Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art by Phoebe Hoban


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Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art is an oft repetitive and scattered account of the life of the ‘80s Neo-Expressionist painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat.  Basquiat was the first contemporary African American artist to become an international star.  In this book, the author draws from interviews with ex-girlfriends, friends and peers of the art world.

Sweeping from Jean-Michel’s middle-class upbringing in Brooklyn, NY to the height of ‘80s decadence in Manhattan, this book is as much a portrait of the excess of the times as it is of Basquiat himself.  During the heyday of clubs such as CBGBs and the Mudd Club, Basquiat toiled alongside other fellows of the arts such as Julian Schnabel, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Longo, Francesco Clemente, David Salle, Sandro Chia, oh and of course let’s not forget Andy Warhol!  If you were around during the heyday of the 80s a lot of these names will be familiar to you.

In his school years Basquiat became one of the star illustrators in the school yearbook and newspaper.  This is where his oft-used pseudonym SAMO was born in an essay about a bogus religion.  After leaving home at 15 years old, Basquiat put his artistic talents to use by scrawling cryptic graffiti all over Manhattan under that same pseudonym.  Around that same time he collaborated with his friend Michael Holman, who is now an award-winning writer, director and producer, creating the industrial band, Gray.  By the time he started painting, Michel had already become a steady presence in the underground art/rock scene of Manhattan.  In the decade to follow he would not only become a legendary artist, he would become a victim of the times and die of a heroin overdose at 27 years old.

Although Basquiat is remembered as charismatic, kind, gentle and loving by ex-lovers and friends, they all talk frankly of how he was also a very pained and isolated spirit.  He would unwittingly sabotage his relationships, both personal and professional.  He had a fear of betrayal and he could not maintain emotional bonds, often driving people away with his behavior.  He was not tactful, was very selfish and could sometimes be offensive.

“The one word that applies to JeanMichel is ‘excess.’ The one word is ‘more.’ If you asked JeanMichel what he wanted, the answer would be ‘more.’ He was never happy. He was obsessive about everything. He wanted more, whether it was people, or food, or drugs.”

On the professional side, he yearned for and eventually got recognition by Andy Warhol, working alongside him at one point, but eventually sabotaged that relationship as well.

As the new money of the eighties was being rapidly invested in art, art dealers were continually trying to exploit him.   He was being pressured to produce painting after painting non-stop.  John-Michel hated the ever-increasing demand on him and couldn’t take the unending pressure of being treated like a commodity.  Some of this can be seen in the art he produced as he layered meaningful messages within each piece.  It is during this time that his paintings seem to become somewhat repetitive.

Basquiat’s art also reflected his passion for language, knowledge, pop culture, music and other things he obsessed over such as being black and his own death.  In the end, Basquiat left behind an enduring legacy in the art world.  The importance of his work, in terms of financial worth and historical relevance, has increased dramatically in the decades since his death and within the eighties generation of painters, Basquiat alone has consistently set records for the prices paid for his paintings sold at auction.

I was very interested in reading about Basquiat and I should have liked this book.  Being a child of the 80s, I absolutely loved the music and art of that decade.  I recognize that it’s got to be hard to splice all the info contained in this book into a comprehensive timeline and it definitely shows.  The book was poorly constructed, jumping back and forth through time and becoming very repetitious.  In the end, it sounds like Jean-Michel just got tired of the same old, same old, and that’s exactly how I felt reading about it.

I want to thank the publisher (Open Road Integrated Media) for providing me with the ARC through NetGalley for an honest review.

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