Basel retrospective pays homage to US artist Basquiat

American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died in 1988 of a drug overdose at only 27, once admitted that he did not know how to characterise his phenomenally successful work.

"I never know how really to describe it except maybe - I don't know, I don't know how to describe my work, cause it's not always the same thing," he said.

Indeed the onetime graffiti artist, who went on to collaborate with Andy Warhol, packed his works with a mish-mash of ideas ranging from music to contemporary culture to social commentary about racism and injustice.

To mark his 50th birthday, the biggest retrospective yet of Basquiat's work has opened at the Beyeler Foundation in the northern Swiss city of Basel with more than 100 pieces on show, before moving onto Paris.

Many of the works, drawn from both private and public collections around the world, display Basquiat's signature comic-like figures in bold colours.

"When you get into it, there's so much knowledge inside, a lot of contemporary inside," said the curator of the Basel show, Dieter Buchhart.

Born in Brooklyn in 1960, Basquiat defied his modest beginnings - his father was a Haitian immigrant and his mother was from Puerto Rico - to became part of the avant-garde New York scene of the 1980s, mixing with Warhol and other renowned artists of the day.

At one point he had a brief affair with then rising singer and actress Madonna.

His first passion was street graffiti, using walls in Brooklyn and Manhattan as his workspace, before Basquiat switched to painting at the age of 19. Friends quickly learned he was not one to spare blank surfaces, at times covering their furniture, even refrigerators, with his drawings.

Among his friends was the rapper Fab 5 Freddy. "He would just famously walk across his paintings which were on the floor. It was just you know, it was very cool," he said at a preview of the Basel show.

Basquiat, some of whose works have sold for millions of dollars, just "held the pencil very loosely. Just let it slide across the page," the rapper said.

The result was an eclectic collection of paintings and collages, some with slogans scrawled on pieces of paper pasted on the canvas and painted over. He drew heavily on references from contemporary culture with a distinctive childlike quality to many of his works.

One piece in the Basel show, for example, is a line drawing of Cassius Clay - the former world heavyweight boxing champion better known as Mohammed Ali. Other works feature much-loved cartoon figures like Felix the Cat or Daffy Duck-like caricatures.

In one of his best known pieces in the retrospective, Basquiat portrayed a figure riding on a skeleton, a work now seen as foreshadowing the artist's early death from a drug overdose in New York.

"I start a picture and I finish it. I don't think about art while I work. I try to think about life," Basquiat once said.

The retrospective was organized in collaboration with the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (the Modern Art Museum of the city of Paris). It runs in Basel until September 5, then will be on show at the Paris venue from October 15 to January 30, 2011.

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