Jean-Michel Basquiat Commented On Your Statusby Noah Becker
The overwhelming success of Gagosian Gallery’s Basquiat exhibition earlier this year (a gallery insider told me that an approximate 80,000 people visited the exhibition on 24th Street) led me to daydream about the drastic paradigm shifts of our time versus the 1980s New York art scene. Hilton Kramer wrote a scathing New York Times review about the 1985 collaborative exhibition of Warhol and Basquiat at Tony Shafrazi Gallery. Vivien Raynor published her review in the New York Times, stating in an almost racist tone: “Last year, I wrote of Jean-Michel Basquiat that he had a chance of becoming a very good painter providing he didn’t succumb to the forces that would make him an art world mascot.” Basquiat stopped talking to Warhol after reading the texts—specifically Kramer’s review. Jean-Michel’s closest friends told me that these reviews were the beginning of the end for Basquiat, sending him into a downward spiral from which he did not recover.
My dream of Basquiat being saved by social media is complete speculation. But imagine: if Jean-Michel had social media in the 1980s he may not have felt so frustrated with art criticism at the time of his death. If social media was around in 1985 someone may have tagged Warhol and Basquiat in a photo praising the collaborative paintings, and the conversation could have expanded considerably. Long threads of 300+ comments might have appeared below the link on someone’s “Timeline” turning into arguments which may have utilized “Godwin’s Law” or the “Dunning Kruger Effect” in place of a formal debate about the work—a common scenario on social media. For example, Warhol could have Gmail chatted with Basquiat about how social media comments were offering glowing defenses of the exhibition. Basquiat may have read the comments online and instantly gained additional perspectives on the situation. The racism inherent in the negative reviews may have created a blog or Twitter cascade and opinion attacks and counter-attacks between comment posters and the Times. The one shot “ivory tower” of criticism would have been short-circuited, and in the case of Basquiat may have changed his outlook (and perhaps his destiny) completely.
Art criticism has been irreversibly changed and challenged due to the rise of social media. Some love it and see it as an improvement; others are not as easily convinced. This article is fantasy and a kind of wish that social media had in fact been there to make the dialogue less one-sided during Basquiat’s career. These thoughts find me when I think of the great artists of our time whose lives ended too soon. It’s not a corporate daydream, it’s not about counting heads or auction values. This is more about my sense of loss in relation to how a fellow artist went down in the face of history. Because I have an insatiable interest in historical sites in New York City, I find myself wandering to places artists have lived or worked. For example I am often walking near Tompkins Square Park, where I find myself gravitating to the exterior of Charlie Parker’s old apartment. The former site of where Jasper Johns’s Houston Street studio compels me to look and imagine a different time, a different mindset. I’ve also traveled to New York’s midtown east side, in search of the former location of Warhol’s Silver Factory near the United Nations. In Brooklyn Heights my apartment is near the famous yellow brownstone that is the former basement suite residence of Truman Capote. This obsession informs my writing on certain levels. My research for this article found me in Manhattan’s East Village one night, at the site of an apartment building where Basquiat may have visited quite often. I made notes:
I am writing this entry for the Brooklyn Rail on my Iphone. I’m standing in Manhattan outside of 68 East 1st treet at 12:19 am. Sirens are blaring and crowds of bar people have no idea why I am writing into the notepad on my iPhone. None of the people on the street know the history of this doorway. New York is haunted; this is where a woman lived in the 1980s when she was dating a young artist named Jean-Michel Basquiat. I’m looking at the number above the door, it’s an old metal doorway. You can imagine Jean-Michel standing here—it must be almost the same as it was then. I’m feeling the vibrations at this auspicious location. Jean buzzed the buzzer, it was late, there was no answer—he left and soon after would leave his own body. He had no iPhone, no iPad, no Macbook Pro, no status updates, no ability to “comment on a status.” Basquiat didn’t text anyone to buzz him in when the door would not open.
NOAH BECKER is the founding editor of Whitehot Magazine. Becker is an artist, writer and jazz musician and contributes to Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art, and the Huffington Post. His paintings can be viewed on his site: noahbeckerart.com