Basquiat and Modernism
Despite a brief career of less than a decade, Basquiat is a crucial figure in the story of modern art. He was perhaps the last major painter of the twentieth century to pursue a key aspect of the visual language invented by some of the century's first great artists, including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, the German Expressionists, and others. These modern painters had turned to nontraditional sources—African art, as well as the art of children, the insane, and the untrained—for new ideas that would make their own work more direct, powerful, and expressive.
Working eighty years later, and inspired by his own heritage, Basquiat not only contributed to this modern tradition but also transcended it. That is, he understood not only the African-influenced work of his predecessors from the beginning of the century, but also the state of contemporary art as his own generation had found it: austere, cerebral, exclusive, and detached from everyday life. Like many artists of the so-called postmodernist years, he was to a certain extent a revivalist in his effort to make art more immediately relevant to a larger public. But Basquiat was unique among his fellow artists of the 1980s for avoiding nostalgia, imitation, and irony in his attempt to provide a once revolutionary but now outmoded modernist pictorial language with a brilliant final voice.
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