Jean-Michel Basquiat is one of America’s most important 20th century artists, so when I heard his work would be exhibited at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, I put Vienna on my itinerary. I saw the exhibit yesterday and it was amazing, displaying dozens of Basquiat’s paintings and telling the artist’s story.
Basquiat’s story is in fact complicated and tragic. Born to a middle class family in New York City, he became homeless at 17. During the time he lived on the streets, he gained some notoriety painting graffiti. At the time, this was a dangerous art form because Mayor Koch directed harsh treatment for graffiti artists. After NYC police beat Basquiat’s friend to death for painting graffiti, Basquiat changed his medium to canvas. He quickly became the it-boy of NYC’s art world and a protégé of Andy Warhol. He painted frantically for 8 years and then died of a drug overdose at age 28.
Basquiat’s paintings are mostly wild and disturbing, portraying the oppression of black people in the United States and the failure of global capitalism. At first glance, they appear cartoonish, but they’re packed with symbolism, metaphor, humor, and cultural references. Although Basquiat is recognized as one of the 20th century’s most important artists — and one of his paintings recently sold for more than $100 million — few of his paintings are part of permanent collections in the world’s major museums. We can speculate as to why this is, although a lot of speculation is probably not required. But this lack of exposure in permanent collections makes retrospective exhibitions even more important. And for me, the Albertina’s was wildly successful — I left feeling educated, exhilarated, and exhausted.
Of course, Vienna is not just about Basquiat. Vienna is an art-lover’s paradise (even if you don’t care about art, it’s stunning, cool, and friendly). After seeing the riotous Basquiats, I went to Vienna’s fine arts museum, the Kunsthistorisches. This was like having high tea with the queen after an LSD trip. The Kunsthistorisches is located in a spectacular but solemn 19th century palace. Among its many masterpieces are Rembrandts, Caravaggios, and a Vermeer. The crowd favorite seems to be the “Tower of Babel” by Bruegel, which reminds us of the human struggle with ambition and hubris. Although I’m not sure we need more reminders….
Today, I visited the wonderful Leopold Museum, which tells the story of the Secessionists, Austrian artists who defied convention and conservatism in the early 20th century. The Secessionists are considered the leaders of the early Vienna Modernist movement, and their work influenced architecture, graphic art, interior design, and music. Their paintings are emotional, sensual, and humanist.
Of the Secessionists, you know Klimt.
And probably Egon Schiele, who was Klimt’s protégé, and even more controversial.
Scheile is most famous for his portraits but he also painted a lot of houses. In the room filled with his house paintings, an Australian man commented to me on their beauty and earthiness. I replied that they reminded me of Hundertwasser and did he know whether there are Hundertwassers in Vienna museums. He replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t know German.”
Tonight, I checked — Hundertwasser has a whole museum here. So stay tuned if you want to know more about art in Vienna!