Whitney compares Basquiat to Leonardo da Vinci in new retrospective

Music Television and Madonna sponsor her late lover


With the current retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which runs until 14 February, 1993, the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat has received the attention that even this highly promoted artist never got in his lifetime. Basquiat’s work is also getting unprecedented praise, at least in the Whitney catalogue, where six essays compare the one-time graffiti artist who died of a heroin overdose at the age of twenty-seven to Leonardo da Vinci, Goya, Vincent van Gogh, and Jackson Pollock.

The conventional wisdom of the decade-obsessed art world sees the Basquiat show as a referendum on the 1980s, placing an artist who had been catapulted into stardom by that era’s hype under the closer scrutiny that comes in a time of greater austerity. What seems more likely is that Basquiat could be the beneficiary of a process operating in the market (and among some critics), where artists who appear able to retain their market value in the next decade are promoted and shown, whereas others considered beyond rehabilitation are ignored. Dealers report that paintings offered by the Robert Miller Gallery, which represents the Basquiat estate, are at late-1980s prices, well above $250,000.

As the exhibition neared readiness, it appeared that Basquiat seemed most likely to survive this triage process. So far, no artist from that period has received this kind of attention from a major museum. (The Whitney downplays any suggestion of special treatment accorded the Basquiat show, describing the exhibition of the dead artist’s work as one of a series of mid-career retrospectives.) In the spring, the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, one of the country’s largest corporations, committed $100,000 to sponsor the Whitney show. AT&T’s eagerness to identify with an artist who ran away, scrawled graffiti on walls, and became a drug addict may have little to do with the quest for positive “role models” now popular in the United States. But Tim McClimon, head of the AT&T Foundation’s visual arts program, says that support for Basquiat and other “artists of colour” reflects the corporation’s effort in its philanthropy and marketing to reach a racially diverse public.

Besides its AT&T grant (part of a trend toward corporate funding of the work of “minority” artists), the Basquiat show at the Whitney is sponsored by grants from the singer Madonna and from MTV: Music Television, the company that pioneered the now-universal music video format. Madonna is a former girlfriend of the artist and a collector of the work of Frida Kahlo, another twentieth-century art martyr.

The MTV contribution represents a novel convergence of the art and rock-and-roll markets. Art dealers have often dreamed of marketing artists on the scale that the music industry markets rock stars, and the Basquiat show will test whether that artist’s celebrity from the early 1980s can attract a generation of museumgoers who weren’t even teenagers then. Even if that fails in Basquiat’s case, a new avenue of promotion may be developing, if art and popular music audiences can be seen to overlap.

Basquiat’s work has also found its way into another unlikely venue—the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While the retrospective runs at the Whitney, the Metropolitan is showing two large mural-sized paintings Basquiat made in 1985 for the Palladium, a once-chic New York City nightclub.

While Basquiat may have reached the Metropolitan and music television, the exhibition’s tour after the Whitney run seems far less promising. Given the claims made for Basquiat’s historical importance in the show’s catalogue, it is surprising that the retrospective has only signed up sites at the Menil Collection in Houston (11 March-9 May, 1993), the Des Moines Art Center (22 May-15 August), and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama (18 November-9 January, 1994). The show’s organisers had approached more well-known institutions and had been turned down by Los Angeles MOCA, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Monterrey Museum in Mexico (which had used a Basquiat work as the cover for its inaugural catalogue), and by the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Basquiat’s estate, administered by his accountant father, still faces lawsuits from a dealer asking for $900,000 for three paintings Basquiat had promised her in 1982 but never delivered. The estate also faces a challenge from Basquiat’s former bookkeeper, who claimed to have been his manager.

Investigators report no progress in efforts to trace Basquiat’s last U.S. dealer, Vrej Baghoomian, who disappeared last spring with creditors in pursuit. Baghoomian had claimed a 50% interest in all Basquiat’s work based on an agreement he and the artist made before Basquiat’s death. That allegation was dismissed by a New York surrogates court last year. Dozens of paintings that should have gone to the estate were sold by Baghoomian soon after Basquiat’s death, however, and they have not been found.

The estate’s legal battles have been waged by Gerard Basquiat, the artist’s father, and the attorney Michael Ward Stout. But if a Basquiat legend is to emerge from all this activity, Basquiat père will have to alter his practice of refusing to talk to reporters. At least three biographers have been snubbed by the elder Basquiat.

Many see the Basquiat retrospective as a referendum on the Whitney Museum’s curatorial standards, but just a month before the show was to open at the Whitney, a New York weekly reported that the museum had sought to fire Richard Marshall, the show’s curator, who had spent years preparing the project with Gerard Basquiat and the Robert Miller Gallery. Marshall remains at the Whitney, however, reportedly thanks to the threat of a lawsuit from Michael Ward Stout, the same attorney who represents the Basquiat estate.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Basquiat as Leonardo da Vinci'