Gagosian and Basquiat: The Early Years of Two Rising Stars in Los Angeles

Gagosian and Basquiat: The Early Years of Two Rising Stars in Los Angeles

In October 1981, when the art dealer Larry Gagosian first laid eyes on a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, he had never heard of the artist. “My hair stood on end,” he said of seeing the 20-year-old’s work. Just six months later, when Basquiat opened a solo show at Gagosian’s gallery in West Hollywood, the place, Gagosian recalled in an interview, “was absolutely mobbed.”

Few stars have risen so fast, and burned out so quickly. (Basquiat died in 1988 of a drug overdose at age 27.) His story is an archetypal tragedy, in which personal exceptionalism meets catastrophically with systemic prejudice — in his case, not only toward his race, but against his youthful, pan-cultural fame, his blatant ambition, his physical beauty and charisma, and his louche comportment. Even at the height of his success, New York — where he reportedly had trouble hailing a cab — was never an easy place for him.

Los Angeles, however, Basquiat liked so much that after his first visit in 1982, he soon returned, twice staying for months at a time and setting up studios at first in and then near Gagosian’s home on Market Street, a block from Venice Beach. For a spell, he was joined by his girlfriend Madonna, not yet a star, before she packed up and went home to New York. His output during his time in California was enormous, numbering around a hundred works, most now acknowledged to be museum-grade masterpieces.

Few institutions could pull off such an exhibition of the cream of Basquiat’s output while in Los Angeles, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Made on Market Street,” at his Beverly Hills gallery. At its preview, lines ran down the block.

Larry Gagosian does not typically curate exhibitions. But this project is personal to him: It frames the story of his gallery, which began in the 1970s as a poster shop in Westwood, Los Angeles, and grew almost as quickly as Basquiat’s fame. By 1982, Gagosian was dealing works by Sol LeWitt and Ellsworth Kelly, but his first Basquiat show, “really put the gallery on the map.”

As co-curator, he has enlisted Fred Hoffman, an art scholar and dealer who, in the 1980s, ran a printmaking studio in Los Angeles called New City Editions. On Basquiat’s second visit to Los Angeles, Gagosian suggested that they collaborate on a silk-screen edition. Hoffman ended up making many screens from Basquiat’s drawings, some of which the artist printed directly onto his canvases. Hoffman later wrote four books on Basquiat and even named his son Jean-Michel.

Unusually for an exhibition in a commercial space, “Made on Market Street” incorporates vitrines of related ephemera including hotel bills, receipts for first-class plane tickets, art supplies and clothing boutiques. It’s diverting stuff, nosing through Basquiat’s receipts for pants (Katharine Hamnett, 30-inch waist, $90) and jackets (Cerutti, 48R, $575). Rarely is an art-historical narrative laced so unapologetically with anecdote.

There’s plenty to feel uneasy about in this exhibition. For one thing, the story of a Black man (who is dead, and cannot speak for himself) today being used to bolster the story of a living white man — two, if you include Hoffman — is icky, at best.

In Phoebe Hoban’s biography, “Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art,” first published in 1998, she paints a picture of consensual, mutual exploitation between the artist and his dealer.

John Seed, who worked at Gagosian’s gallery in the 1980s, told Hoban that he felt Basquiat was “a world-class manipulator who could keep up with Larry. He could both punish Larry and play the lost boy.” He sums up the pair’s relationship as: “Sharks and piranhas.”

She quotes Hoffman: Basquiat “didn’t trust Larry. He admired him as an art dealer. We would all hang out together and have a great time, but Larry would always say, ‘How about another painting?’”

Gagosian rejects the notion that Basquiat was exploited, by him or by anyone else. “Jean-Michel knew exactly what he was doing,” he said.

Then there are the prices. In an introduction to the 2016 edition of Hoban’s book, a Christie’s specialist gives his assessment of Basquiat’s market: “Some of my colleagues think that in our lifetime we will certainly see a painting sell for $100 million.” That statement aged fast; in 2017, the Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa paid $110.5 million for Basquiat’s painting “Untitled” (1982).

During his short career, Basquiat reaped plentiful rewards from his work. “I never had any problem selling a Basquiat painting, I can tell you that,” Gagosian says. But other people have made far more money off Basquiat than he ever made for himself.

As a result of such market extremes, any exhibition of Basquiat’s work, in a museum or in a commercial gallery, is a challenging feat. Despite Gagosian’s clout, some owners declined to lend their paintings for this show, and for those who did, insurance and courier transport costs were astronomical. (Thinking about the expense “kind of spoils the show” for him, Gagosian said with a chuckle.)

Ironically, because of this white-hot market, none of the pieces in “Made on Market Street” are (officially) available for sale. “There’s no price tags hanging on them,” said Gagosian, known for brokering sales of hitherto unavailable works, “but every now and then there could be a conversation.”

The effortlessly assured art in “Made in Market Street” makes the best case for Basquiat knowing exactly what he was doing. Throughout are written references to value, to market commodities and “legal tender.” A 1983 portrait of Hoffman, titled “Fred,” bears at its center the phrase “FINISHED PRODUCT,” in capital letters. Basquiat’s paintings incorporate a polymathic breadth of information, consisting of high and low, the academy and the street, the historical and the contemporary. In “Tuxedo,” an editioned silk-screen-on-canvas work that Hoffman made with Basquiat, dense notations include references to Leonardo da Vinci, Pope Alexander VI, the sack of Rome and Vasco da Gama alongside pork ribs, slot machines, cheese popcorn and “the mens [sic] shelter on third st.”

Above it all, Basquiat drew a large crown — a recurrent motif that became something of a logo. Basquiat may have chosen low-grade materials such as salvaged doors and grubby sheets of paper on which to paint, but he never doubted his own gifts.

The hushed center of this exhibition is formed by three paintings of what Hoffman, in the show’s catalog, calls “manifestations of a higher power.” These otherworldly beings, teeth bared and eyes glaring, which Hoffman compares to traditional depictions of sub-Saharan divinity figures, are regal and terrifying. No scrawled text is appended to these icons. Done on sections of a dilapidated wooden fence that once enclosed a yard behind Basquiat’s studio, in one instance painted a rich metallic gold, they fuse nobility with humility.

How did Los Angeles change Basquiat’s work? Neither Hoffman nor Gagosian can claim it did, definitively. One might point out, here and there among Basquiat’s graphomaniac inscriptions, a palm tree or some ocean waves. But Basquiat was so omnivorous that these additions hardly make a ripple. Perhaps one might sense in this work an easing of the angst and fury that courses through many of his paintings done in New York. His use of color opens up. The 1983 painting “Hollywood Africans,” now a jewel in the Whitney Museum’s collection, is uncharacteristically upbeat in its blue, red and yellow palette, even as its content alludes to the enduring racism of the entertainment industry.

Most of all, it seems that Basquiat just wanted to work. His time in Los Angeles, staying first as a guest in Gagosian’s house and later in the five-star L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills, enabled him to do that. Although it may have been a respite from New York, Los Angeles nevertheless provided the requisite friction for Basquiat to generate sparks.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Made on Market Street

Through June 1. Gagosian Gallery, 456 North Camden Drive, Beverly Hills; 310-271-9400; gagosian.com.

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