Review: “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time” at the Art Gallery of Ontario

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Jean-Michel Basquiat Untitled 1981 Acrylic and oilstick on canvas 244.48 x 182.88 cm The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection Photography credit: Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2014) Licensed by Artestar, New York

“My subject matters are royalty, heroism, and the streets.” – Jean-Michel Basquiat

Most of us can only imagine the tremors that permeated the art galleries and exhibition halls of New York City as a 20-something artist named Jean-Michel Basquiat rose to prominence in the 1980s. His work – a collision of street art and social commentary expressed through graffiti, language-play, painting and collage – emblazoned on canvases that ranged from the side of a building to a scrap of foam found in the street.

It didn’t take long for Basquiat’s stock to rise. He travelled, rubbed elbows with the cultural elite and produced raw and uncompromising works that directly challenged American political and societal structures, while at the same time capturing, in its own way, the poetry of humanity.

And then, at age 27, he died, the victim of a heroin overdose on August 12, 1988 – a year and a half after the passing of his good friend and collaborator Andy Warhol – leaving contemporaries and future generations alike to wonder how far the potential of this immensely provocative and forward thinking artist might have taken him.

The Exhibition: Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Overheard at the Gallery: “What? There’s more?” – yes, indeed, this exhibit is big.

The Highlight: Rather than one particular piece, it’s the entire exhibit: a vortex of vivid colour, crude illustration, symbolism and metaphor, and a candid social commentary that’s as vital in this post-#BlackLivesMatter world as it was when one of the artist’s own friends was murdered by police in the early 1980s.

Hidden Gems: From “Obnoxious Liberals” to “Irony of a Negro Policeman” to untitled masterworks, every fan of Basquiat has a favourite piece. And once inside this cavernous display, you likely won’t know where to look first. But one of the most striking images among this collection of colour and imagery is tucked away in a corner space: Basquiat’s black and white “Self-Portrait,” which consists of a dark silhouette where the only light visible emanates from his eyes – an image, according to the Royal Ontario Museum’s Julie Crooks, that, “reflects on the ways in which black male subjectivities have been constructed historically…it is a doppelgänger for every young black man mirrored in Basquiat’s unfinished story.”

The collages near the end of the piece are also quite stunning.

On Point:

* The artwork, some of which is created on items Basquiat culled from New York’s streets – from wood to cloth to canvas, and foam – in it’s own way takes the notion of “the medium is the message” to another level. The artist entwines language, history and images of “heroes and saints,” friends, athletes, and even livestock with language and selective self-censorship as a means of crafting his narrative.

* Incorporating audio from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, music lyrics, and quotes from authors, poets and other cultural figures, the exhibit is divided thematically, allowing plenty of space and context for Basquiat’s work to breathe.

* Speaking of plenty of space, bring your walking shoes: The exhibit is one of the largest the AGO has offered – certainly the largest since its cavernous Pablo Picasso retrospective in 2012. It’s stunning and never grows tiresome, but it does cover a lot of physical ground.

* This is the only North American stop for this exhibition.

* The exhibit boasts ancillary events that include talks on subjects ranging from creativity to racial and social justice, musical presentations, a film screening, and more.

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Obnoxious Liberals
1982, The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2014) Licensed by Artestar, New York

Art As Irony: The artist, as the painting “Obnoxious Liberals” points out, is not for sale. Luckily for you, however, a number of prints, t-shirts, cups, and other paraphernalia with the artist’s work printed on it is for sale in the adjoining gift shop.

Final Thoughts: As influential and groundbreaking as Basquiat was, his work, when presented en masse in such a retrospective, proves infinitely more spectacular.

For fans of the artist, it’s a vast and powerful representation of Basquiat’s life and work. For those new to Basquiat, “Now’s the Time,” so to speak, to discover one of the most provocative and inventive artists of the last century.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time runs from Feb. 7 to May 10 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. For more information and related events, visit