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Fort Greene’s poet-painter Basquiat is fondly remembered

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With two floors of exhibition space showcasing more than 100 works by his hand, the Brooklyn Museum’s latest show is a moving tribute to one of the borough’s most famous sons, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

"Basquiat" is a comprehensive display of paintings and works on paper by the poet-actor-artist who was born and raised in Fort Greene.

At the exhibit’s opening last month, Brooklyn Museum Director Arnold Lehman said that the works are from 37 international lenders "and some have never been seen by the public before."

In addition to being a prolific visual artist, Basquiat, the child of a Haitian-American father and a Puerto Rican mother, was a multitalented creative force who starred in a film loosely based on his own life (Edo Bertoglio’s "Downtown 81"), was a musician in the ska-punk band Gray, performed in Blondie’s "Rapture" video, produced his own hip-hop record "Beat-Bop," collaborated with Andy Warhol and dated Madonna before dying of a drug overdose in 1988 at the age of 27.

Although he was an artist who worked for a short amount of time before his death 17 years ago, Basquiat continues to fascinate art historians, the public and celebrities. Not only does Haitian-American hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean read passages from Basquiat’s interviews and poetry on the exhibit’s audio tour, but superstars such as Bruce Springsteen and Leonardo DiCaprio have already made pilgrimages to the Brooklyn Museum to see the show.

The museum’s chronological exhibition is curated by Marc Mayer, former deputy director for art at the Brooklyn Museum and now director of the Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal; Fred Hoffman of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; Kellie Jones, assistant professor at Yale University; and Franklin Sirmans.

The curators trace Basquiat’s trajectory to stardom, starting with the artist as a 6-year-old boy who showed a precocious talent for drawing (so his mother enrolled him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum). The next year, at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights, "[He] drew a lot whenever he could and grinned when he came for more paper," his second-grade teacher, Coco McCoy, is quoted in the exhibit. The teacher notes that his drawings then were "a thought process elaborated with raw figures, lines, icons, symbols, edits and a message."

The exhibit recalls his early incarnation as a cryptic graffiti poet tagging the buildings of lower Manhattan with the insignia SAMO © (for "same old, same old," according to the exhibition notes) to the darling of the ’80s art scene that Basquiat became.

Basquiat’s works reflect both his diverse Brooklyn heritage and the city itself. He incorporates symbols from American, Haitian and Puerto Rican cultures, and combines layers of media to achieve layers of meaning with his collages, paints and text.

In addition to paying homage to his heroes from the worlds of music (Charlie Parker) and sports (Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis), racism is a recurring, affecting theme in his works, such as in 1981’s "Irony of the Negro Policeman." Here the artist scratches through a surface of white paint to get at the colors beneath; the figure in a blue uniform, with a black skull for a face, enforces the rules of the white world.

In 1982’s "Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari," a black man holds a crate above his head, his eyes wide with fright while the black outline of a white man in a safari hat holds a menacing rifle. On this canvas, Basquiat writes provocative phrases alluding to the slave trade including "Good money in savages" and "Cortez."

Fast forward to 1983’s complicated composition for "Eyes and Eggs," which is a plea for help for the downtrodden, hourly paid employee. This figure, wearing a fast-food worker’s hat and a nametag bearing "Joe," holds a frying pan with red eggs emitting red steam. His exhausted wide eyes are rimmed in red, and there are actual sneaker prints all over the work.

Many of Basquiat’s canvases are effective because they illustrate the inner world of human figures juxtaposed with the chaos of their surroundings. In 1983’s enormous work "La Colomba" ("The Dove"), which employs acrylic, oil paintstick and photocopy collage on a canvas with wood supports, a head appears to melt gray paint in the face of a brilliant blue sky and a splotch of red while the back of the figure’s head is cluttered with thoughts in the form of words and symbols.

Although the artist initially painted on anything he could due to financial constraints, even after he achieved success he continued to paint on unusual materials. One example is the humble, crudely stretched canvas upon which "St. Joe Louis Surrounded by Snakes" (1982) was drawn. In it, the boxer rests under a halo in the center of the composition, encircled by white faces.

The exhibition is supplemented by Lee Jaffe’s photos of Basquiat at work. Those images help the viewer to remember the handsome young man at work and full of life, rather than dwelling on his too-early, tragic death. In one of Jaffe’s shots, Basquiat works outdoors, applying paint to the canvas with a tube rather than a brush, squishing the turquoise pigment with his fingers.



"Basquiat" is on view at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights) through June 5. Admission is $8, $4 students with valid ID and seniors, free to members and children under age 12 accompanied by an adult.

On April 21, the Brooklyn Museum will honor JPMorgan Chase at its annual Brooklyn Ball and attendees will have the opportunity to view "Basquiat" during the cocktail reception, which is followed by dinner and dancing in the Beaux-Arts Court. Tickets are $350-$1,500. For more information about the Brooklyn Ball, call (718) 501-6423 or e-mail special.events@brooklynmuseum.org.

For more information about the exhibit, call (718) 638-5000 or visit the Web site at www.brooklynmuseum.org.

The catalog, "Basquiat" (Merrell Publishers Ltd/Brooklyn Museum), edited by Marc Mayer, is on sale in the museum gift shop.

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