Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (Hoban)

Look, I’m no art critic, but I’ve always been intrigued by Basquiat’s work. Can you separate the artist from the art? Would it be as intriguing to me if I didn’t know anything about the human being behind it? I think so. Those who have had discussions with fiction with me know that I tend to downplay the author’s biography when it comes to interpretation. So does it matter here? I think so. Hogan’s thesis seems to that of the divided Basquiat. Talented, but untrained. Attractive and repellent. Desperate for fame and aware that it destroys first his talent and then his life.

The book is, as the cover blurb says, “compulsively readable.” Hogan makes interesting choices with her supporting material. Instead of weaving it into the narrative, she’ll just stop and tell you the biography of a dealer or the evolution. You might think this would kill the momentum of the biography, but it doesn’t; it’s a chance to catch your breath.

We know how this turns out. Basquiat dies. He dies young, and he dies badly. Hogan never shies away from that fact; nor does she attempt to create any kind of artificial suspense or pathos. It’s a sad and predictable ending to his chaotic life which, in turn, leads to a tangled afterlife for his work and its profits.

I can’t resist one psychological observation (a natural consequence of reading a biography, I think). Basquiat’s father gets a lot of the blame here; Mom disappeared from the narrative for so long that I wondered if I’d overlooked the fact that she’d died or something. There are a few who make tentative efforts, but no emerges, no friend, no mentor, no family member, no artist, no business associate, no girlfriend who makes any serious and consistent effort to tell him that he’s screwing up his life. They are all too attracted to him and afraid of him.

Was he talented? Was he just both a victim and a beneficiary of the 80s art scene? Are we just drawn to him because he died young and left a good-looking corpse? I don’t know. I like to look at his art. It makes me think; it makes me feel. That’s enough, yeah?


Basquiat (Emmerling)

My father once told me that Picasso used to doodle on the checks he wrote in order to give people pause. Should they cash it or wait to see what a Picasso doodle might be worth? Apocryphal or otherwise, the story has always interested me. Does the public make an artist’s reputation? Or does the artist make his (I’ll use that pronoun since I’m writing about Basquiat) own? Or do the times make the artist? Or the market? And what of the cliched but recurring artist who dies young?

Sometimes, we can intersect with a piece of art when we’re not ready for it or its moment has passed. I was aware of Basquiat. I think I even saw an exhibit of his in a London gallery. I knew there was a movie about him. But I think I was finally ready for him. Paging through his pictures and reading Emmerling’s insightful and biased text, I was struck by the intensity of his art and his connection to the likes of Joe Louis and Charlie Parker, artists in their own right who were, like Basquiat, taken advantage of by those around him. His pictures are intense and thought provoking. I wish he’d lived past 27. It seems like he had a lot more to say.