I arrived at the Basquiat exhibit in a suspicious and haughty frame of mind, like an obstinate mule towing my stupidity along behind me. The first thing I noticed about his paintings is that they were made with the express purpose of being noticed. Basquiat embedded in his canvases little tricks and riddles and hints in order to keep the viewer’s gaze on them for as long as possible. He designed them with his viewer in mind. This added to my annoyance; though, to his credit, Basquiat was forthright about it. He admitted that he would write words into his canvases and then scratch them out, not to hide them but to draw attention to them. He knew that the eye enjoys lingering over what appears to be hidden or erased rather than what is right there in front of it in plain view. This meant that I was obliged to look at his paintings and think to myself, “Now I am looking at this painting and I am noticing it further because the painter has performed a little magic show here that is not the painting itself or its subject matter but the tricks that draw me into it and keep me lingering over it.”
My companion laughed at me. “What did you expect?” he said. “Basquiat was a graffiti artist. If it doesn’t gain your attention, according to its own criteria, it is a failure.” I am nothing, but the criteria of graffiti art are not my criteria.
I found this “need-to be-noticed” in Basquiat very vexing at first, because I tend to art that doesn’t seek attention for itself. Why sign your work? I like art that erases the ego of the artist; I like the stuff that points me in certain oblique angles or reorients my gaze so that it searches for things beyond the canvas or beneath it. Unless I happen to own the work and can therefore live with it, mining its secrets and limning its meanings, my experience of it can only be temporary anyway—so why build in these little tricks to gain notice and hold my attention when my attention can only ever be a fleeting thing? Yeccch.
I tend to abhor cleverness in art. It’s a dead-end. A Jeff Koons. An ego trip. An act of self-promotion. Even those paintings that claim to be about nothing more than their own materiality (their “flatness,” in a word) succeed because they avoid the pitfalls of cleverness, because they end up pointing to something beyond themselves. I went in expecting to despise what I was about to see, and I was disappointed. Basquiat, I realized, is the last of the New York painters; and his work knocked my little world on its ass.
New York is a beachhead that one must (if one lives here) attempt to gain every-fucking-day. The opportunities for humiliation, abasement and defeat are endless. Just yesterday morning I had to slap a punk on the subway because he was up in my jock and talking smack. He was right: I was hung-over and I looked like piss, but who needs the obvious pointed out to them? The ego exists here in a state of siege. The city is an enormous grinding machine, and it chews up and digests nothing so quickly as ego, which means that memory doesn’t stand a chance. If you linger too long in the past you will disappear, because every day erases the previous one, which has erased all the days before it. New York doesn’t care about you.
This is of course one of the reasons that those of us who love the city love the city: it forgets everything. It isn’t catty. It doesn’t hold grudges. It moves on. But it is precisely this quality of the urban experience that is New York that also lends our existence within it a deep and abiding poignancy. We move through it but we are nothing to it. We recognize things, we welcome certain changes and deplore others, but it is already ahead of and beyond us. It has no memory. It exists only in the present and forces us to straddle the fault line between what was—once upon a time–and is now gone, and what is here today, at the edge of the future. In other words, it is nothing so grand as Death that one is forced to confront here; it is rather the possibility of non-existence, the nothingness that haunts our consciousness. The city does not notice us.
Against my will, I have felt raw and exposed since having seen the Basquiat exhibit. His genius (if I may be so bold as to claim to recognize it) lay in his ability simultaneously to make manifest his present and to bury it like a secret, preserving it within his paintings. That is the direction to which all his hints and riddles and scratched-out words and “Notice me! Stay with me!” signposts point: not to the paintings themselves but to the maelstrom of experience that animated them. They point to New York. If I could lick one of his paintings it would taste like the day upon which he made it. Entering his work involves stepping into a moment that is eternally and irretrievably lost to us. His paintings are time machines. Looking at one of them, noticing it, lending oneself to its artifice, is to gain access to a New York City that will never again exist: the New York of 1980, when being bohemian was (incredibly!) a life choice rather than a style, when Madonna was a performance artist you could pick up in a bar, when you had to take your life in your hands after dark in the East Village, and when the precondition for transcendence was commitment to the holiness of the present.