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

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