Man Made: Jean-Michel Basquiat

Hip hop producer Swizz Beatz was halfway through his introduction to the new Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at Sotheby’s yesterday evening when he let drop that he has two tattoos inspired by the late Brooklyn artist. “Can you show us?” someone shouted, interrupting his speech. Swizz smiled, then rolled back the cuff of his white suit to reveal the artist’s unmistakable thousand-mile stare gazing out from his right forearm.

Before he died of a drug overdose in 1988 at the age of 27, the self-taught Basquiat became a legend for his exploration of cultural identity, justice and equality as well as his ability to turn almost any medium into thought-provoking works of art. The only thing he didn’t try doing was tattoos, but if he’d lived longer then who knows?

Some of his works on display at Sotheby’s S2 gallery are the kind of visual poetry that introduced Basquiat to the art scene as a teenaged member of the graffiti collective known as SAMO. “Jimmy best on his back to the suckerpunch of his childhood files,” reads one piece spray painted on a metal panel. The most traditional Basquiat got was painting large canvases with wild splashes of colors colliding and threading through seemingly unrelated texts and shapes, as in “Love Dub for A.”

To get a measure of the man, I called up one of Basquiat’s earliest collaborators, Michael Holman. The two met at a party in 1979 and that same night decided to start a band that eventually became known as Gray, after Basquiat’s favorite visual reference book Grey’s Anatomy. Despite the fact that neither man had a formal musical background, Basquiat’s creativity and fame helped the band pioneer a new kind of sound that he called “incomplete, abrasive and oddly beautiful,” and they began playing at hot spots like The Mudd Club.

Holman told me a story he said perfectly encapsulated who Basquiat was as an artist and collaborator. It was the night of Gray’s last performance at The Mudd Club, and Holman and the rest of the band had worked for hours preparing an elaborate show in which each member would remain partially hidden while they performed. Holman, the drummer, would only be visible from the neck up, while the audience might only see the legs of another bandmate. The idea was to create a stage that came from a “bizarro world.”

“And so Jean, who would never lift his finger to do any physical work, shows up for sound check many hours later,” Holman said. “But when he showed up, he was blown away by the set. I could tell that I really rocked his world, which doesn’t happen every day. You want to always remember that moment when he has that look on his face, like, ‘Damn, this is wild.’”

“So he turns around and walks out, and I’m worried because where is he going? He comes back in 5 minutes. Now keep in mind he had no idea what we were going to do [with the stage]. He comes back in 5 minutes and he had found in the alleys around The Mudd Club a shipping crate. It’s this cubed, wooden empty shipping crate and one of the sides was open. He throws it up on stage — doesn’t say a word to me but he has a big smile on his face — climbs up on stage and scrunches his body into a pre-Colombian mummy going into an urn sarcophagus and squeezes into this box. He pulls his wasp synthesizer in with him and then looks out at me and smiles.”

“And I realized that in 5 minutes, not knowing what we were going to do, he had gone out and found something that not only fit perfectly with the overall design, but made him the center of attention.”

Sotheby’s “Man Made: Jean-Michel Basquiat” exhibition is open from May 2 through June 9, 2013. Find more information here.

Photos by: Andrew Boyle

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