Bully for Basquiat

. February 1, 2019.

On Monday, October 4, 1982, the father of pop art Andy Warhol wrote the following excerpt in his diary: “(He) brought Jean-Michel Basquiat with him. He’s the kid who used the name ‘Samo’ when he used to sit on the sidewalk in Greenwich Village and paint T-shirts, and I’d give him $10 here and there and send him up to Serendipity to try and sell the T-shirts there. He was just one of those kids who drove me crazy.”

Nearly 37 years later, that “kid” is considered an international art legend, and the late ’70s/early ’80s Downtown New York City street art scene that made him a superstar is remembered for spawning renown artists such as Keith Haring, Nan Goldin, and others.

Honoring American art history

Contemporary Art Toledo and Owens Community College honor that special epoch in American art history with the exhibit “Zeitgeist: The Art Scene of Teenage Basquiat,” which is supplemented by Sara Driver’s 2018 documentary “Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat.” The result is a fascinating examination of street art and culture and a snapshot of a long bygone era of pre-gentrified New York City.

“This show— and Sara Driver’s movie which largely inspired it— is about recovering those early years when (Basquiat) was just this beautiful kid with great ideas, wild energy and an amazing group of really creative friends who all nurtured and inspired one another,” said Carlo McCormick, one of the main curators, who was also himself part of the Downtown NYC scene that begat Basquiat’s work.

“Zeitgeist” focuses mostly on young Basquiat’s pre-fame work when he and fellow street artist Al Diaz scrawled hilarious and provocative art under the collective name “Samo.” Basquiat’s gritty, neo-expressionist artwork attracted the attention of Andy Warhol and other New York City tastemakers, and the rest, as they say, is history. The once-homeless creative dynamo soon began commanding thousands and thousands of dollars for his work throughout the mid-’80s, until his death from a heroin overdose at 27. An admirable biopic about his life was released in 1996, with David Bowie portraying Warhol.

Basquiat’s impact

More than three decades after his passing, Basquiat remains an art world deity, with his works fetching millions of dollars at auction houses across the world. Why does his work continue to endure and fascinate? McCormick has an idea.

“My immediate response is that Basquiat was so honest and direct as an artist that his work reaches people outside a lot of the clever bullshit we are prone to indulging in the art world,” said McCormick. “I still think for many the real appeal is that Basquiat has an uncanny way of speaking directly to us.”

McCormick will be appearing at the “Zeitgeist” exhibit reception on Saturday, February 9, participating in a Q&A following a screening of Driver’s documentary.

“What I would hope from the exhibition is that even if people come only for the Basquiat, they end up leaving with a fuller picture of the world he lived in and responded to, of his friends, peers and competitors and how the sum of all these divergent and idiosyncratic tendencies will always be greater than the parts,” said McCormick. “I feel confident that the art can speak for itself, to convey the great beauty and hope, the sense of play and experimentation, as well as the anger and alienation that can flower in the darkest of places at the most desperate of times. Perhaps this too is something we can all relate to now more than ever.”

“Zeitgeist: : The Art Scene of Teenage Basquiat” runs through March 22 at Owens Community College Center for Fine and Performing Arts’ Terhune Gallery (30335 Oregon Road, Perrysburg). A public reception will be held on Saturday, February 9 from 5 – 7 p.m., with a screening of “Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat” and a Q&A with curator Carlo McCormick immediately following.