An interesting feature of the Outsider Art Fair in NY this year was the panel discussion about the self-taught artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat. (Panelists: Brooke Davis Anderson, Eric Fretz, Lenore Schorr, Xaviera Simmons).
I had only a vague understanding of Basquiat and his work; he entered my radar screen when he began collaborating with Andy Worhol in the 1980s. But, obviously, there is much more to his short life story than that (he died in 1988 at the age of 27).
Basquiat was a bit of a wunderkind; he was said to have shown his intelligence and artistic talent at an early age. His art interest and talent was nourished by his mother, but she was committed to a psychiatric institution when he was 11. It seems that Basquiat’s life took a downward spiral at that point and he lived with his father for awhile, but was soon banished from home. He lived on the street, supporting himself by selling T-shirts and postcards.
Basquiat became known for his spray painted graffiti under the name SAMO. He met Warhol in a restaurant in around 1980 and, so the story goes, Warhol was taken by Basquiat’s genius. Basquiat went on to exhibit in The Times Square Show, a multi-artist exhibition, and later was taken up by gallerist Annina Nosei. Warhol and Basquiat worked on some collaborative paintings between 1983 and 1985. Basquiat is “famous” for painting in Armani suits, which he would appear in later for interviews. (Obviously, success was getting to his head…) He died from a heroin overdose in 1988, at the height of his career. His paintings now sell for kajillions of dollars.
OK, well, that’s the official biography of Basquiat, but what about his artwork? His art focused on dichotomies, like wealth and poverty and inner versus outer experience. He used a lot of text in his drawing and paintings and incorporated found materials. He worked in abstract and figurative styles, mixing historical and contemporary commentary. He obsessively included anatomy, words, and symbols in his work. Most interestingly, he loved and collected the work of outsider artist, Sam Doyle (1906 – 1985), pictured at right (Devil Spirit. Image kindly provided by Gordon W. Bailey).
Sam Doyle? Who would have thought that? Doyle was a self-taught artist from South Carolina, who painted bold figures on sheet metal and wood. He profiled the history and people of his community. His work is figurative and bold and one can see what attracted Basquiat to Doyle’s work. Look at the bold, face-on stance and facial expression of Doyle’s and Basquiat’s images. No subtlety, no restraint, just pure expressiveness.
But I find one thing disturbing: Basquiat’s work sells for millions. Doyle’s work doesn’t. Was it Basquiat’s connection to Warhol that commands awe and top dollar, or does it have to do with his images that ask the big questions about life. I think may be a bit of both. Although they were both “self-taught” artists, one of them (Basquiat) had the power of the NY art scene and mega$$$ behind him. The other (Doyle) did not.
I’m just sayin’…