Basquiat’s Scrawls, Larry Clark’s Junkies, Tease Paris: Review

"Speedy and Barb" (1968) by Larry Clarke. Source: Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris via Bloomberg

The Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris is playing it safe. Presenting the first retrospective of the U.S. photographer Larry Clark in France, it has restricted access to visitors over 18.

The X-rating has proved a boon to the museum. This must be the most popular photo show in town.

Accused of censorship, the organizers hide behind a 2007 Law on the Protection of Children and a 2000 exhibition in Bordeaux on children in contemporary art that resulted in legal procedures against the curators. (After 10 years, the charges were dropped.)

Many admire Clark’s work as an unblinking portrayal of the lost lives of young people in inner cities, with drug use, violence and underage sex omnipresent. Martin Scorsese and Gus Van Sant have said that Clark, 67, inspired their movies “Taxi Driver” and “Drugstore Cowboy.”

Others feel uneasy about his intimate involvement in the subculture he depicts and call him a Peeping Tom.

The 200 or so pictures are arranged chronologically, starting with his black-and-white series “Tulsa” (1971) and “Teenage Lust” (1983) and ending with his recent color photographs from the grimmer neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

Working on “Teenage Lust,” we are told in the exhibit, Clark was “adopted” by the hustlers on New York’s 42nd Street. His favorite model in L.A. is a young skater named Jonathan Velasquez.

Addicts in Tulsa

His movies “Kids” (1995), “Bully” (2001) and “Ken Park” (2002) deal with the same subject. They are also on view at the exhibition, along with a recently resurfaced documentary about drug addicts in Tulsa, Clark’s hometown.

The main event at the Musee d’Art Moderne is devoted to another drug user, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died in 1988 at age 27 of an overdose. The museum celebrates the 50th anniversary of his birth with a monumental show.

Contrary to legend, Basquiat wasn’t a slum kid. He was born into a bourgeois family in Brooklyn; his father was Haitian, his mother came from Puerto Rico.

It’s true that he was self-taught. He learned his craft on the streets of the East Village, spraying graffiti on walls and subways and signing them with his nom de plume SAMO.

In 1978, the Village Voice published a review of SAMO’s work, and his career took off. Top galleries sought to manage him, Andy Warhol took Basquiat under his wing, and his canvases were seen at the 1982 Documenta in Kassel, Germany, and the 1983 Biennial of the Whitney Museum.

‘Keith Boring’

It’s easy to dismiss Basquiat’s meteoric rise as a typical case of art-market hype, and many did. The critic Robert Hughes made fun of him and his fellow sprayer Keith Haring as “Keith Boring and Jean-Michel Basketcase.”

The exhibit in Paris demonstrates that Basquiat was more than just a product of marketing. Although his style betrays his origins in street art and he uses -- again and again -- certain leitmotifs, he’s never schematic.

One of the wall texts quotes him as saying: “My work has nothing to do with graffiti.” He has a point. He belongs to the tribe of the Neo-Expressionists or the “New Wild Ones,” as they were called in Germany.

It’s no accident that Julian Schnabel regarded Basquiat as a rival and made a biopic about him.

Among the leitmotifs, many refer to his black heritage. Others, particularly the grinning skulls, look like eerie premonitions of death. In “Eroica II,” one of his last canvases, you find the words “Man dies.”

The exhibition was given an enthusiastic welcome in Paris. Philippe Dagen, the chief art critic of the daily Le Monde, proclaimed Basquiat the successor of Picasso: “Picasso died in 1973. It was Basquiat who took up, five years later, the history of art where the furious old man had left it.”

“Larry Clark -- Kiss the Past Hello” runs through Jan. 2, 2011, and “Basquiat” until Jan. 30, both at the Musee de l’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Information: or +33-1-5367-4000.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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