Basquiat and Muniz: 2 shows at the High to blow your mind

Jean-Michel Basquiat took the art of the street and put it in the highest-priced galleries of New York.

Vik Muniz takes the art of the most refined salons and brings it to the landfills of Rio de Janeiro.

Two new shows at the High Museum allow visitors to trace the complementary motion of these two artists, one an enfant terrible of the 1980s, the other a rising star of the new century.

Both shows open Feb. 28, and both will afford views of rarely seen work.

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‘Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks’

Dead of a heroin overdose at age 27, Jean-Michel Basquiat used his brief window to revolutionize the New York art scene, and his influence continues to reverberate.

He gained attention as a street poet, whose graffitied aphorisms, written in neat block letters, decorated Lower Manhattan and intrigued denizens of the art district. Basquiat and his paintings quickly made influential friends, including Andy Warhol and Mary Boone, and his career, imbued with a do-it-yourself sensibility, rose in parallel with the rise of hip-hop music.

Today he’s name-checked by Kanye West, Jay Z, Little Wayne and many other hip-hop artists who claim his visual genius for their clan. Famed Atlanta gallery owner Fay Gold brought him to town in 1985.

“I think he’s become a great hero of a new generation of artists today, whether painters, musicians, designers or performance artists, because he was one of the first DIY artists,” said Michael Rooks, Wieland Family curator of modern and contemporary art at the High and the managing curator for the Basquiat exhibition. “He invented his own career for himself because he had to.”

Basquiat’s prolific canvases were a mesh of word and image, crude and deft, crowded with skulls, crowns, masks, creatures inspired by art history and Saturday morning cartoons, text that frequently commented on the racial politics of the 20th century.

They sold like crazy. He criticized the mainstream, and yet dominated the mainstream, said Rooks.

During his life, Basquiat filled out an unknown number of pebble-front composition books, which served as nurseries for ideas. Eight are part of the show at the High. The notebooks on display have been disassembled so that 160 pages can be displayed at once. A page might contain a single word, or a list, or a poem, all written in uppercase block letters.

It’s an austere display, said Rooks, but spending time with the pages is “gratifying.”

Those pages are augmented with 30 related paintings, drawings and mixed-media works drawn from private collections and the artist’s estate, as well as the 1984 Basquiat painting “Untitled (Cadmium)” from the High’s permanent collection.

“It’s a rare opportunity to get inside his head and see how his thought processes work,” said Rooks.

‘Vik Muniz’

Brazilian artist Vik Muniz has trained cancer cells to grow into alluring patterns. He’s used such offbeat materials as diamonds, sugar, chocolate, dust, broken television sets and cayenne pepper to create portraits.

He has sketched “stupid” pictures into the landscape with bulldozers and front-end loaders at a scale so large they are visible by Google Earth. And he has used an electron microscope to engrave drawings of castles on single grains of sand.

All of his efforts serve to create what he calls photographic “delusions,” photographs that intrigue and delight with a sense of curiosity and joy that is infectious. His pictures add to the wealth of the photographic images on display in Atlanta this year.

Among his better-known work are portraits that he created out of junk scavenged from the huge landfill, the Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro. With the help of “pickers,” he brought tons of material back to his capacious studio. He then assembled the trash on the floor in such a manner that, when viewed from a high scaffolding, the colors, light and shadow resolved into recognizable images.

He used junk to paint an homage to Michelangelo’s iconic image of God and Adam, and to re-create the famous “Death of Marat” by Jacques-Louis David, with the head of the pickers’ union serving as his model.

What Muniz strives for is the moment that the eye of the beholder switches gears, and what looks like a pile of junk becomes a French revolutionary. “I’m not that interested in making objects,” said Muniz, 54, in a conversation from Rio, “though I need the materiality of the photographed objects to conjure the trick.”

There will be nearly 120 photographs in the show, some of them wall-sized, drawn from throughout Muniz’s career. “This show will be really astounding,” said Brett Abbott, Keough Family curator of photography at the High. “It’s fascinating to see schoolchildren come up to these things and be totally entranced.”

Muniz said he knows he’s hit a home run when the show appeals to young ones. “When the work is successful, the bottom of the photograph is full of little greasy paws: They want to grab it.”

Abbott said some of the work was made specifically for the show at the High, and much new work will be exhibited, including the “Colonies” series made with microorganisms.

Muniz said he was happy to be displayed alongside Basquiat. He was born in 1961, one year after Basquiat, and after he came to New York in 1982, he worked at the Palladium as a bartender, and saw Basquiat perform with his band Gray.

“He was pretty obnoxious, but I liked his art,” Muniz said. He saw the lost notebooks show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which organized the exhibit.

“You get that original breath,” he said of the notebooks. “It’s not a very big show because of the physicality of the objects. It’s small, but you could spend a long time looking at them.”

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