Monday, May 11, 2015

Just (Whitney) Kids

The Kids Activity Guide to the Whitney's inaugural exhibit "America is Hard to See," is an interactive (via print) tour through key works on each floor. Always eager for easy learning, I loved all of the examples and activities, but especially responded to Jean-Michel Basquiat's Hollywood Africans for many reasons.
Basquiat's work covers a lot of check points: the work is relatively-recent—in 1988, he had a one-night exhibit in The Cable Building, also the home of my office; his pieces are  engaging; Basquiat was a minority*. The Whitney's choice of Hollywood Africans helps eradicate the stereotype of a museum as a place for stagnant artifacts.
The booklet points out that the crown (in the lower left of the painting) is Basquiat's graffiti tag. Tag, you're art. To me, the Whitney's tag-like "W" logotype evokes Basquiat's M-like crown.
The guide's text calls attention to Basquiat's sly psychology, noting that the artist often crossed out words or phrases in his work—which made people want to read the cross-outs even more. The Whitney highlights excision that draws attention to exclusion.
The Guide is truly active, instructing kids to create a tag using pictures, words, numbers and symbols to distill many elements into a personal mark. It prompts questions of adults as well as kids. Who am I? What makes me . . . well . . . me? What makes me special? interesting? 
The small questions in this little booklet lead to larger questions. Why did Basquiat die so young? How does art make us aware of ourselves and others? Does art make us aware? How does art make us want to know more about the artist and his/her ideas, life, and times?

In 1983, Basquiat was one of the youngest artists to appear in a Whitney Biennial, then held in its former uptown location. Just twenty-two at the time, Basquiat lived, worked and died when the hip Meatpacking District home of the spanking new Whitney was a gritty outpost, and the idea of an airy home for art was young.


*and, alas, a substance abuser, dead too soon in 1988 at age twenty-seven.

In an eerie parallel to today's events, Jean-Michel Basquiat was deeply upset by the death of Michael Stewart, a young black graffiti artist who died from injuries sustained during an arrest by the New York City Police. The bio on, says Basquiat distanced himself from the situation, but also quotes Basquiat's realization that, "It could have been me, it could have been me."

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