Portrait of the Artist as a Young Derelict

I don't know if this painting is included in the Basquiat show at the Brooklyn Museum right now (I hope it is). I plan on going to see it when I'm in NY later this month. Basquiat was one of the first poets I searched out in the library during my freshman year of college. I checked out every book they had on him and requested they order more. His work spoke to me in a manner more thrilling than any poet or painter I had encountered before. It still does.

I remember seeing his work in person for the first time at the USF Contemporary Art Museum—one of his painted doors, hinges and bolts still stuck on wood, painted red and blue. Years later, C. and I saw a show of his and Keith Haring's work somewhere in the Upper West Side (I don't remember the year or the gallery). At that second show I got to look at two of his best pieces up close, "Eroica I" and "Eroica II," the masterful 1988 diptych, loaded with roughened shades of whiteness and scrawls of prophetic or self-destructive phrases ("Man dies").

He didn't live long enough to become an elder for us black and Latino artists & poets who arrived after him, and he would have laughed at the notion of being a role model. But his work does stand as a guidepost, a measure. At least for me, it does. Hip-hop culture has changed quite a bit since then (in many aspects, it has degenerated) but certain parts of it that remain useful for some of us can be traced back to his paintings.

I'll always prefer Basquiat's paintings, drawings and poems any day over 50 Cent, or whatever the latest installment in hip-hop genocide might be. Basquiat wasn't necessarily heroic (in fact, one could argue he became pathetic, a Rimbaudian cliche). But his paintings hold up, his poems still breathe.

There's a great moment in the film Downtown 81 where Basquiat runs into his former graffiti partner Lee Quinones and Fab Five Freddy painting a mural on a sidewalk in Loisaida. They tell him about a DJ he should check out who's playing inside. Basquiat walks into the small storefront club and dances a few self-conscious steps among a small group of dancers. At one point, the DJ is improvising rhymes and acknowledges the recent arrival: "Jean-Michel is in the house..."

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