Among the most important American artists of the 20th century, Basquiat began his career circa 1980, at the age of nineteen. A self-taught East Village graffiti artist who quickly became a superstar of the artworld, his story was chronicled and made more famous yet by fellow ‘80s artist, Julian Schnabel, in his 1996 film Basquiat.
The fame and infamy surrounding Basquiat does not obscure or detract from the raw strength and historical significance of the work itself, however. In spite of the artist’s death in 1988, he was extremely prolific and there is a seemingly endless depth and breadth to his output. His work is intensely charged, on the one hand, by strong color and rich gesture and, on the other hand, by an extraordinarily rich lexicon of iconography and symbol, an expressionist sensibility matched with Pop intellect.
This show is organized around paintings in which heads figure prominently. Heads are among the most significant themes in Basquiat’s work. Sometimes signifying a portrait of one of the artist’s heroes, other times referencing Christ or the Devil, at other times the head signifies an anonymous doppelganger for the everyman, or a self-portrait.
Most of the works in the exhibition date from 1982 – the artist’s most prolific year, during which he made over 200 paintings. The show includes several works made of painted canvas, sometimes collaged with drawing or color Xerox, mounted on visible, tied wood supports instead of the conventional stretcher. Basquiat’s beginnings were the street and a can of spray paint; even when he had achieved success sufficient to afford conventional materials, he painted on wood doors, clapboard siding or “home-made” stretchers; each support asserts itself and its history.
Heads embody the uncensored, spontaneous energy that pervades Basquiat’s work. Each confronts us with an ambiguous narrative that continues to fascinate us all, from the most sophisticated collector to the street artist Basquiat once was himself, so far reaching is his appeal.