Story by Waheeda Harris
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
TORONTO, ONTARIO — Not long ago, graffiti was considered something to be ignored, abhorred and hopefully removed. Tags, murals and scripts commenting about society were seen as a symptom of a bad neighbourhood, not something to be noticed by the art world. But in the late 1970s, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art under the guise of his tag SAMO stood out, got noticed and led him from the streets to art galleries around the world.
This month, Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) celebrates the graffiti artist turned contemporary culture celeb with the exhibit “Jean-Michel Basquiat — Now’s the Time,” the first major retrospective of the artist’s work in Canada.
Guest curated for the AGO by art historian/curator Dieter Buchhart, this exhibition will focus on the themes found within Basquiat’s works: abstract expressionism, conceptualism and the influences of pop culture, history, sports, music, comics and graffiti. For the first time, Basquiat’s younger sisters have contributed pieces from their personal collection.
[quote]I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life. – Jean-Michel Basquiat[/quote]
Basquiat’s artistic endeavours started far from the uptown art galleries, as he created graffiti with his high school friend Al Diaz on the streets of Manhattan. They would sign their work with the word SAMO (same old shit). Basquiat was a multi-tasker when it came to creativity: making postcards to earn money, creating a rock band called Test Pattern and becoming a graffiti expert for local New York cable show “TV Party.”
At age 19, Basquiat starred in the indie film “Downtown 81,” and soon became pals with Andy Warhol. He appeared in the music video for Blondie song “Rapture” while working on paintings for his first group exhibition, “The Times Square Exhibition,” held in 1981. Profiled in Artforum Magazine in December 1981, the article “The Radiant Child” officially introduced Basquiat to the art world.
Basquiat became a celebrity, started exhibiting outside New York City, and was soon collaborating with David Bowie, dating Madonna and worked on a series of paintings with Andy Warhol. Despite his art successes, Basquiat’s addiction to heroin led to his death at age 27 in 1988.
[quote]My subject matters are royalty, heroism and the streets. – Jean-Michel Basquiat[/quote]
As explained by AGO chief curator Stephanie Smith, Basquiat’s works were driven by the urgency of the issues he was dealing with: racism, identity and social justice, just as urgent today as 30 years ago.
With 60 paintings and 40 drawings as part of “Jean-Michel Basquiat — Now’s the Time,” the AGO has created an online lure for those interested in learning more about Basquiat and his world with the website Basquiatnow.com. The website offers details about the artist’s creative process, the symbolism of several paintings featured in the exhibit, and includes a pop culture timeline of the early 1980s: the dominance of Pac Man, the marriage of Lady Diana to Prince Charles, and the debut of MTV.
The AGO also gives a taste of Basquiat’s world through music — providing a video playlist via the website featuring tracks from Miles Davis, Grandmaster Flash, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Charlie Parker and Massive Attack, and offers picks from Kathryn Calder of The New Pornographers, Shad, A Tribe Called Red and David Monks of Tokyo Police Club.
As explained by Buchhart, Basquiat could easily be equated with those personalities who lived fast and died young like James Dean or Janis Joplin, but he should be recognized in art history as one of the greats, like Cy Twombly, Warhol and Gerhard Richter. Buchhart’s tip for those viewing the exhibit: Say aloud those words you see in Basquiat’s art — you’ll soon hear the artist’s voice.
More than 25 years later, Basquiat’s observations of society, the role of African-American men and pop culture are just as poignant as when first created. His wide-ranging influences within his art such as anatomy, African history, Leonardo da Vinci, racism, Alfred Hitchcock, social history, boxing, Robert Rauschenberg, and his distinctive style of mixing image with text, numbers, symbols, logos, diagrams and maps has made his works a unique commentary of America in the 1980s and is easily relatable by Canadians in the 21st century.
As Basquiat said, “The more I paint, the more I like everything.”
MORE ABOUT JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT — NOW’S THE TIME
Address: 317 Dundas Street West, Toronto (St. Patrick subway station)
Basquiat Now Website: basquiatnow.com
Art Gallery of Ontario Website: www.ago.net/basquiat
Dates: February 7, 2015-May 10, 2015
Phone: 416-979-6648 / 1-877-225-4246
Public opening party: Saturday February 7, 2015, 6pm-midnight
Tuesday 10 am – 5:30 pm
Wednesday 10 am – 8:30 pm
Thursday 10 am – 5:30 pm
Friday 10 am – 5:30 pm
Saturday 10 am – 5:30 pm
Sunday 10 am – 5:30 pm