Painting Dreams, Painting "Race"
In death, as in life, the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat is a figure who polarizes.Basquiat, of Haitian and Puerto Rican parentage, first hit the New York art scene as a graffiti artist linked with early hip-hop. During his nine-year career, which ended in August 1988 with his death at age 27 of a heroin-cocaine overdose, Basquiat was promoted by the art establishment as the only important painter of African descent. Five years after the artist's death, the Whitney Museum of American Art sponsored a large traveling exhibition of his work, the intent of which seemed to be to codify a notion of Basquiat's singular importance.This codification sets some people's teeth chattering. "They won't give big shows to artists like Martin Puryear or Jacob Lawrence," says an African American arts educator. They only give such shows, she says, "to people who are marginal, and whose work is questionable."Marginal? Questionable? You wouldn't know it from the recent bestselling biography by Phoebe Hoban, the hit arthouse film directed by Julian Schnabel, or the books and catalogues which have proliferated since Basquiat's death. Ask any reasonably well-educated young art student about important African American visual artists of the 1980s, and it's likely that Basquiat's name will be the first, perhaps only, one he or she will mention.But ask some African American artists, critics, or curators in New York, and you are just as likely to get bombarded with emotional invective as with enthusiastic praise. That Basquiat, with virtually no formal training, could alone among artists of color become the chosen one -- be swept up into the hothouse art world of the booming 1980s, and, most notably through his friendship with Andy Warhol, arrive at the center of that world -- still rankles many art-world African Americans.Some charge the art establishment with approving only those black artists who are dysfunctional, who fit some colonialist-inspired notion of the noble savage. But Basquiat also gives us a window through which to look at certain approaches to image-making that emerge from being black in this race-conscious and racist society. And by looking at two African American artists -- Kerry James Marshall and Robert Thompson -- we can see more clearly the sensibility Basquiat brought to his own enigmatic works.Kerry James Marshall's Home DreamscapesBorn in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and currently living in Chicago, Kerry James Marshall is an intensely humorous painter. His street and domestic scenes emphasize both his working class roots and his penchant for the absurd and the hallucinatory. He is a painter of dreams. His paintings carry an aura of pious nostalgia and seek to imbue the "ordinary" with a sense of transcendence. Heaven, Marshall's paintings say, is in your living room.In "Mementos," the paintings center on the endgame of the 1960s, with its uprisings and political assassinations, as seen through the remembered eyes of a child. In "Souvenir IV," a black woman stands in one of those newly middle class, look-but-don't-touch living rooms. She's wearing wings on her back. Above is a cartoon-like cloud with the names of famous black writers and artists who died in the 1950s and 1960s: Zora Neale Hurston, Meta Warrick Fuller, Lorraine Hansberry, W.E.B. Du Bois, others. Another cloud wafts through an open window, bearing the name of Father Divine.Many of Marshall's people are painted a deep, black skin color. His love for the richness of his subjects' color is reminiscent of fellow Chicago painter Archibald Motley, whose cabaret scene and other paintings remain underacknowledged. Marshall's paintings are striking and playful, and reveal a vision deeply rooted in the concept -- also, it seems, a late '60s leftover -- that black people are beautiful.Thompson's Militant IntegrationismAlthough he wasn't lionized the way Basquiat was, Bob Thompson was probably the best-known black painter of his generation -- one which includes black artists like Emilio Cruz, Mel Edwards, Emma Amos, Sam Gilliam, and Barbara Chase-Riboud. Like Basquiat, Thompson died young -- in 1966 at age 29 -- a death also complicated by heroin use. He, too, was an artist who painted dreams. But his dreams did not draw inspiration from a remembered world; nor were they, like many of Basquiat's paintings, filled with tragic, mock-heroic romanticism. Thompson's paintings, best seen in La Caprice and Abundance and the Four Elements, are profoundly utopian and express a sensibility which a politically-inclined mind might call militant integrationism.Thompson often painted his figures green, orange, or blue -- any color but a normal human skin tone -- and set these figures in landscapes with a burning, churning sky. His tableaux are drawn from dreams, old master paintings, biblical stories, and comic book and myth-derived influences. He included outsized creatures like birds and dragons in his work. Thompson was a jazz lover, and counted many musicians, notably Ornette Coleman, among his friends. Musicians like Archie Shepp dedicated compositions to him, and Thompson's paintings appeared on record album covers (La Caprice appears on Steve Lacy's The Forest and the Zoo).The term "militant integrationism" is meant not so much to describe Thompson's work; it is an attempt to get a handle on the sensibility that produced it. This show gave us a glimpse into a sensibility which is now nearly lost: an -- dare I use the word? -- Afrocentric integrationism on which a multiracial and multilayered culture could be built. That ideal was later denounced as a sham by some who found other sorts of rhetoric more intoxicating. And Thompson has been cited (usually in conversation, rarely in print) as not being sufficiently black-identified. But then look at the paintings, and ask yourself whether the utopianism imagined there isn't tempting, and whether that utopianism is really alien to the African American jazz sensibility.Lost Dreams and Post-Apocalyptic NightmaresThis sensibility is a relic of its time -- a utopianism engendered by the counterculture aesthetic that emerged around the time of Thompson's death, and whose great black prophet and exemplar is Jimi Hendrix. Thompson's utopias and Marshall's dreams seem to bookend a certain historical period. The bohemian hopes and post-militant, post-apocalyptic nightmares that framed the 1960s are imagined here. As for Basquiat, his was a major artistic imagination of the generation which came along and tried to make sense of it all.Basquiat's work is almost wholly locked within an argument about the defining contours of bohemia. Basquiat was born of Haitian and Puerto Rican immigrants. But at the dawn of the digitized, globalized age, before increased mobility began to rearrange some of the older cultural and racial paradigms, he identified with African American culture, especially jazz.Unlike Thompson's Coleman or Shepp, the younger painter's jazz musician heroes are not his friends; they are icons, saints from another (lost) time. Allen Ginsberg's "best minds," remember, were last seen "dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn." But in Basquiat's world, the hipster's streets no longer belonged to blacks; they belonged to Andy Warhol. Basquiat ultimately lost that struggle for cultural reclamation, but the struggle lives on in his imagery, and explains, as much as anything, the peculiar character of his "black" aesthetic.Basquiat's Hip-Hop Be-BopDespite all the legitimate griping from some black people in the art world, there's no getting around the fact that Basquiat was, and remains, a significant presence. His work is part of a movement which looked to reinvigorate painting while simultaneously recasting the debate between "high" and popular art that has dogged us at least since the pre-dawn of Pop art. It is a reinvigoration which aimed away from a facile incorporation of advertising iconography and toward imagery which connected with the dance music culture of the late-1970s/early-1980s.While other artists of his generation seemed more interested in incorporating and rearranging images found in the real world, Basquiat remained, above all, an image maker, a painter. And his images were deeply rooted in an African-oriented sensibility, without being at all essentialist or nationalist. He took his Africanness for granted in a way that was disturbing to some -- with its playfulness at the border of caricature -- while liberating to others. His was an African diasporic sensibility fitted for a post-segregation, post-apartheid world.Basquiat was also a youth culture artist, the most important visual artist to emerge from the hip-hop generation. Probably the best way to look at his work is with the music of Public Enemy playing in your ears. But his was youth culture with a difference. Basquiat was a jazz enthusiast with a hip-hop sensibility. Though he first emerged on the New York art scene as a graffiti artist linked with the world of early hip-hop, he identified most deeply with both the art and the legend of Charlie Parker.Feeling BasquiatSo how do we reconcile the two Basquiats: the chosen one of the 1980's art world on the one hand, and the painter who glimpsed the multilayered diasporic nature of our millennial culture on the other? The truth is that we don't. Taking sides in that debate is to take sides against the art. And to do that is to voluntarily walk around blindfolded.Basquiat brought all these conflicts into his work, along with a set of visual tropes and images drawn from such disparate sources as comic books and the work of Cy Twombly. His images could sometimes be frightening: a skull with wild orange eyes and teeth (Untitled (Black Skull)) peers out at you, surrounded by a spear, a scale, and what looks like a set of male genitalia, all against a black ground, itself spotted, smeared, and scratched with bits of orange and white paint.Or they can be surprisingly evocative. In Max Roach (1984), an all-but-obscured red and black face, its empty eyes staring, is surrounded by the outline of a big gray hat, and sits behind a partially formed drum set, in a pink, white, and red field. The painting reminds us of that quality we appreciate most in good drummers -- that they be felt more than heard. Basquiat was a bold, almost extravagant, colorist. His paintings sometimes veer to the edge of incoherence, to be saved by a sense of rhythm and taste which is, at times, uncanny. Basquiat liked to write on his canvases, and some of them are filled with words -- words as memories, concepts, ideas, images, often all at the same time. There are those who want to inscribe a politics to the words, and in some cases the impulse is a fair one. But a careful consideration of Basquiat's work -- like his inscription of the words from old Charlie Parker 78-rpm record labels in some of his works -- reveals that "politics" in this art is just another way of saying "myth." He is, at bottom, a painter of ironies and mockeries, whose imagery seems to come from our dreams, both the good and the bad ones.Marshall, Thompson, and Basquiat all linked their visions to an exploration, whether direct or enigmatic, of the boundaries of "racial" identity. And each painter's work finds itself, finally, dismissing all fetishist concepts of "race" in favor of a more idealistic, dreamlike, utopian one. But these concepts are utopian only in so far as we refuse to learn -- as we could have learned years ago from Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, even early 20th century artists like painter Henry Ossawa Tanner and Louis Armstrong -- that to fetishize skin color is something more suited for the nostalgic descendants of slaveholders than it is for the rest of us. For us, the ability to use identity in a purely expressive way is, finally, the surest mark of freedom.This article originally appeared in ColorLines.