New Web Project Immortalizes the Overlooked Women Who Helped Shape Rock and Roll in the 1950s

“For sixty years, conventional wisdom has told us that women generally did not perform rock and roll during the 1950s,” writes Leah Branstetter, Ph.D. candidate in musicology at Case Western Reserve University. Like so many cultural forms into which we are initiated, through education, personal interest, and general osmosis, this popular form of Western music—now a genre with seventy years under its belt—has functioned as an almost ideal example of the great man theory of history.

It can seem like settled fact that Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and their celebrated male contemporaries invented the music; and that women played passive roles as fans, studio audience members, groupies, personifications of cars and guitars....

The recognition of rare exceptions, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, does not challenge the rule. But Branstetter’s Women in Rock and Roll’s First Wave project almost single-handedly does.

The reality is, however, that hundreds—or maybe thousands—of women and girls performed and recorded rock and roll in its early years. And many more participated in other ways: writing songsowning or working for record labels, working as session or touring musicians,designing stage wear, dancing, or managing talent…. [W]omen’s careers didn’t always resemble those of their more famous male counterparts. Some female performers were well known and performed nationally as stars, while others had more influence regionally or only in one tiny club. Some made the pop charts, but even more had impact through live performance. Some women exhibited the kind of wild onstage behavior that had come to be expected from figures Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard—but that wasn’t the only way to be rebellious, and others found their own methods of being revolutionary.

Branstetter’s project, a digital dissertation, covers dozens of musicians from the period, just a fraction of the names she has uncovered in her research. Some of the women profiled were never particularly well-known. Many more were accomplished stars before the 60's girl group phenomenon, and continued performing into the 21st century.

Meet rockers like Sparkle Moore (see up top), born in Omaha, Nebraska and inspired by Bill Haley in the mid-fifties to play rockabilly in her hometown. She went on to tour the country, putting out record after record. "By 1957,” writes Branstetter, “she had about forty songwriting credits to her name." Teen magazine Dig wrote that Moore had “an amazing resemblance to the late James Dean… Presley’s style and Dean’s looks.” She is still a “favorite with rockabilly fans," notes her biography. Moore "has been inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and also made a new album in 2010 entitled Spark-a-Billy."

Meet Lillie Bryant, one half of duo Billie & Lillie, whose breezier R&B sounds and more wholesome image resonated with early rock and roll fans, promoters, and stars. Bryant began performing in New York City clubs as a teenager. Then producers Bob Crewe and Frank Slay turned her and singer Billie Ford into a duo who went on to star in legendary DJ Alan Freed’s stage shows, “including a six-week tour with Chuck Berry and Frankie Lymon” and an appearance on American Bandstand. Bryant still performs in her hometown of Newburgh, New York.

Meet The Chantels. “Formed in the Bronx, New York in the early 1950s,” they were “among the first African-American female vocal groups to gain national attention.” They also toured with Alan Freed and appeared on American Bandstand and The Dick Clark Show. In 1961, their hit “Look in My Eyes” went to number 14 on the pop charts and 6 on the R&B charts. (Thirty years later, it appeared on the Goodfellas soundtrack.)

Most people who grew up on the music of the 50s and 60s have likely heard of many of these women rockers, or have at least heard their music if they didn’t know the names and faces. But Branstetter’s project does more than tell the stories of individuals—in biographies, interviews (with, for one, Jerry Lee Lewis’s sister, singer and piano player Linda Gail Lewis), blog posts, playlists (hear one below), song analyses, and essays.

She also substantiates her larger claim that women’s “contributions shaped the culture and sound of rock and roll," in numerous well-documented ways. This despite the fact that women in early rock were told versions of the same thing Joan Jett heard 20 years later—“girls don’t play rock and roll." They sometimes heard it from other women in the music business. Pop singer Connie Frances, for example, offered her opinion in a 1958 issue of Billboard: “A girl can’t sing rock and roll. It’s basically too savage for a girl singer to handle.”

Attitudes like these persisted so long, and became so unconscious, that one of the largest guitar makers in the world, Fender, and several other musical instrument makers, may have lost millions in sales before they finally realized that women make up half of new guitar players. Women in Rock and Roll’s First Wave will inspire and enlighten many of those young musicians who didn't grow up knowing anything about Sparkle Moore or The Chantels, but should have. Unless rock historians willingly ignore the work of scholars like Branstetter, subsequent accounts should reflect a more expansive, inclusive, view of the territory. Start here.

via WFMU

Related Content:

How Joan Jett Started the Runaways at 15 and Faced Down Every Barrier for Women in Rock and Roll

33 Songs That Document the History of Feminist Punk (1975-2015): A Playlist Curated by Pitchfork

Chrissie Hynde’s 10 Pieces of Advice for “Chick Rockers” (1994)

Four Female Punk Bands That Changed Women’s Role in Rock

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When John Waters Appeared on The Simpsons and Changed America’s LGBTQ Views (1997)

On the week where Alabama Public Television banned an episode of the kids’ cartoon Arnold for showing a gay wedding (just after banning abortion the week before), let’s go back to a time when the entire country needed a little bit of an education on homosexuality and used The Simpsons and a guest appearance by director John Waters to make the point.

“Homer’s Phobia” premiered on February 16, 1997 in the show’s eighth season. Written by Ron Hauge, the episode casts Waters as John, the owner of Springfield’s antique and memorabilia store “Cockamamie’s”, who befriends the family. Bart and Lisa love the retro and campy objects on sale, Marge loves John’s compliments, but Homer freaks out when he realizes (and it takes some time) that John is gay. Panicking that Bart might become gay from John’s influence, he forces Bart to take a tour of the manliest thing he can think of, a steel mill, only to find that it doubles as a gay disco after work (“We work hard and we play hard,” says the foreman).

Homer doubles down, believing that hunting and killing a deer will make Bart a man. John saves the day of course, Homer learns a little lesson on acceptance, and only at the end does Bart understand what the whole panic has been about.

As comedy with a message, the episode still holds up. Homer’s cluelessness (when Marge says “He prefers the company of men,” Homer responds, “Who doesn't?”) and his homophobia (referring to the word “queer” he says “I resent you people using that word. That's our word for making fun of you! We need it!”) is both dopey and pointed, but never vicious. Also delightful is John’s visit to the Simpsons’ home, where he has a vintage collector’s swoon over the kitsch of the entire interior decoration, which as viewers we’ve never really considered. There’s plenty of visual gags, like a pink flamingo in John’s shop and the amazing Sha-Boom-Ka-Boom googie-architecture cafe.

According to Matt Baume’s recent video essay, this episode did more for awareness and exposing intolerance than any live action show at the time. John Waters, despite his filthy filmography, is fun, collected, and cool. He is neither a punchline nor a tragic figure. At this time in America, homosexuality was still a crime in many states. A head censor at Fox objected to nearly every line in the show (although not always from the right--there was also concern that gay people might be offended). Time solved the problem, however. By the time it came back from the animators that one censor had lost his job.

A few months later Ellen Degeneres came out on her talk show and the culture started to shift even a little more. But as this week proved, this episode’s insights still ring true today.

For Waters, it's been a weird legacy, with kids and families recognizing him from the episode and not from his more infamous work. He now has out a new book, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder.

Related Content:

The Rise and Fall of The Simpsons: An In-Depth Video Essay Explores What Made the Show Great, and When It All Came to an End

John Waters Talks About His Books and Role Models in a Whimsical Animated Video

John Waters’ RISD Graduation Speech: Real Wealth is Never Having to Spend Time with A-Holes

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Banksy Strikes Again in Venice

Juxtapoz writes: "Never invited to be the part of Venice Biennale, Banksy once again invited himself to showcase his work. Using a typical pop-up stand that usually sells tacky paintings and souvenirs, he assembled a selection of 9 works that collectively built an image of a massive cruise ship blocking the city."

In recent years, the flood of massive cruise ships into Venice has created tensions between Venetians and tourism companies. It's pretty clear on what side the street artist comes down.

Get more at Juxtapoz.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

Related Content:

How Venice Works: 124 Islands, 183 Canals & 438 Bridges

Venice in Beautiful Color Images 125 Years Ago: The Rialto Bridge, St. Mark’s Basilica, Doge’s Palace & More

The Venice Time Machine: 1,000 Years of Venice’s History Gets Digitally Preserved with Artificial Intelligence and Big Data

Pink Floyd Plays in Venice on a Massive Floating Stage in 1989; Forces the Mayor & City Council to Resign

Watch City Out of Time, A Short Tribute to Venice, Narrated by William Shatner in 1959

Huge Hands Rise Out of Venice’s Waters to Support the City Threatened by Climate Change: A Poignant New Sculpture

Fleetwood Mac Unveils Their New Singer Stevie Nicks, and The World Takes Notice: Watch Bewitching Performances of “Rhiannon” (1975-1976)

Fleetwood Mac lost one lead singer and guitarist after another in the 70s, first to a mental health crisis, then a religious cult, then dramatic firings and relational breakdowns. They were in a bit of a shambles when new prospect Lindsay Buckingham arrived, bringing with him even more drama, as well as an unknown singer, Stevie Nicks. One year later, their breakup coincided with the dissolution of John and Christine McVie’s marriage, and drummer and namesake Mick Fleetwood's divorce, during the recording of the massive-selling Rumors album in 1976.

Somehow, the band kept on, making greater leaps forward with Tusk, surviving into the 90s intact and mounting several reunion tours afterward. How? Many a book and documentary have tackled the subject. But maybe the main reason is plain.

Despite enduring circumstances that would tear most bands apart, despite the cynical lures and traps of wealth and fame, Fleetwood Mac’s professional longevity came from the fact that they were musicians who loved playing together, who knew how good they were at what they did, and knew they were better when they did it together.

Not only did the new five-piece put aside huge personal conflicts and an already legendary history to make some of the greatest pop music ever written, both collaborating and letting individual songwriters take the lead, but they had the smarts to recognize the enormous talent they had in Nicks, who first joined the band at Buckingham’s insistence then quickly became its star frontwoman. Her magnetism was undeniable, her songwriting bewitching, her stage presence transformative.

Fans seeing Nicks onstage with the band after the release of 1975’s Fleetwood Mac have “no idea who Stevie Nicks is,” writes Rob Sheffield at Rolling Stone. They have “heard ‘Rhiannon’ on the radio,” have maybe bought the record, but “they’ve never seen her rock.” Then they did—explaining the origins of “Rhiannon” on The Old Grey Whistle Test (top) before launching into the “song about a Welsh witch,” and going full-on new-age diva with super-feathered hair on The Midnight Special (above).

“She’s the new girl in a long-running band,” writes Sheffield, “but she’s here to blow all that history away. She keeps pushing the song harder, faster, as if she’s impatient to prove the new Mac is a real savage-like rock monster, now that she’s fully arrived.” Buckingham was the right guitarist at the right time in the band’s evolution, stepping into several huge pairs of shoes to help them recreate their sound. But Stevie Nicks provided the voice and electrifyingly weird energy they needed to become their best new selves.

Big, dramatic TV appearances were one thing, but the band’s transition from British blues rockers to pop radio superstars wasn’t a total eclipse of their past. While they may have been promoted as a Stevie Nicks-centric entity, Christine McVie still played a major singer/songwriter role, as did Buckingham. In one of their first live concerts with the two new members, at the Capitol Theatre in New Jersey, above, McVie opens the set with “Get Like You Used to Be” and “Spare Me a Little of Your Love.”

Buckingham shows off his impeccable blues and country chops, and Nicks sits in on backing vocals, then takes the lead three songs in on “Rhiannon." Other new songs in the short setlist include “World Turning,” sung by McVie and Buckingham, and the Buckingham-led “Blue Letter” and “I’m So Afraid.” (They reach as far back in the back catalog as Peter Green’s “Green Manalishi.”) It’s clear at this point that the band doesn’t quite know what to do with Stevie Nicks. But once they debuted on television, she knew exactly how to sell herself to audiences.

FYI: If you happen to be an Audible member, you can download Rob Sheffield's audiobook, The Wild Heart of Stevie Nicks, as a free additional book this month. (It's part of their Audible Originals program.) If you're not an Audible member, you can always sign up for a free 30-day trial here.

Related Content:

Stevie Nicks “Shows Us How to Kick Ass in High-Heeled Boots” in a 1983 Women’s Self Defense Manual

How Fleetwood Mac Makes A Song: A Video Essay Exploring the “Sonic Paintings” on the Classic Album, Rumours

Watch Classic Performances by Peter Green, Founder of Fleetwood Mac & the Only British Blues Guitarist Who Gave B.B. King “the Cold Sweats”

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Strikingly Beautiful Maps & Charts That Fired the Imagination of Students in the 1880s

We all remember the world maps that hung on the walls of our classrooms, the ones at which we spent countless hours staring when we couldn't focus on the lesson at hand. Did we look at them and imagine fleeing school for one of the far-off lands they pictured — or indeed finding a way to escape planet Earth itself? Such time-passing fantasies unite schoolchildren of all eras, though some eras have provided their schoolchildren richer material to fire up their imaginations than others.

Take, for instance, the rich, vivid maps of Yaggy's Geographical Study, which depict not just the world but the cosmos, and which were first produced for classrooms in 1887. The eponymous Levi Walter Yaggy, says Boston Rare Maps, "seems to have viewed himself as an innovator and entrepreneur tapping into a transformational moment in American education."

An advertisement for Yaggy's Chicago-based Western Publishing House lays out the company's mission: "Instead of offering the public old things ‘made over,’ it has come to the help of teachers and schools with a series of appliances which in design, mechanism and manner of illustration, are new, elegant and practical."

It also points to “the enthusiasm which has been aroused in educational circles by this new departure" as "proof of the fact that teachers are tired of stereotyped and worn-out means of school-room illustration."

One can well imagine the enthusiasm aroused among schoolchildren of the late 19th century when the teacher brought out Yaggy's Geographical Study, a plywood box filled with colorful, large-format maps measuring roughly two by three feet that revealed a wealth of knowledge about the Earth and outer space.

The David Rumsey Map Collection has digitized and made available to download everything that came inside, including the cross-section of the geological strata of "pre-Adamite Earth"; the illustration of the civilizations of five climatic zones "Showing in a Graphic Manner the Climates, Peoples, Industries & Productions of The Earth"; the 3D relief map of the United States built into the back of the box; and the jewel in the crown of Yaggy's Geographical Study, the star chart.

The star chart, as National Geographic's Greg Miller describes it, "has five panels held in place by tiny metal latches. Each panel can be opened to reveal a more detailed diagram. One shows the phases of the moon, for example, while another includes a slider to illustrate how the position of the sun changes relative to Earth with the seasons," the whole thing "designed to highlight certain features when a bright light is placed behind it."

Despite displaying here and there what we now regard as scientific inaccuracies (Miller points to how the elliptical orbit of planets are shown as circles) and unfashionable social attitudes, Yaggy's Geographical Study also embodies the spirit of its time in a way that still fires up the imagination. The golden age of exploration had already entered its final chapter and space travel remained the stuff of science fiction (a genre that had only recently taken the form in which we know it today), but with maps like these on the wall, no daydreaming student of the 1880s could doubt that reality still offered much to discover.

via Flashbak

Related Content:

Download 67,000 Historic Maps (in High Resolution) from the Wonderful David Rumsey Map Collection

A Planetary Perspective: Trillions of Pictures of the Earth Available Through Google Earth Engine

3D Map of Universe Captures 43,000 Galaxies

A Massive, Knitted Tapestry of the Galaxy: Software Engineer Hacks a Knitting Machine & Creates a Star Map Featuring 88 Constellations

How Leonardo da Vinci Drew an Accurate Satellite Map of an Italian City (1502)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Lives of John Coltrane & Billie Holiday Are Now Told in Two Graphic Novels

How do you tell the stories of larger-than-life cultural figures—of people whose histories intersect with pivotal moments in American history, whose careers set new standards for excellence—without oversimplifying and risking caricature? With comic art, of course. Graphic novels have long proven themselves worthy vehicles for biography. Something about the bold strokes of the illustrations, the dialogue in word bubble form, and the panel style of storytelling makes for a particularly vivid encounter with history.

Artist Paolo Parisi has capitalized on this kismet of form and content in three biographical graphic novels now, one of which—the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s rise to fame and fortune—we highlighted just a couple days ago.

Parisi’s earlier efforts took on no less iconic figures than John Coltrane and Billie Holiday in Coltrane and Blues for Lady Day: The Story of Billie Holiday. The Italian artist has demonstrated a passion for American music, especially jazz, in his career as an illustrator. As a writer, he also displays a talent for restraint, largely letting the images tell the story.

As in Basquiat, these images are both drawn from famous photographs and from imaginative reconstructions of what it might have been like, sitting in on recording sessions, in the clubs, and in the heated conversations. Parisi may inevitably view his subjects through an outsider's lens—he may romanticize them at times and may elide important, but hard to visualize, details, as is the nature of the form.

But he excels at making these two musical giants approachable, telling their stories in broad strokes so that those who haven’t read the dense, heavily-footnoted tomes about them can develop appreciation and empathy for their art and too-short lives. It is a sad irony that those who burn bright and die young leave behind the most compelling material for those who tell their stories.

Parisi seems drawn to such tragic figures, or perhaps the form itself requires high-contrast highs and lows. “How could a graphic treatment provide anything other than the sketchiest of details?" asks Coltrane reviewer William Rycroft Tring. “Perhaps by choosing the right subject.” In Coltrane and Holiday, Parisi has two subjects whose lives were inherently dramatic, full of major triumphs and tragedies.

Above all is the music. Graphic novels may not be substitutes for a “proper biography,” as Tring writes, but they are excellent supplements for getting to know the artists as you listen to Lady Sings the Blues or A Love Supreme, whether for the first time or the millionth.

You can pick up copies of Coltrane and Blues for Lady Day: The Story of Billie Holiday online.

Related Content:

The Story of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Rise in the 1980s Art World Gets Told in a New Graphic Novel

An Animated John Coltrane Explains His True Reason for Being: “I Want to Be a Force for Real Good”

How “America’s First Drug Czar” Waged War Against Billie Holiday and Other Jazz Legends

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Bauhaus Bookshelf: Download Original Bauhaus Books, Journals, Manifestos & Ads That Still Inspire Designers Worldwide

The Bauhaus, Barry Bergdoll writes in the New York Times of the German design school founded a century ago last month, "lasted just 14 years before the Nazis shut it down. And yet in that time it proved a magnet for much that was new and experimental in art, design and architecture — and for decades after, its legacy played an outsize role in changing the physical appearance of the daily world, in everything from book design to household lighting to lightweight furniture." Celebrations of the Bauhaus' centenary have taken many forms, including the documentary series Bauhaus World, the reimagining of modern corporate logos in the classic Bauhaus style, and now the free online resource Bauhaus Bookshelf.

Bauhaus Bookshelf creator Andrea Riegel calls the site "my modest contribution to #bauhaus100 and beyond: (almost) all Bauhaus books and journals in a virtual bookcase — with the possibility to download and take a closer look at the media and original sources, supplemented by short excerpts and contributions by Bauhaus people and contemporary witnesses or other content in context."

In other worlds, you'll find there not just the original Bauhaus manifesto, but sections on the series of "Bauhaus books" published by Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy; Bauhaus-associated creators and teachers like Paul Klee; Bauhaus advertising; the women of the Bauhaus (a subject previously featured here on Open Culture); and materials from the 1938 exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art that introduced the Bauhaus to the world.

And 100 years after its founding, the world is still thinking about the Bauhaus, which, in Bergdoll's words, "produced one of the most powerful expressions of a view that design was everything. It served, in a way, as the embassy of modernist design. But its success has often led to a reductionism in our understanding of the rich nexus of artistic movements that crisscrossed at the school itself, as well as the diverse developments it helped inspire." For a better understanding of the Bauhaus, perhaps we must go back to the Bauhaus itself, not just in the sense of looking at the art, craft, design, and buildings its teachers and students produced, but the documents it issued on its mission and ideals. Whether in its English or German versions, Riegel's Bauhaus Bookshelf serves as an intellectually and aesthetically stimulating place to find them.

Related Content:

Download Original Bauhaus Books & Journals for Free: A Digital Celebration of the Founding of the Bauhaus School 100 Years Ago

32,000+ Bauhaus Art Objects Made Available Online by Harvard Museum Website

How the Radical Buildings of the Bauhaus Revolutionized Architecture: A Short Introduction

Watch Bauhaus World, a Free Documentary That Celebrates the 100th Anniversary of Germany’s Legendary Art, Architecture & Design School

Modern Corporate Logos Reimagined in a Classic Bauhaus Style: Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Bauhaus Movement Today

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

James Taylor Gives Guitar Lessons, Teaching You How to Play Classic Songs Like “Fire and Rain,” “Country Road” & “Carolina in My Mind”

The American folk revival of the 1950s and 60s paid dividends in the 1970s, a decade we usually associate with prog rock, disco, funk, and punk. These were the years of some of Crosby, Stills & Nash and Neil Young’s best acoustic folk, and the finest work of Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, both of whom had such unique takes on folk guitar that they redefined the instrument for generations. Mitchell drew from her teenage appreciation for jazz guitar, which she taught herself to play while still in high school. Taylor picked up his unusual voicings and arrangements from a number of American sources.

His influences, he told Adam Gopnik on The New Yorker Radio Hour, came from his early study of the cello (he played “badly, reluctantly,” he says); early exposure to Broadway show tunes and “light classics”, thanks to parents who shuttled him by train from North Carolina to New York City, and his admiration for Elvis, the Beatles, and Ray Charles.

Through a mix of childhood training, adolescent obsessions, and a mature fingerstyle honed by hours and hours of patient practice, Taylor came to dominate the charts with songs like 1970’s “Fire and Rain” and “Country Road,” bringing his acoustic folk and country sensibilities to soft rock stations everywhere.

Taylor’s songwriting, for all its lyrical drama and melancholy, begins with the guitar. Through pure technique, he makes the instrument sing, pulling his melodies from chord patterns and picking styles. As befits such a thoughtful player, he is also a teacher of the instrument, offering a free series of lessons for playing his most beloved songs. Here you can see his “Fire and Rain” lesson further up, “Country Road” above, and at the top, a brief intro to the series from Taylor himself.

Note that these lessons are for intermediate players, at least, and assume prior familiarity with the chord changes in the songs. The videos were originally available on Taylor’s website, and required a sign-in, he says, somewhat apologetically. Since 2011, they are all—8 lessons total—available on his official YouTube channel. See lesson number 6, “Carolina in My Mind,” just below, and watch all the rest for free here.

Related Content:

James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, Live and Together (1970)

James Taylor Performs Live in 1970, Thanks to a Little Help from His Friends, The Beatles

For Joni Mitchell’s 70th Birthday, Watch Classic Performances of “Both Sides Now” & “The Circle Game” (1968)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Story of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Rise in the 1980s Art World Gets Told in a New Graphic Novel

Jean-Michel Basquiat was keenly sensitive to the way the art market thought about him. He was compared to “a preacher possessed by the spirit,” his art, wrote critics, indicative of his “inner child.” This talk, writes Artnet's Bruce Gopnik, “could easily veer into ideas of the Noble Savage.” The artist thought so; he was disgusted by his portrayal as “a wild man running around,” he said. He wanted no part of the primitivist image forced upon him. Yet “to this day, he’s almost always billed as being more in touch with his emotions and the passions of urban life than with the orderly reasoning of post-Enlightenment culture.”

This itself is a false dichotomy—between expressionist and conceptual art, “urban” passions and reason—but if anyone gets caught in-between, it’s Basquiat. Gopnick leans, maybe too heavily, on the conceptual side of things, pushing comparisons between Jenny Holzer and Hans Haacke, downplaying Basquiat’s roots as a street artist and his connections to hip hop and new wave. Basquiat had his ear to the street—also an artifact of post-Enlightenment culture—and was hardly comfortable with the orderly reasoning of the massively profitable art market.

Whatever anyone wants to call his work, it makes no sense to separate it from its context: Basquiat’s Brooklyn home and Lower East Side stomping grounds, the downtown scene in which he came of age, his complicated relationships with Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Julian Schnabel, three of many figures who, along with Basquiat, created the huge 1980s art market and art gallery culture. A new graphic novel by Italian illustrator Paolo Parisi promises a new take on the now-well-worn biography of Basquiat. It's a story written and drawn by a fellow conceptual artist, albeit one whose work more fits the image.

With eye-popping primary and secondary tones—the comic book colors favored by Basquiat and his contemporaries—Parisi takes some license, imagining conversations that may or may not have occurred. “Basquiat comes off as a bit more naïve and far less conflicted than we now know him to be,” writes Eileen Kinsella at Artnet. The chapter excerpted there, “New Art/New Money,” (see a few pages above and below), has multiple perspectives. In a reconstructed dinner scene between art dealers Mary Boone and Larry Gagosian, Basquiat doesn’t even appear.

But the narrative also draws directly from Basquiat’s own words. One page is a facsimile of a handwritten note the artist made in April 1984. “I have money everywhere, everywhere. I’m paid exorbitant sums for a single piece,” he writes, not to boast but to marvel at the incredible amount of inflation he sees all around him:

A picture I sold to Debbie Harry for $200 only a couple of years ago is now worth $20,000. That’s the art market today. Working with gallery owners is exhausting.

                                                They always want




Later Parisi adapts the artist’s thoughts in a critical monologue: The gallerists “have this way of doing things I’ve never seen before. They focus a lot on the artist’s image, buy in bulk, decide who to promote and how. They often buy and sell among themselves, between galleries. They never respect agreements. I don’t think I’ll be able to trust them.” Basquiat’s frustration at “something rotten in this scene” made him consider giving up painting for good. He didn’t get the chance, though Parisi has him tell a girlfriend “Picasso died at ninety… I’m certainly not going before then.”

Parisi, who has also written and illustrated graphic biographies of Billie Holiday and John Coltrane, has an ear for American speech patterns and class and race dynamics, drawing out with more or less subtlety the associations between the art world’s fascination with “primitivist” art and the continuing resonances of slavery and colonialism in its hyper-capitalist economy. Was Basquiat a childlike character who only slowly realized the greedy machinations of the dealers?

In the 2010 documentary The Radiant Child, his former graffiti partner Al Diaz explains his motivations from the very beginning. “We wanted to do some kind of conceptual art project.” Basquiat aimed directly at the art world, writing messages on walls like “4 THE SO-CALLED AVANT-GARDE.” Once in its company, however, he found, like many other fiercely independent artists who make it big, it wasn’t worth the money. Read the fully excerpted chapter at Artnet and purchase Parisi's graphic novel Basquiat online.

via Artnet

Related Content:

The Story of How David Jones Became David Bowie Gets Told in a New Graphic Novel

Take a Close Look at Basquiat’s Revolutionary Art in a New 500-Page, 14-Pound, Large Format Book by TASCHEN

An Animated Introduction to the Chaotic Brilliance of Jean-Michel Basquiat: From Homeless Graffiti Artist to Internationally Renowned Painter

Salvador Dalí & the Marx Brothers’ 1930s Film Script Gets Released as a Graphic Novel

How Art Spiegelman Designs Comic Books: A Breakdown of His Masterpiece, Maus

MIT Robot Breaks Rubik’s Cube World Record, Solving It in 0.38 Seconds

A robot created by MIT students Ben Katz and Jared Di Carlo managed to solve a Rubik’s Cube in a record-breaking, lightning-fast 0.38 seconds. The video above shows it happening in real time, then in progressively slower times. By comparison, Yusheng Du, a Chinese speedcuber, holds the [human] record for solving a 3x3x3 cube in 3.47 seconds.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

via BoingBoing

  • Great Lectures



    Get the best cultural and educational resources on the web curated for you in a daily email. We never spam. Unsubscribe at any time.


  • About Us

    Open Culture scours the web for the best educational media. We find the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & educational videos you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between.

    Advertise With Us

  • Archives

  • Quantcast