TAMPA — Two works by iconic artist Jean-Michel Basquiat are on display at the Tampa Museum of Art, giving art lovers a rare, local opportunity to view his work in person. Considering that his 1982 Untitled painting sold for a record $110.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2017, having his works in Tampa is a big deal.
But since two masterworks aren’t enough to fill an exhibition, the museum was creative about how to put them into context. “Ordinary/Extraordinary: Assemblage in Three Acts” is a trio of exhibitions sharing common themes, displayed beside one another.
“Jean-Michel Basquiat: One Master Artist/Two Masterpieces” also includes ephemera and a few pieces from Basquiat’s contemporaries. “Purvis Young: 91” is a large installation of 91 of the artist’s pieces from the museum’s permanent collection. And “Sacred Diagrams: Haitian Vodou Flags From the Gessen Collection” showcases the intricate craftsmanship of ceremonial flags.
Not only are the shows related because they’re all assemblage, they also correlate through the artists’ use of symbols to explore themes of race, identity and spirituality. It is also notable that the artists are all self-taught.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in 1960 to a middle-class family in New York City. His Haitian father was an accountant and his Puerto Rican mother exposed him to culture in museums. He was never formally trained but had artistic inclinations and a knowledge of art history that informed his style. He made a name as a graffiti artist, writing the tag Samo with his street art collective all over New York City.
His work was reflective of the culture that he lived in, combining expressive brushstrokes, written words, found objects and layers of meaning and symbols. He was highly critical of systemic racism. He painted and drew on everything, and over his life he created about 1,000 paintings and 2,000 drawings. After making a splash in New York City’s downtown art scene in the 1980s, Basquiat enjoyed commercial success. He died of a heroin overdose at 27. His legacy as an artist is still influential today, and while his style is often imitated, it can never truly be duplicated.
In 1985′s Yellow Door (1960), he affixed hinges, pegboard and cryptic fragments of photocopies of his writings. He repeated the word “milagro” several times, which could refer to his Puerto Rican heritage or the miracle of marijuana, as a large joint is painted over the words. Basquiat painted two-self portraits in the piece. His birth year, 1960, is in the upper portrait. He was influenced by the code of hobo hieroglyphics, symbols traveling people used as warnings or information. Including “XX” in the lower self-portrait could be a symbol for “OK.” The whole work is done atop a door, which could explore the passage of life from one realm to another.
Untitled (Word on Wood), also from 1985, is painted on wooden fence slats, a material he used frequently. The head of a black male is framed in a bright blue box. Red, green and yellow markings on the face reference African tribal face-painting traditions. A bright green line above his head suggests a crown, perhaps meant to indicate royalty. An Ace comb is similar to the hobo symbol for “vicious dog here.” That duality is likely Basquiat’s message about the way black men are portrayed in different societies.
In the next gallery is the powerful “Purvis Young: 91″ installation. Born in Miami in 1943, Young became interested in art at an early age and was encouraged by his mother. An incredibly prolific artist, Young would create assemblage paintings on anything he could find, reflecting scenes from Overtown, the historically black neighborhood where he lived. He also created thousands of paintings. From 1971 to 1974 he hung his works all over the exteriors of empty storefronts in the neighborhood. The project was called the Goodbread Alley Mural and is considered his magnum opus. The exhibition has been installed to reflect that mural, with works hung salon style from the floors to the ceilings.
Young created a visual language with his own symbols, which he repeated in his works. Boats reference the influx of Caribbean people to Florida. Protesters, which factor prominently throughout his work, are portrayed by figures with their arms raised. He rendered slaves as black figures with shackles on their hands, reminders of the past and symbols of the present. Blue and green eyes represent authority or government. Horses and warriors represent freedom. His soft color palette includes olive greens, browns and blacks, varying degrees of pink and a yellow reminiscent of van Gogh’s sunflowers.
Young died in 2010. His works are held in public and private collections worldwide.
The walls of the gallery where “Sacred Diagrams: Haitian Vodou Flags From the Gessen Collection” is installed are painted a regal purple, a hue befitting the stunning, intricately beaded flags. Scenes of saints and deities are rendered in sequins and beads on silk, burlap or sometimes scrap fabric. The exhibit was guest-curated by Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrié.
The Haitian Vodou religion formed when the French took slaves from all over Africa to Haiti during colonization. The multiple tribes invented a common language and religion based in Africa, but also included influences from Europe and the Americas. Given that the religion has more than 300 deities, the flags are loaded with symbolism pertaining to them and to the Vodou rituals. The Drapo Vodou were used in ceremonies, but in the 1940s, realizing their demand, artists began making the flags to sell commercially, particularly in the Bel Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince.
The exhibition is divided into four sections. A group of hanging banners meets you at the gallery entrance, the way they would in temples. Another section highlights nine artists from three generations who have turned the tradition of flagmaking into a contemporary art form. A standout is Myrlande Constant, who trained as a dressmaker and is one of the foremost Drapo Vodou artists. She creates larger flags that highlight her feminist perspective. Less colorful, more sparse vintage flags from the 1940s through the ′60s reflect the fact that glass beads were more expensive and hard to obtain. And against another wall hang a group of flags dedicated to St. Jacques Majeur, an amalgamation of the god Ogun. He’s the god of war, courage, valor and resilience, invoked to fight abuse and injustice.
IF YOU GO
Tampa Museum of Art
“Jean-Michel Basquiat: One Master Artist/Two Masterpieces” remains on display through Nov. 10. “Purvis Young: 91” and “Sacred Diagrams: Haitian Vodou Flags From the Gessen Collection" remain on display through Jan. 26. $15, $7.50 seniors, military and Florida educators, $5 students, free for college students with ID, children 6 and younger and members. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Wednesday and Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday with pay-what-you-will admission after 4 p.m. 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Fourth Fridays. 120 W Gasparilla Plaza. (813) 274-8130. tampamuseum.org.