us, and in many cases, Basquiat was dropping some real science in his artwork. And while most of his patrons are not black, they are made to deal with issues concerning black people by purchasing his work. And while they have these largely political paintings in their homes, it might not be the case that many of them sit and meditate on Basquiat’s meaning and how they themselves contribute to the meaning of the artwork that Basquiat painted. And for this reason, scholarship about Basquiat is important and should continue to be created. And I’m not talking about writing on the tragedy of his life and death but scholarship that digs deeply into the signs and symbols in his work. What could Basquiat be telling us about today as we look back at his work from yesteryear?
It is my thinking that, as I see the works of artists who are inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat, there could in fact be a movement or school of art that reverences this great artist. Would a segment of the art market labeled as “Post-Basquiat” satisfy this movement of artists who work in Basquiat’s manner? If we categorize artworks, which is what art historians and critics do, there could in fact be many artists who fall under this category—those who obviously replicate and those who allude to Basquiat. Would it be fair to say that some of this post-modern, abstract expressionism, and neo-expressionism be attributed to Basquiat openly? In modern times, there haven’t been as many schools and movements labeled outrightly as there have been in the past. Of course, there are Post-Blackness, Afrofuturism, and Afro-Surrealism. Aside from all the portraiture being produced, which is definitely a movement to be named, artists are working independently without a critic to classify and champion their work. Noticing how artists are working individually and not attempting to form these movements collectively, could we revere Jean-Michel Basquiat for his impression on these artists? Could we call it Post-Basquiat?
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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