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Indepth Arts News:

2005-11-20 until 2006-02-16
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Houston, TX, USA

Basquiat, an exhibition that examines and explicates the brilliant, mesmerizing works of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), whose meteoric career coincided with the emergence of hip-hop culture and the era of artist as celebrity will open November 20 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Comprising more than 100 paintings and drawings from collections worldwide, Basquiat will be on view in the Upper Brown Pavilion of the Caroline Wiess Law Building, 1001 Bissonnet Street, through February 12, 2006.

Basquiat was organized by the Brooklyn Museum, where it premiered March 11 and was shown through June 5. Before opening in Houston it will be on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles from July 17 through October 10. The national tour of Basquiat is sponsored by JPMorgan Chase.

“JPMorgan Chase is proud to sponsor the national tour of the Basquiat exhibition, whose final venue is the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, one of the nation’s premier art museums,” said Mike Ballases, JPMorgan Chase, chairman of the Houston Region. “As an early supporter of Jean-Michel Basquiat's work, JPMorgan Chase recognized that his work spoke universally, promoted dialogue among diverse cultures, and promoted a broader understanding of the world, serving the highest purpose of art.”

In an early review of the exhibition, the New York Times summarized the reasons for the ongoing fascination with the artist’s work: “…Basquiat’s achievement, produced during a truncated but astoundingly prolific career, has the almost too classic prerequisites of greatness: an indelible yet infinitely flexible visual style that cannibalizes the past, reflects its own time and stays fresh and relevant as it moves into the future.”

Born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Haitian father and Puerto Rican-American mother, Basquiat was fluent in French, Spanish, and English. From an early age he was a voracious learner with a precocious talent for drawing. While his parents both encouraged his artistic interests, his mother assumed the active role of taking him on weekly visits to New York’s major museums and supplying him with art books and supplies. During Basquiat’s prolonged recovery from a childhood traffic accident, she gave him copies of Gray’s Anatomy and Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical studies, sources that he would refer to constantly in his mature career.

Determined to become famous, Basquiat left his family’s home in 1978 to immerse himself in the newly explosive culture of New York’s East Village. He first gained quasi-recognition for the cryptic graffiti poetry he sprayed on the walls of Lower Manhattan under the pseudonym SAMO. He also became involved with the downtown music scene, which led to his leading role in the feature film Downtown 81. Made in late 1980-early 1981, it features Basquiat as a young New York artist and features the leading bands of the period.

In 1981, when he was 20, Basquiat burst upon the art scene under his own name. Although his initial efforts were somewhat tentative, Basquiat quickly developed a complex, pictorially sophisticated mature style. A naturally gifted draftsman, he soon developed into a radically innovative colorist as well. By the age of 21, he had already had five important solo exhibitions and had been included in the prestigious Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany. He remains the youngest artist ever exhibited in Documenta.

In the frenzied art market of the 1980s, Basquiat’s work sold briskly to collectors in both Europe and America. During the recession of the early 1990s, while most artists of the 80s either dropped from sight or sold their work for much lower prices than just a few years before, prices for Basquiat’s work rose steadily. But because museums were slow to respond, almost all his major work is held in private collections.

“We are grateful to the Brooklyn Museum for organizing this important exhibition and to JPMorgan Chase for its support,” said Peter C. Marzio, director of the MFAH. “The MFAH is pleased to have the opportunity to present Basquiat in Houston. Because of the inherent fragility of many of the works and the difficulty of mounting an exhibition comprised almost entirely of works in private hands, this show is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the key works of an astonishing artist.”

Basquiat’s work today remains fresh, challenging, and enigmatic. In his career of just under a decade, he created a distinct style of painting that involved language, a set of repeated personal symbols, and a rhythmic harmony of surface based on a loosely gridded picture plane. Like the Surrealists, Basquiat created his imagery in a freely associative collage manner, arbitrarily combining words with unrelated images. In another aesthetic format, he created a contemporary version of traditional icon painting, but with secular subjects: African-American musicians and athletes who had broken barriers to become respected figures in popular culture. Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker were among his subjects.

“Basquiat’s brilliant sense of pictorial composition is evident throughout his oeuvre, from the austere word drawings through his astonishingly complex multi-panel paintings,” said Barry Walker, curator of modern and contemporary art and of prints and drawings at the MFAH. “Although he packed the works with information, his art is always open to multiple interpretations. This ambiguity of meaning fuels the continued fascination with his work. Like Jack Kerouac, Mark Twain, or Jackson Pollock, Basquiat is truly an American original.”

The co-curators of Basquiat were Marc Mayer, former deputy director for art of the Brooklyn Museum and now director of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal; Fred Hoffman, Ahmanson Curatorial Fellow at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Kellie Jones, assistant professor of the history of art and African studies, Yale University; and Franklin Sirmans, an independent writer, editor, and curator based in New York.

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