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Review: Prospect.3: Basquiat and the Bayou

D. Eric Bookhardt on the Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art



He was a Roman candle whose arc over the New York art world blazed too briefly; he died from a heroin overdose when he was 27. The son of a Haitian father and a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, Jean-Michel Basquiat came of age in the early 1980s, when New York was still a center of intense artistic ferment, and the neoexpressionist movement was ascendant. But he also was very affected by Southern folk art, as this resonant selection makes clear. His emotionally charged style may recall the inchoate fury of disturbed, self-taught visionary artists, but he was crazy like a fox, and the opposites often found in his work — for instance, violence and the sublime — hark to the Afro-Caribbean parables of his ancestors. Consequently, Basquiat's interweaving of fierce emotional energies has as much in common with voodoo, or even jazz, as with the expressionist legacies of Europe and America.

  Exu, a Macumba spirit of the crossroads, is a vortex of eyes, spears and slashing strokes of yellow and crimson within which we see the snarky demon himself leering amid the chaos. Dating from 1988, Exu is one of Basquiat's last works but recalls his early days as a graffiti artist. Zydeco (pictured), a vast, wall-size painting, is more lyrical and harks to Louisiana's Creole-Cajun heritage as an accordion-playing figure appears amid an array of vintage audiovisual equipment that resonates a cryptic mythic significance. Also vast is King Zulu, his 1986 wall-size opus featuring a grinning, tragicomic black-man-in-blackface mask floating in a field of blue flanked by horn-playing jazz musicians, perhaps a reference to Louis Armstrong's reign as King Zulu in 1949. As iconic as Giacometti figures wearing shades and zoot suits, the jazzmen seem to almost hover around the mask, and once again we sense an invisible system at work, an erudite universe of symbols that can only be understood intuitively — never cerebrally — in what may amount to Basquiat's final, unspoken challenge to late 20th-century culture.

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