Outside the Home Range: Basquiat at the Museum of Fine Arts

Museum of Fine Arts Boston – welcome back!

After an on-again, off-again winter, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston is open and ready for your visit. There are a number of interesting exhibits (this Monet person sounds familiar), and of course there is the magnificent permanent collection to peruse. A recent renovation in the Egyptian wing will definitely be of interest to all.

The Owl highly recommends the Basquiat and the Hip Hop Generation exhibit which opened in October 2020 and will close in May 2021. It won’t be easy to get tickets–you might have to consider some weekday times if no other tickets are available. We visited on a Sunday at first entry time, which is 10 am. The delightful part of Sunday is that parking is free and easy, and waiting in the cold winter sunshine passed quickly–we were the second group let in. Timed-entry tickets purchased in advance are required to enter the museum, whether or not you are going to the special exhibit.

Entry involved answering questions about Covid, and a quick scan of our tickets. Once they opened the doors at 10 am, time from line to Basquiat was about four minutes. No running. One of the silver linings for me on Covid is going through exhibits that are uncrowded, allowing you all the time in the world to read it all. Or, accelerate through if you’re my kids.

Basquiat, image credit MFA

I would recommend learning about Basquiat and his compatriots before you go–with lots of respect for the museum, I found the esoteric signage a bit off-putting. I would have enjoyed hearing some of the cadence of that generation and generation in the signage. For example, from the MFA’s website:

“Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation” illuminates how this group’s subversive abstractions of both visual and verbal language—including neo-expressionism, freestyle sampling, and wildstyle lettering—rocketed their creative voices onto the main stages of international art and music.  It is the first major exhibition to contextualize Basquiat’s work in relation to hip-hop and marks the first time his extensive, robust, and reflective portraiture of his Black and Latinx friends and fellow artists has been given prominence in scholarship on his oeuvre. 

Yes, all of that. But how to make it accessible to my middle schoolers who should have been fascinated by the work, but instead were largely confused by both the “graffiti” and the signs. One of my sons did spend 15 minutes looking over the final “costume” that weighs 180 pounds and once shot flames from its wrists and ankles. He also set off an alarm by pointing over the sensors, but no harm, no foul.

The MFA’s website is filled with videos, music and reading–check it before you go. If you are a 70s or 80s child (guilty!), you will love some of the videos and music at the exhibit as well–I spent way too long watching Blondie’s Rapture video. Watch it before you go…at about minute 2:13, you get a good look at the art going on in the background. And spoiler alert, Basquiat dated Madonna and worked with Andy Warhol. Who knew? Not me, until yesterday.

Now that’s a costume

While Basquiat gets top billing on the exhibit, there were many works by his contemporaries and friends. This exhibit reminded me so much of my youth, traveling past colorful graffiti that I never understood at New York’s 125th Street station and elsewhere, and yet opened up new questions about his and others’ symbolic messages of continued struggle. There is plenty to be contemplated, much to be understood and misunderstood.

Lady Pink. Note the image of a woman behind bars in the lower part of painting

Basquiat died in 1988 at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose. Was so much fame so young a part of the reason he sought escape in drugs? Was the death of Andy Warhol in 1987 a part of his need to escape? That’s for the experts to answer. It is too bad he did not live to see one of his paintings sell for a stunning $110 million in 2017.

“Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation”, through May 16, 2021.Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston. Open Weds-Sun 10 am-5 pm. Parking on street and on-site. http://www.mfa.org.

“Flashlight (In Collaboration with A-One)” by Jenny Holzer

One comment

  • Thank you for this personalized account of your visit. Going “out” is kind of quirky these days, so your personal impressions help a lot in making decisions. You are a fabulous writer….really connecting with this reader!

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