Larry Clark & Jean-Michel Basquiat

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive
basquiat, musee d’art moderne de la ville de paris

Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat: “6.99” (1985). Collection Bischofberger, Switzerland © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat © ADAGP, Paris 2010

Larry Clark’s sensational photographs of teenagers having sex and shooting drugs seem to have more to do with his personal psychology than with art. He underlines the psychological

basquiat, musee d’art moderne de la ville de paris

Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat: “6.99” (1985). Collection Bischofberger, Switzerland © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat © ADAGP, Paris 2010

Larry Clark’s sensational photographs of teenagers having sex and shooting drugs seem to have more to do with his personal psychology than with art. He underlines the psychological nature of his work himself by starting the current retrospective of his work, “Kiss the Past Hello” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, with kitschy photo collages of cute dogs and cats and praying babies made by his mother, also a photographer, in the 1950s, highlighting the contrast between the world of fake innocence he came from and the sordid real lives of the teenagers he photographs.

Many of Clark’s photos have handsome compositions and dramatic chiaroscuro lighting – one example is an image of a young man shooting up (from the “Tulsa” series) in which his outstretched arm, cutting diagonally across the image, and the needle in his other hand catch all the light while the rest of his body remains in shadow – but the subject matter is what dominates in these pictures.

This provocative content is, of course, highly controversial, especially since the city of Paris decided to ban the exhibition to anyone under 18, causing a major outcry in the press, which generally found it ridiculous to not let young people see pictures of people of their own age. It is even more ridiculous in that it takes only a second to find many of these same images on the Internet (they are even given to the press by the museum to be reproduced with articles on the show; one is pictured below).

It cannot be said, however, that Clark is glamorizing the world of underage junkies. The images of teenagers sticking needles in their arms are sickening and hard to look at. It’s hard to imagine anyone turning into a drug addict after seeing them. The photos of teenagers

larry clark, musee d’art moderne de la ville de paris

Larry Clark: “Untitled” (1972). Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and Simon Lee Gallery, London

having sex or of boys showing off their attributes are, of course, fascinating to everyone and raise the question of voyeurism, but are not nearly as disturbing as the drug-taking shots or those of a sweet-faced boy pretending to be shooting or hanging himself, or slitting his wrists.

Is Clark simply a voyeur, some kind of sicko who gets his kicks out of spying on the intimate worlds of these sad young people, as some critics maintain, or is he a legitimate artist following his muse or just a documentary photographer telling it like it is? This brings us back to the artist’s psychology. Today, at the age of 67, he continues to photograph young people, but in much more innocent poses (he would probably be arrested nowadays for taking the earlier shots).

Why this obsessive fascination with teenagers? The friend I saw this show with said, “It’s like he’s stuck at the age of 14 and keeps hacking away at that moment, trying to get something out of it.” Even the press release for the exhibition seems to agree, saying that Clark’s recent photos – large format and in color, a world away from the gritty, small-format black-and-white images of his early career – demonstrate once again “his desire as an artist to become his own subject, and to show what has always been the primary preoccupation of his work, the end of adolescence.”

One thing made clear by this exhibition – as if we didn’t already know it – is that teenagers love to provoke, and so does Larry Clark, for better or worse.

Clark is certainly not the only artist whose art is born of obsession. Lucian Freud said, “A painter’s tastes must grow out of what so obsesses him in life that he never has to ask himself what it is suitable for him to do in art,” and that brings us to the other major exhibition at MAM Paris: “Basquiat.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat started out as a graffiti artist but quickly became the chouchou of the New York and then the international art world, hobnobbing and even collaborating with Andy Warhol and other leading artists. A junkie himself, he died of an overdose at the age of 27 in 1988.

This major retrospective of his work shows that he, too, was an artist in the grip of obsession, treating over and over again the same themes (politics, racism, history) and painting the same figures (robot-like death’s heads, faces with flayed skin). Given the amount of works he produced in his short life, he must have been something of a workaholic as well.

The great thing about Basquiat is that he is angry but funny at the same time (unlike Clark, whose work is deadly serious), in such works as “Famous Negro Athletes” and “The Irony of Negro Policemen,” for example. His early and late works incorporate lots of droll texts, full of misspellings and cross-outs, such as “most kings get their young heads cut off,” or “skin head wig,” which seem to be expressions of both anguish and hope.

In his middle period he did many word-free paintings with super-saturated colors and dramatic contrasts, then he went back to using found objects like old doors as supports for his paintings – giving them a more sculptural quality and moving away from gallery-friendly canvases – and started writing on his paintings again. In his last works, the colors became darker, and the canvases alternated between empty and filled spaces.

In one of the last paintings in this show, “Eroica I” (1988), the words “man dies” are written over and over again, a haunting premonition of his impending death. This exhibition celebrates what would have been his 50th-birthday year, and one can only wonder sadly how his work would have evolved.

Strangely, the pictures in this exhibition are grouped by art galleries that Basquiat worked with, which gives it a commercial feel and adds nothing of value.

Heidi Ellison

Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris: 11, avenue du Président Wilson, 75116 Paris. Métro: Alma-Marceau or Iéna. Tel.: 01 53 67 40 00. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thursday until 10 p.m.). Closed on public holidays. Admission: €5 (Larry Clark), €11 (Basquiat), €13 (both). Through January 2 (Clark), January 30 (Basquiat).

Reader Tim Adams writes: “The excellent review of the Larry Clark exhibition raises some fascinating issues about viewing erotic or troubling photographs of young people. The French authorities’ decision to make the exhibition open only to adults over 18 seems to me absurd, as if they are saying that it is acceptable for older people to peer lasciviously at young bodies but totally unacceptable for teenagers to see pictures of people their own age. That said, in Britain, such an exhibition would very probably never be allowed. Indeed, if British law were followed to the letter, it is very likely that a visitor to the Clark exhibition in Britain would be arrested for viewing ‘indecent’ images of children.”

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