Exploring Jean Michel Basquiat Art @ AGO

Elly, my 11 year old boy ” I’ve seen that guy’s work in the subway. I don’t like his art. It’s too hectic. I only like the stuff  that looks like a kid did it.”


Attracted by the slick subway marketing, I ventured to take in the visual and audio experience of the Basquiat: Now’s the Time exhibition at the AGO. I asked myself, why were Martin Luther King Jr’s words and voice  so prominent in the exhibition? Drugs and money figured extrusively in Jean Michel’s life. Why were his life struggles omitted from the exhibitions subjects  ? I struggled to connect the exhibition’s theme  to the chaotic cerebral spilling’s of  Basquiat’s art.

Money and drugs played a complex role in Basquiat’s existence. As a burgeoning young artist, Jean Michel was furnished with finances, materials, space and collectors. The dreams of every artist, right? Basquiat’s artistic independence soon tarnished as he struggled to quiet the thunder of his critical inner voice and failed to navigate the web of stimulants and his financial benefactors. Basquiat was a young artist living his  dreams. Dreams which materialized quickly and vaporized in a speed ball heartbeat.

Basquiat’s spirit was baptized in the fever of  New York in the 80’s, set against the backdrop of economic recession, materialism, consumerism and racial tensions. He was an experiential soul, seeking a path to celebrity status. Starting out as an anonymously famous graffiti scribe hanging in clubs and playing in bands. Basquiat eventually turned to the visual arts. His compositions contain automatic drawing elements of poetry, self portraits, personalized hieroglyphics, copyright signs, cartoon characters, crowns, jazz musicians & boxing sport hero’s, body parts, slave ships, money, “Krak “and heroin. Basquiat art was certainly a revelation of his psyche. His essential nature was tethered to his need for public expression and acceptance, but certainly not a statement of the American civil rights movement.

Raymond Saunders Portrait of Boxer Jack Jackson 1972
Basquiat’s paintings are vaguely reminiscent of Raymond Saunders Portrait of the Boxer Jack Jackson 1972

Excerpt taken from African-American artist Raymond Saunders, 1967 pamphlet Black is a Colour

Racial hang-ups are extraneous to art, no artist can afford to let them obscure what runs through all art—the living root and the ever-growing aesthetic record of human spiritual and intellectual experience. Can’t we get clear of these degrading limitations, and recognize the wider reality of art, where color is the means and not the end?


The link to Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement was a studious attempt, but too far a stretch for my mind. Jean’s Michel Basquiat’s pantheon of images were representations of the of music he listened to, men and women he admired, his life emotions and experiences. My 11 year knew nothing of Basquiat’s drug use or life challenges. Elly’s ” hectic “comment was an ironic yet accurate interpretation of Jean Michel’s artistic life and times. Elly’s critique was based purely in an extremely intuitive visual perception of the work, not so much in the academia.

Watch the Tamara Davis’ film “The Radiant Child” to explore Basquiat and his art further.