(UPDATE; Next day, I am very unsure if this works; it’s intended to share these close ups/visual notes as lightly as possible. I may have failed! If so, please scroll down to the two ID mag links, which are excellent. I may delete this virtually private reflection on further reflection, and after all…)
Nope, not going to do that. That thing of taking up public space out there with nice-white-guy thoughts on Basquiat. I’ve had my (notional) chances after all! When Boom for Real came to London’s Barbican in 2017, after very few actual opportunities to write (the UK could not distinguish him/his work from the celebrity-gloss-at-a-distance around him/it), I realised it was too late. Definitely, definitively; I should not be writing about him or it, positively or negatively. No more white intros to be essayed. Tricky, but I’m not being nice about being a nice-white-guy, it’s just done (which ought to preclude publicly saying so nice-whitely at one’s next book event/or panel, no?).
The above applies even if nobody took up that space, btw. That’s another way of trying-but-failing in white niceness isn’t it? If you take up the space, you’ve done it again. Unthinkingly. If you don’t, then yes it may remain untaken-up because of the institutional prejudices of commissioning bodies, organs, institutions, editors, the whole deeply embedded (imperial) culture of it, but still: don’t! There’s no excuse. And, by the way, I don’t think I have nothing to say, or that what I have to say may not have value, or that I am not entitled to write/work/essay (vs so many other inherent constraints), and I’ve tried to not-say-so in drafts since 2017 (burning, thirsting)! Ideally, we will get beyond this horizon to a transformed/repaired form of commonworld, but for now it’s about whether, when and how. Oh, and who, did I mention who?
Basquiat is often in my airs, lately in the form of Almanac’s school project (to ‘do’ a…), me walking Almanac through a catalogue of J-MB as part of our occasional Lockdown Artist of the Day, Chaedria LeBouvier’s ongoing battling for elemental recognition and respect from the Guggenheim re Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story (2019), and many other things, including the magical presence of a 1986 catalogue with his signature inside it nearby as I write. J-MB gave me it one spring in the Great Jones Street studio that he died in a year later (paying Warhol’s Estate $32,000 a year btw), after leaving me to mooch around for an hour and then having a slowly warming chat about things; my place at NYU and his friend Spike who went there, even if not entirely happy about it, you know; you can use it? And so J-MB grabbed one of the lovely red catalogues on a side table, signed and dated it for me to take away. It was like being handed a bar of gold but also the gentlest possible reminder of the actual dynamics. Only meant kindly, of course, but I both did and did not want to have that experience in equal measure. Anyway, that signature. Think about it. What’s it about? The signature, as such and after the SAMO© -that signature. A conventional signature authenticates, but not many Basquiat’s are signed with this signature. One of the pleasures of Boom for Real was the little foursome of practiced signature pieces (below), two perhaps three with ‘my’ signature (the other initialled), which I am not sure I have ever seen otherwise. Or noticed. It’s not important but between that tag and that signature -plus ‘my’ one- there is something interesting to essay… Not here, not now, not me. Not publicly. Not yet…
Instead of taking space with definitive or otherwise writing about Basquiat and his work, I want to share the images I took at the exhibition’s preview in September 2017. These are just the things I saw, as I was looking, looking for, noticing; as raw as a contact sheet. I am posting them in the order they were taken with no pride or angle really other than to share… There’s a lot going on in the work, instinctively and otherwise grasped, seen, recognised, noticed, known, and/or now gathered from still sparse academic or critical writings and scholarship. It always was astonishingly rich work, which will remain ‘young’ because J-MB died at 27. The work had been dismissed at that time by the knowing and the slightly or very allergic-all-along. I had spoken to a lot of people, friends, real and professional, etc., in New York, to get to the point of meeting their disappeared ‘friend’ (post-Warhol, of course). His star was definitely fading by ’87 and that pretty much continued for years afterwards, and though the more recent prices ‘gained’ by his work are of very little interest to me, it does signify something. It means it is being cared for in/by the most secure places, generally speaking, and in the best possible conditions, so it will last; there is now a huge investment in its continued existence and controlled visibility. I had the great pleasure of wandering amongst rows of leaning doors at the back of his studio, stacks of middle-sized and small images, getting down on the floor with him to look at a huge black and white work on the floor he had been working on. The ‘value’ or price of the work now restricts all of that proximity, of course, but for these reasons it will always be with us. It was unequivocally clear to me that the richness of the work, its references to the under-appreciated excellences and complex sophistications of Black cultural expression, was itself under-appreciated, and that this was work for forever/s.
Another trigger for me to do this now was finding the best of the British responses to Boom written on the ID site, by Felix Petty, I came across it because of an excellent 2016 interview with LeBouvier in which she laid out her intimately tragic story about her brother and relations with Basquiat’s work on Michael Stewart and beyond. I remember (but can’t now locate so I am not certain) her verbalised (tweeted) critique of a female curator of Boom, at the time, for squeezing out her and any proper acknowledgement, most of all. The thing to just hold onto is that I don’t know CLB but her Guggenheim story has very recognisable features to it to me, for one thing, and, secondly, the fault is always with the institution versus the individual, however brilliant. The first Black (guest) curator! I think I can imagine the rationale and appeals from those she confronted and don’t want to spend a nanosecond on that. As an institution the Guggenheim has spent a decade being very relaxed about exploiting migrant workers building their Abu Dhabi Museum entrapped by conditions of forced labour. Their disgusting smugness about that, their absurdly portentous claims to be a beacon of cultural transformation in the region, together with the simple fact that the foundations of that museum already memorialise 21st century slavery, and will hold the remaining structure up, service its stores and galleries, and power it all, even if they care enough to insist on recompensing the migrants who will build the rest out (though why would anyone build out such a soiled symbol of ugly compromisedness now?) to legal, ethical and elemental human requirements. I have always thought that a building that combined this change in its final built form would be a proper memorial to the violent cruelty and its redemption if not its repair, but the Guggenheim couldn’t give a damn… So, do I believe every nuance or note of LeBouvier’s claims/grieviences? Who am I to express any doubt firstly, and secondly, hell yeah! of course I do, it’s entirely within institutional character…
Finally, there were other critical responses, rather a lot, in the British press. With respect, warm and otherwise, I have to say they tended to suffer from acute whiteness in presuming to pronounce on something they evidently knew nothing about and had no visceral or instinctive relations to or (previous) recognition of. Opacities became the fault of the work or artist. I’m not trying to be hip with shit, I just mean the ‘foreignness’ of the worlds of the work were all too evident in their polite stretching, and unintentional condescension which revealed that they didn’t feel any need to try to appreciate the sophistications of Black culture running through the work. That is, and it’s crucial; there is a condescension to include-in this ‘vital’ work, or widen the epistemological and qualitative criteria really, instead of a very sharp step-change in understanding the scale of excellences always manifested in it. Having never seen the complexities, unbelievable richness in sound, movement, visual and written representations, political organisation and delivery, they can only come at it in terms of popularity and evident presence. It’s as systemically racist as its possible to be and it’s a common failing, right? I’m not fond of simplifications, but if White Supremacy as a grab-handle means something substantive, this is it! How could more of that failing find itself commissioned and published in 2017-8? FFS!!! I’m sorry-not-sorry about pointing it out.