BASQUIAT VERSUS BANKSY

One was an artist, the other just a talented graphic designer.

On the eve of the opening of a new exhibition of art by Jean-Michel Basquiat in London, Banksy revealed two painted homages to his American predecessor. The contrast between the most famous exponents of two different generations of street art from opposite sides of the Atlantic could not be greater.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) is widely considered the founder of the street art movement, which is the crossover of, on one side, graffiti art, mural painting and inscribed poetry and, on the other, the fine arts of museums and galleries. In theory, street art could be simply graffiti or posters from non-gallery settings relocated into museums and galleries, but in practice this is rarely the case. More often, creators who began by making graffiti start working on more portable supports (like the traditional artist’s canvas or board) when there is a commercial imperative. They also make prints or multiples with professional assistants.

‘Basquiat: Boom for Real’ (Barbican Art Gallery, London; closes 28 January) collects a wide range of Basquiat’s art made over the whole of his short career. Visitors can judge for themselves Basquiat’s stellar status in the art world. (This year a painting by him sold at auction for $110million.) The art was made in a mixture of fine-art materials and ordinary materials from drugstores and discount stores. Paint, oil sticks, spraypaint, pencil and marker were used on canvas and board but also on more unusual supports such as foam rubber, doors, plates, a refrigerator and even a football helmet. Subjects include street life, modern life, racism, sports, music, popular culture, ancient history, the Western canon, anatomy and mortality. All manner of seemingly random fragments of history surface in Basquiat’s paintings. Simple icons, lists of words, graphic symbols, colourful abstract painting and meandering grids occupy a variety of surfaces.

A weak point of Basquiat’s art is that sometimes his ideas do not seem decipherable to viewers, and perhaps were not even clear to the artist himself. Following the trail of a person’s subconscious can be frustrating without sufficient clues and background.

Although Basquiat was not the creator of the first street art (consider the New York and Paris photographers who documented graffiti in the 1930s and Jean Dubuffet’s crude faux-naïf figures of the 1940s), he is the breakthrough figure. In 1978 graffiti began appearing around downtown Manhattan, featuring a character (or author) called SAMO©. SAMO© SAVES IDIOTS. SAMO© AS AN ESCAPE CLAUSE. SAMO© ||| 4 THE SO-CALLED AVANT GARDE. Other cryptic phrases seemed a cross between political slogans and poetic riddles. SAMO© was an alter ego that Basquiat created. The phrases caught people’s attention and provided Basquait with an entrée into the artworld, which was in search of novelty and danger. Basquiat soon discarded his SAMO© persona and embarked on a series of dramatic paintings and sprawling drawings, which were displayed in New York exhibitions and quickly sold.

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