The artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is a monumental figure in contemporary art for a number of reasons. To say that Basquiat was at the right place at the right time is a great understatement. In his case, he seems to have been born to conquer the art world despite the drawbacks of starting out with zero connections and zero money. Personally, for me, I had filed away Basquiat in my mind many years ago and hadn’t looked back. I look back fondly, and return regularly, to a number of artists ranging from Edward Manet to R.B. Kitaj but not Basquiat…not until recently. I happen to have been in New York and got to see a spectacular Basquiat show. It then dawned on me that, the further away one is from New York, the less is known or understood about Basquiat. Like it or not, Basquiat is an obscure household name! Some people love him and some hate him and probably for all the wrong reasons. I wasn’t sure if one graphic novel could help shed sufficient light on the subject but I decided to find out by reading Basquiat: A Graphic Novel by Paolo Parisi, published by Laurence King Publishing. This new English translation by Edward Fortes will be a welcome addition to anyone interested in better understanding one of the most celebrated and enigmatic of artists.
Paolo Parisi is in many ways an ideal artist to create a graphic novel about Basquiat. Parisi has proven himself to have the right temperament for the job. His previous graphic novels include a book on John Coltrane and one on Billie Holiday. As he puts it, his graphic novels all follow a common thread that includes “jazz, art, painting and process, rhythm, rigor, improvisation, and spontaneity.” Well, you can find all of that with Basquiat, an artist that jumped feet first into his art at an early age and never looked back, as if guided mostly by instinct and sheer will. His was an original and singular vision.
Within this biography, the reader will come away with a good sense of the trajectory of Basquiat’s art career, from his early forays into street art to his mugging for the camera on cable access to his navigating the highest levels of the New York art world. Parisi does a great service to Basquiat by generously quoting directly from him and from the people who knew him best. Much of this book is made up of quotes, transcriptions from letters, and just the right amount of carefully composed dramatization. The bold use of color in this graphic novel is supposed to evoke the same bold use of color that Basquiat used in his own paintings. Alas, we somehow don’t explore any of Basquiat’s actual paintings! Diego Cortez, the curator of the famous Times Square Show that helped to launch Basquiat is quoted: “Jean had something different. He reminded me of Cy Twombly and Franz Kline. He didn’t even know who Kline and Twombly were, but he had instinct, charm, and energy on his side.” There is plenty of instinct, charm, and energy on display in this book. And you can take it any way you like: for beginners, it’s a wonderful first step; for those familiar with Basquiat, it’s a great New York fable.
Basquiat: A Graphic Novel is a 128-page hardcover, in full color, published by Laurence King Publishing, English translation edition (May 14, 2019).