Friday, 3 November 2017

bell hooks on Jean Michel Basquiat, Barbara Rose on Jasper Johns

bell hooks writing on a Basquiat retrospective in Art in America 1993

A black author writing about a black artist and the white critical art establishment. bell hooks shows how endemic racism and the entitlement of the critics leads to them underestimating Jean Michel Basquiat's work or making racist claims about primitivism in his paintings.

bell hooks writes about how they wilfully ignore the political content of his work, judging it only from the perspective of a Eurocentric, white Western art history. The essay reclaims the ‘dynamism springing from the convergence, contact and conflict of varied traditions.’

It’s a personal essay about bell hooks' emotional response to Basquiat's paintings, which also manages to bring in the wide influences and context of his work, from African art and history to jazz, hip hop and graffiti, discounted by the other critics as it didn’t fit into the canon.

The essay defends Basquiat, as the exhibition in 1993 seems to have been slated by many white art critics at the time, and his work was torn to pieces.

This  was republished more recently for Black History Month (date not given in article).   It is interesting reading this 24 years later,  as now I would say that Basquiat’s status is currently very high in the art world (eg the very popular and lauded retrospective at the Barbican in Autumn 2017, and his “Untitled,” painting sold for $110,487,500 at Sotheby's in May 2017) and it’s a less controversial opinion to say he is a great artist than it was in 1993.

(This shows just how the art market works, how reputations can rise and fall, and how fashions can come and go. To sell a painting for that amount of money, it’s in the interest of the market to big up someone’s reputation.)

I really like his work.  I do wonder what he would have made of this essay, he repeatedly said during his short life that he didn’t want to be seen as a ‘black artist’, but as an artist, in the same way that most of us might be feminist but not want to be shoved into a ghetto as a ‘woman artist’.  I think he always knew his own worth. He was painting the world he lived in.

The racism bell hooks talks about in the essay is alive and well. I liked Banksy’s ironic comment outside the Barbican exhibition, which recalls Basquiat’s painting Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), about the death of his fellow graffiti artist at the hands of NYC police in 1983.


Barbara Rose on Jasper Johns for the RA Magazine Autumn 2017

I read the the second article next and couldn’t help comparing the artists because I read bel hooks first (and watched films about and featuring Basquiat such as Downtown 81.)  Johns didn’t have to hustle for his place as an artist in the same way, to be seen as legitimate by the establishment.

They have in common that they both found their source material in everyday life and in iconography, (eg Basquiat’s skulls and crowns, cars and planes, and Johns’ maps, alphabets, flags and brushes) but only one still has to be defended as a real artist.
Flag 1955 Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns, Untitled, 2013, offset lithograph

Barbara Rae is an art historian ‘who has written extensively on Johns’ work.’ This article for the RA magazine is for a general audience, so is not academic  but it is sometimes unintentionally funny. ‘like serial killers who often take a hiatus, Johns did not paint the third canvas… until 1966.’ ‘Obviously Johns, like the fox in Pinocchio, actively tempts the critic to see.’ And some names are mentioned for no reason (eg Proust, Dosteyevsky) as they don’t seem to have a connection with his work.

The sentences I have underlined in the text include ‘transforms objects into images’ (but this is something artists have done since the Lascaux cave paintings, so can’t be claimed just for Jasper Johns) to  ‘displaced in a variety of contexts that alter their meaning’.  It describes his practice, using printmaking to develop his painting and vice versa, and going from 2D to 3D and back.

I quite like Jasper John’s art (unlike Basquiat's work I think it doesn't reproduce so well but is stunning when you see it). But this is the kind of writing that makes it seem less than it is, just because of the breathlessness and awe of the style. What Alastair Gentry would identify as ‘Normal Thing Is Amazing Because Artist Did It’

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