Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time
Guggenheim Bilbao, until 1 November
Jeff Koons: Retrospective
Guggenheim Bilbao, until 27 September
Manhattan in the late 1970s early 1980s was, by all accounts, a pretty scary place. It was caked in graffiti, lawless, and in certain areas, almost emptied by the so-called ‘white flight’ to the suburbs. It was, in other words, a perfect stomping ground for artists and musicians.
This is the romantic notion, anyway. It’s what someone will tell you when trying to justify Jean-Michel Basquiat’s posthumous superstar status and its accompanying price tag. His work is supposed to evoke not just the hip-hop heavy whirl of pre-Aids New York, but if you are to believe the (mostly white, middle-class) curators who burn the candle for him, he also captured the black American experience of the era. Personally, I’ve always found Basquiat a troublesome artist. I’d never seen any single painting that legitimised the ‘genius’ tag.
His biography is romantic in a way that makes Shelley look like Richard Madeley. He was born in 1960 to immigrant parents from Haiti and Puerto Rico, and taught himself to draw by copying diagrams from Gray’s Anatomy during a spell in hospital. In his teens, he became a graffiti artist, and met the cultural luminaries of his day (Deborah Harry, Julian Schnabel, Keith Haring et al). He switched to canvas and got ‘serious’. As if to show it, he started painting in Armani suits, and boulevarded around Manhattan in his paint-splattered tailoring. He walked the walk alright – but could he paint?
Essentially, I believed, Basquiat was a cool guy who hung out with other, marginally less cool guys. He was then ‘discovered’ by the ur-cool guy, Andy Warhol, who turned him into an exotic spectacle. Then he died young (of a heroin overdose, aged 28) and some really uncool guys snapped up all his work. Fortunately, they just happened to be personal art buyers for clueless oligarchs, and his paintings became billionaire must-haves. Prices and mythology then elevated him to the major leagues, but the art seemed more or less an afterthought. Fine, but never enough to move me further than a gallery’s exit sign.
This retrospective at Bilbao’s Guggenheim has made a decent fist of separating the art from the myth, and is in its own small way quite revelatory. Basquiat was not a Great Painter. But when he pulled his finger out, he could be pretty damn good. Some of these canvases shiver with rage; name me a single Richard Prince work you can say the same thing of.
The paintings are peopled by voodoo grotesques, porcine cops and neighbourhood psychos, electrified by swirls of Miró-ish red, blue and yellow. If you can get past the pub philosophy of the title, 'Irony of a Negro Policeman' (see above) is a truly terrifying painting – a hulking Baron Samedi with squiggles for eyes and yellow teeth dripping blood radiates menace. More disturbing still are his self-portraits: they look as though they might leap from the canvas and go the whole Travis Bickle on you. He could even be quite funny, as with the demented, Quentin Blake/George Grosz hybrid of 'Obnoxious Liberals'.
It had all gone to pot by the time he died. There were some terrible collaborative paintings with Andy Warhol, and a feeling that he was content to deal in exotic-spooky self-parody. Boxers were one of his more tiresome recurring themes. The pugilism he painted seemed to warn of some kind of horrific interracial conflict; he was probably the only black man who had succeeded in puncturing New York’s firmly WASPy art world by this point, and the cries of sell-out were loud and clear. Was this a comment on the ire his success sparked off?
You wonder what he’d have made of his posthumous reputation. The trouble is, the best Basquiat stuff is all in private ownership. Finally, this is a chance to see it and set the record straight. Even on the strength of the show, I’m still not convinced by the claims to genius – but Basquiat’s real achievement was to bring non-appropriated black art into the pasty-faced cultural pantheon. Yet you can’t help thinking: if only he’d been a bit less cool.
Exhibited simultaneously is a retrospective of that other 80s NY oligarch favourite, Jeff Koons. He and Basquiat worked just a subway ride away from each other, but their art might as well exist in parallel universes. Jeff Koons was not angry. He loved – and continues to love – the ephemera of bourgeois life. The first four rooms of his show, which represent his diamond period, (roughly 1980-90) are pure joy. His hoovers, booze ads and plastic toys are joyous readymades. I even like his 'Made in Heaven' series, which in Douglas Sirk lighting shows him and his then wife Ilona Staller in a range of unprintably compromising positions. Sadly, the curators have omitted my favourite work in the series. It shows exactly what it promises in the title: 'Ilona’s Asshole'.
After this, Jeff Koons gets into making shiny stuff. It’s horrible. You want to condemn it as banal rubbish, but then you realise Koons’s schtick is celebrating banal rubbish. For once, I was lost for insults: Koons’s logic is genius. He is conceptually bulletproof.
Well, those were my thoughts as I walked round the show. Ten minutes later, I was in a toilet cubicle in the basement when I overheard a different assessment that may be just as valid. Two Scottish tourists, liberally refreshed, tottered up to the urinal to evaluate their Guggenheim experience:
‘So – what d’ye think?’ asked the first.
‘Well I can admire a man for hanging a metal pool toy in a gallery,’ replied the second.
‘But is it good?’
‘You kiddin’? He’s taking the piss. These people! How do they get away with it?’
And with that, they wandered back to the bar. My work was done.