Basquiat’s Retrospective exhibition. Or was it?

Imagine my surprise when dad called me and said to pack my bags, as he is taking us to Vienna to see Basquiat. Joy, oh joy. We came to Albertina and it was paaackeeeeed. I don’t remember seeing that many people in a gallery for a long time now. And even though it was not a comfortable experience, I was very happy to see so many visitors – meaning people are coming to see art again in much bigger numbers, which makes my heart sing.

At first I was not planning on writing anything about the exhibition, just simply walk around and enjoy it, but the more I was taking it in, the more thoughts started creeping in my head, so I chose to take out my voice recorder and say them out loud. And here they are now, written down for you.

The exhibition started with an overview of artist’s life, which was presented in a very thorough way, like a snake on the walls. However, it was not really possible to see/read everything, as, again, too many people. So I was glad I knew a lot about Basquiat’s life from before and did not need a lesson.

On the walls were exhibited huge artworks, mainly from private collections, which makes every Basquiat exhibition a must-see, as you never know when and even if you will ever be able to see those paintings again. That, for me, was the most exciting part. I have visited his exhibition in London a few year back and this one was a total different experience, with completely different artworks presented.

Vienna’s exhibition was similarly done as chapters from Basquiat’s life, but on a much smaller scale – less artworks, but pretty good texts, even explaining some paintings in great detail, and not only the topics, which I have not experienced in a while. But at the same time, I was questioning if that is a good thing, as it kind of didn’t really give you a chance for your own interpretation. Of course, there is an artist’s interpretation, curator’s interpretation, but being too descriptive on the captions can take away from your own experience as a visitor. Aaand saying that, I do usually enjoy good texts on the walls – so, the ‘right’ way for me is 1. see the artwork, 2. interpret it your own way, 3. read the text, 4. question the text, 5. decide what you are taking for your own. How do you do it?

There were also a lot of artist’s quotes written on the walls, explaining the chapters even more – with just one sentence all the paintings on the wall suddenly made complete sense.

I said before the artworks were positioned in the space as chapters of his story, however, I did find it a bit confusing as to which way to walk to experience the story fully. Should I go left or right? And by the end of my visit I realized, it did not matter and I will soon tell you why I feel like that. And does it even matter with Basquiat to follow his story historically? His art is building upon experiences, on top of other experiences, through different experiences, so as long as you grasp what he is trying to say with his art, the path towards your revelation is not important.

Through his art, Basquiat was questioning and showing the themes that greatly affected him: racism, victimizing black people, hero, anti-hero, capitalism, queer culture, …

I always found it sort of funny with him, tackling such powerful topics in such a childlike way of expressing through art mediums. And then we are again at the sentence: ‘I could do that!’, like we often hear with Picasso. Yeah, but you didn’t and even if you did, your art probably wouldn’t go for millions and millions, as the art of those two. That is the art world for you… What is art and what is not art? How much is it worth? To circle back, with Basquiat in general I feel that the context of the painting is much more important than how the context is represented. So even when something looks it was made by a 4 year old child, it has much more meaning behind it (not that your children’s paintings are meaningless). Everyone chooses by themselves how they are going to express themselves, in what style and even though his style is not close to me visually, I feel it deeply. Something between conceptual art and pop art in a childlike, but very expressive way shoots you directly into the heart. And, let’s be honest, when you see Basquiat’s work, you definitely know it is Basquiat through his visual language.

It was interesting when it said that he was really into music and was a part of that scene, and if you read his painting (he is known to ‘paint with words’) in a selected rythm and repetition, you can literally hear how his brain worked and how he was thinking. It was so much fun looking at people standing in front of the paintings, immersed in a rap battle with the canvases.

I never imagined myself crying when seeing Basquiat’s work (like, for example in front of David of Bernini, which is completely normal for me), but one of the paintings really got me. His self-portrait totally engulfed me. It starred deep into my soul, I felt the darkness of it, I felt so little and empty, yet so full of emotions. And then the cleansing came in the form of tears… I was touched so very deeply, like I haven’t been in a long time. Everything seemed worth it at that moment..

When I was finishing the walk around the gallery, something dawned on me. The exhibition was marketed as a retrospective, but was it really? For me, it actually wasn’t as much about his life and work, but it was a walk around history (mainly 80s) and the things he was fighting against, that are still going on! The exhibition is literally facing us with what is going on in the world, to stop us in our step, to look at it and really think about it. For me, this exhibition was not about Basquiat, but it was a look into our society.

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