AGO to present major retrospective of NYC art-world legend Jean-Michel Basquiat in winter 2015

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AGO to present major retrospective of NYC art-world legend Jean-Michel Basquiat in winter 2015
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Exu, 1988. Acrylic and oilstick on canvas, 199.3 x 254 cm. Private Collection © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / SODRAC (2014).

TORONTO.- Famous by age 20 for his groundbreaking drawings and paintings, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) took the cultural hotbed of the New York art world by storm in the early 1980s. Basquiat gained international recognition by creating powerful and expressive works that confronted issues of racism, politics and social hypocrisy. Although his career was cut short by his untimely death at age 27, his works remain hugely influential. Opening Feb. 7, 2015, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Basquiat marks the first-ever major retrospective of the artist’s work in Canada and will feature more than 140 large-scale paintings and drawings from private collections and public museums across Europe and North America.

Described by the artist himself as a “springboard to deeper truths about the individual,” Basquiat’s vivid and poignant works were always highly conceptual in their exploration of race, class and fame using the motifs of New York street culture. Though Basquiat was not a street artist, his work was intrinsically linked to the urban environment, beginning in conceptual graffiti, referencing street art in his paintings and using salvaged materials such as abandoned doors and packing crates as canvases.

In 1976, Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz began spraypainting the walls of lower Manhattan under the pseudonym SAMO©, alluding to the saying “same old shit.” Their work cleverly used and manipulated text to provoke those who walked by. Eventually Basquiat’s renown grew, as he started a noise rock band, appeared in Edo Bertoglio’s indie film Downtown 81 and struck up a friendship with Andy Warhol. In 1982 — when he was 21 — Basquiat’s first solo show sold out. Experiencing sudden popularity, he found himself sharing ideas with David Bowie, briefly dating Madonna, appearing in music videos and gracing the cover of TIME Magazine. Now, more than 25 years after his death, his influence remains. His work is collected by celebrities and institutions alike, and he has been referenced in the lyrics of many contemporary rap artists including Jay-Z, Macklemore and Kanye West.

“Jean-Michel Basquiat was nothing less than a game-changer for the art world,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, the AGO’s director and CEO. “His extraordinary talent helped establish compelling new forms of expressionist painting while confronting the most important and incendiary social issues of 20th-century North America. This exhibition offers a tremendous opportunity for AGO visitors to contemplate art as a tool of social provocation and to see how Basquiat’s approach and subject matter still reverberate in our world today.”

Guest curated by renowned Austrian art historian, curator and critic Dieter Buchhart, Basquiat will be the first thematic examination of the artist’s work. Basquiat’s groundbreaking and provocative artistic approach translated 1980s New York into a radical visual language, one that confronted issues of racism, class struggle, social hypocrisy and black history. Inspired as much by high art — Abstract Expressionism and Conceptualism — as by hip hop, jazz, sports, comics and graffiti, Basquiat used recurring motifs to explore issues that he continuously grappled with in his life and art.

“Basquiat’s biggest breakthrough wasn’t about success for himself but for a whole generation of black artists,” said Buchhart. “This will be the first exhibition ever to consider his art thematically and that — in itself — represents a necessary change in how we appreciate his work. Now is the time for us to go beyond his personal story and consider his art, exploring how the images and symbols he co-opted from the streets have since spread into popular culture.”

Highlights of the exhibition include:

• Untitled (1981), an autobiographical work about the traumatic car crash that left Basquiat in hospital care for months at age 7;

• Irony of a Negro Policeman (1981), a powerful critique of racial injustice, police brutality in 1980s New York and the incongruous position of black authority;

• Untitled (1982), depicting an African-American boxer, a motif that recurs in Basquiat’s work as an exploration of black heroes and racial power struggles; and

• A Panel of Experts (1982), a complicated canvas that exemplifies Basquiat’s use of comic imagery to make social comments and his continuing use of language to provoke and explore dualities (e.g. “Madonna”, referencing both his one time girlfriend and the religious figure).

Basquiat runs from Feb. 7 through May 10, 2015, at the AGO, in its only Canadian stop. It will then travel to the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Rio de Janeiro, in July 2015.

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