The small survey of the short career of Jean Michel Basquiat, which opens at the Serpentine Gallery (6 March-21 April), is, in some respects, an abbreviated extension of the exhibition that took place at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and in three provincial American museums, in 1992-94.
Although gallery director Julia Peyton-Jones has selected the twenty-five acrylic paintings that form the exhibition, she has collaborated with Richard Marshall who was responsible for curating the earlier event which raised more questions than it answered (see The Art Newspaper No. 22, November 1992, p. 10). Issues of ownership and authenticity continue to cloud a proper assessment of the artist’s worth which may, in any case, be impossible to gauge even if a properly documented record of his oeuvre could be compiled. It is not doubted that he was hugely prolific, painting at a speed that makes Picasso appear to be laboured, and wildly uneven in the quality of his work. But on virtually all other matters, including his character and the value of his art, there is no consensus. He became, and probably remains, the most controversial painter of the Eighties.
Ms Peyton-Jones has wisely emphasised the artist’s early years when his energy and originality was more startling. Sixteen of the canvases in the exhibition were painted in 1981-83. There is one of those not entirely convincing collaborations with Andy Warhol in 1984, when Basquiat completely destroyed the senior painter’s contribution by painting over his careful designs with an irreverent frenzy, and two paintings from 1988, the last year of his life, one titled “Riding with Death”. No real change of style can be determined during the eight or nine years of his activity, but the later work appears to be less urgent, less genuine in the emotions which it illustrates.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Just how good was Jean-Michel Basquiat?'