On Friday as I was stuck in traffic coming home from the office I sent Paul a message saying 'plan something for tomorrow that gets us out of the house'. As we close in on a record of the most consecutive days below 0 it is safe to say that the winter has taken a toll on me. I've been cocooning . . . and I needed to pull myself out from that stupor. When I finally made it home he suggested visiting the Art Gallery of Ontario. I thought it sounded like a great plan so off we went yesterday to see the Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now's the Time exhibit and wander about the city.
The title of the exhibition derives, in part, from both a blues tune of the same name that Charlie Parker wrote and recorded with Miles Davis (another Basquiat hero) in 1945 – you’ll hear it as you enter the show – and a 1985 Basquiat creation, a big black hunk of plywood shaped like a vinyl recording (you’ll see it upon crossing the exhibition threshold). “Now’s the time” is also the motif/incantation Martin Luther King used to great effect in his famous “I have a dream” speech from 1963, an excerpt of which the AGO is playing ad infinitum at the show’s mid-point.
Of course, the title isn’t just a historical reference; it’s also an argument of sorts for Basquiat’s relevance in the right here/right now of Ferguson, Staten Island and Phoenix, Cleveland, Sanford and … Toronto. Much of Basquiat's art deals with the issue of black identity and recent events serve to further illuminate the themes.
If he were alive today, Jean-Michel Basquiat would be 54 years old: an artist comfortably in mid-career, maybe forgotten, maybe looking forward to a retrospective or two. Would his star have faded? Would he have moved on from his early style, or would he still be making the hotheaded, volatile paintings and drawings he ground out so quickly in the 1980s? Who can say? Basquiat stormed the New York art world in 1981, but in 1988, with more than 1,000 paintings behind him, he overdosed. He will never be more than 27.
There is a theme running through the exhibit of 'the artist as a commodity to be bought and sold'. Basquiat was no innocent outsider corrupted by the art world. On the contrary, he was an intensely ambitious middle-class boy (the family owned a brownstone in Brooklyn’s chichi Boerum Hill; his father drove a Mercedes) who knew his art history – and was especially sensitive to the complex absence/presence of blackness in western art.
The artwork, some of which is created on items Basquiat culled from New York’s streets – from wood to cloth to canvas, and foam – in its own way takes the notion of “the medium is the message” to another level. The artist entwines language, history and images of “heroes and saints,” friends, athletes, and even livestock with language and selective self-censorship as a means of crafting his narrative.
I confess that I am not very educated when it comes to modern art. Nonetheless, I was stunned by how bold his art is. Most of his pieces contained more than one kind of material mixing poetry, paint, drawings, comic book pages, text and found objects.
Standing in front of some of his larger pieces, you really starts to get a sense of how much work, effort and thought would have gone into these. Every paint stroke or drop of paint, every word, every image, and every scribble has a purpose, and when put together creates a statement much bigger than you or me, statements that still exhibit truth today.
You get a 2-4-1 deal with this exhibition – view the art and receive a mini-art lesson.
I recommend basking in Basquiat’s work while listening to the audio tour. The audio tour features commentary and analysis from significant Canadian and international artists, historians, and critics, all of whom share their perspectives on Basquiat’s approach and confrontation of social issues that existed in his time, which either still exist, have evolved, or are resolved in our time.
Basquiat’s surviving family members also give an insight into his childhood and his early inspirations, making this exhibition retrospective in more ways than one.
Note: The AGO offers a free app and audio tour, or you can pay $3-4 for the traditional headset.
Now’s The Time is an excellent exhibition, one that frankly, took us by surprise.
See the exhibition before it winds up in May 2015.