Last week, Andy Warhol would’ve celebrated his 82nd birthday.
There’s been a flurry of interest around his work the last while. The National Gallery of Canada’s Pop Life exhibit, running through September 19th, covers Warhol’s artistic and aesthetic legacy via living artists like Tracey Emin and Damian Hirst, as well as Warhol contemporary Keith Haring and some later works of the man himself. I’m dying to see it. There’s something eerily timely as well as timeless about not only Warhol’s work, but his world-view and observations on (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde) the deep superficiality of popular culture -something many of us take for granted. I have to wonder what he’d make of the internet too, especially (ahem) blogs on the arts. Hmmm.
Another Warhol exhibit I’d love to get to before it closes is the one happening now through September 12th at the Brooklyn Museum. Thirteen New York recently had a fantastic little feature on their Arts round-up about the exhibit, called Andy Warhol: The Last Decade. It features 50 pieces from 1978 to his untimely demise in 1987.
As curator Sharon Matt Atkins notes in the WNET clip, the exhibit provides “an opportunity to see another side” of someone most people associate with Marilyn Monroe prints and soup cans. Pop proper was only seven years; Warhol’s career spanned over forty. The show looks like it has a distinct focus on Warhol’s painting activities, particularly those he did with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Some pieces bear a distinct stylistic similarity to Jackson Pollock’s untamed, energetic works. There is a palpable reaction to polite painting techniques of the past, with Atkins explaining how Warhol and assistants actually urinated on pieces to produce various patterns.
The work with Basquiat is especially moving; each one shows a mad dance of inspiration, competition, and robust masculinity at play, though, interestingly, the lines between each artist become less and less distinct in paintings that span the three year collaboration. There’s a kind of passing-the-mantle in artistic and spiritual senses too, which makes their shared output even more poignant when you consider that Basquiat himself passed a year after Andy. In fact, this Thursday marks 22 years since the Haitian-American artist died. Weird.
That blurring between the two doesn’t diminish Warhol’s work-horse, style, however; the effect is rather the opposite, because it clearly shows the scope of Warhol’s curiosity and imagination. And just looking at at his Last Supper series reminds me of Lou Reed’s comment in a past interview where he recalls the white-wigged artist calling him “lazy.” Warhol as workaholic? The last decade of his output certainly implies as much.
I have to curb my own workaholic-ism in order to get away to see these exhibits. With the rain pelting down lately and the turn of seasons just around the corner, spending a few afternoons in Ottawa and Brooklyn feels like the absolutely right thing to do -and a great way to muse over what Andy might’ve been doing if he was with us now.
I’ve written about Basquiat in the past, especially in relation to his part-Haitian background, as I feel that’s an important part of understanding and appreciating his work. But Davis’ film, with its combination of interviews, old footage, music, and visual effects, added much to my appreciation. The balance between the epic and the intimate was achieved with a light, loving touch; footage of her interview with Basquiat sang and shimmered in beautiful harmony with other footage that documented his meteoric rise in the bitchy New York art world of the 1980s. I loved the way she coordinated shots of his art with his bebop (his favourite music), a technique that vividly reflected the kind of energy that so exuberantly exists in all his work. Her interviewees (including Fab Freddy, Kenny Scharf, and Tony Shafrazi, among many others) all offer a unique insight into Basquiat’s special brand of genius.
In watching Radiant Child, I was also struck by the creative possibilities extant in New York in the early 1980s; rent was cheap and art -of all styles -was everywhere. Young people wanted to explore their contributions to the cultural diaspora (though they’d argue they were just as much out for a good time and a hot meal). Cable access shows, indie radio, zines, graffiti, DIY bands… NYC was an incredible cultural stew of punk, rap, dance, and industrial. Everything’s changed since, of course, but as Radiant Child wrapped up, I couldn’t help but think of what Basquiat, a great cultural explorer, would make of the digital revolution. Reinvention, reinterpretation, cultural appropriation, intellectual piracy: what would Jean-Michel say? How would he react? How much would he take/borrow/steal in order to create? How would the ease of digital technologies influence his output? or indeed, his input, his perceptions of the world around him?
I thought about this in reading previews of Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars From Gutenberg to Gates (University of Chicago Press), Adrian John‘s latest book. To quote the University of Chicago Press’s description, the book “ultimately argues that piracy has always stood at the center of our attempts to reconcile creativity and commerce—and that piracy has been an engine of social, technological, and intellectual innovations as often as it has been their adversary.”
The term “piracy” with its pseudo-romantic (if seriously flawed) notions, can be just as potently ascribed to the world of visual art as to other cultural artforms. Think of the Emergency Broadcast Network, who made video work patched together from a sea of other, seemingly-unrelated clips. In Radiant Child, Davis draw clear lines between Basquiat and his influences -literally, by showing the original inspiration (say, something by Picasso) and Basquiat’s interpretation. How would he respond to the copyright claims brought about via the digital revolution?
It’s a question worth pondering as one considers the genius on display on Davis’ work, and the various threads used to weave beauty in any age. Artists are cannibals, it’s true, and often the best creations are in fact re-creations. It’s the individual artist -mixmaster, curator, interpreter -who takes the clay forms of the past and moulds them into something meaningful -for themselves and others -in the present. When it come to the greatness that touches some artists like Basquiat, they created, re-created, and inspired for their time, and forever, and their works live on, on the canvas, and online. Radiant indeed.
Like many following the crisis in Haiti, I’m left with tremendous feelings of sadness. What can I do? How can I help? Is my donation enough? What else? As a journalist, it’s been interesting to observe the various ways stories from Port au Prince are being related; some are more positive than others, but there is an undeniable emphasis on loss, which is both fitting and yet discomforting. Surely we have to start focusing on the reconstruction stories soon. Energy goes where eyes go, after all. And eyes need to be on feeding, rebuilding, doctoring, and all-around aid.
Jean-Michel Basquiat understood this concept of energy. His paintings were full of question marks: who am I where do I belong? how do I define myself -as a black man, an artist, an American? His works, utterly shaped by graffiti and street art, have a rhythm and pulse that many painters work hard at capturing. They’re not meant to be soothing, polite, or elegant, but rather, raucous, loud, and confrontational. I frequently wonder if this is owing to Basquiat’s own mixed background and the sense I get that, in his 27 short years, he was on an urgent, stabbing quest to try to fit in -on artistic as well as socio-economic levels -with a society that he knew, to some extent, would never entirely welcome him as their own. Maybe this sense helped to fuel the rage I see (and love) in his works.
I came across a book featuring his work today and was forced to pause between floor cleanings. Leafing through Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, Basquiat’s shifting sense of power, vacillating between lost rebel and confident artiste, was both enthralling and challenging. His works are a loud, exuberant complement to Maya Angelou’s proud paean to resolve in the face of massive fear and overwhelming odds.
It may sound pretentious, but I found a new power in his many works exploring black identity in the light of the Haitian tragedy. Basquiat’s father was born in Haiti, while his mother was Puerto Rican. What would he think about the events of the last few days? How would he express the magnitude of the calamity that has befallen his father’s homeland? Would he look at UN efforts and proclaim SAMO? Or might he paint, in the spirit of Angelou’s words, a defiant, fortifying tribute to the indomitable spirit of Haiti’s citizens? We will never know. But seeing his works again have, in a strange way, given me a sort of hope the news hasn’t, and perhaps, won’t. That’s okay. Maybe that’s part of the beauty -and mystery -of art.
Don’t show me frogs and snakes
And listen for my scream,
If I’m afraid at all
It’s only in my dreams.
I’ve got a magic charm
That I keep up my sleeve
I can walk the ocean floor
And never have to breathe.
Life doesn’t frighten me at all
Not at all
Not at all.