I LIKE THE IDEA OF DOING GROUP SHOWS ON OCCASION, because it allows you to visually compare their styles and give the viewers a little more to digest. In this case, I put together three of my favorite artists (Guston, Traylor, Basquiat) along with a young and relatively unknown one (Komarin). I like the idea of juxtaposing the young and the old to see a new artist stands up to the more well known ones. In this case, the comparison was a little easier because Komarin had studied for a period of time under Philip Guston, whom I consider one of the great American Artists of the 20th century. Bill Traylor is also a very interesting story, living his life as a slave, only starting to draw in his early 80В’s (at least the work that is known). Jean-Michel Basquiat, another great expressive artist, alas died tragically at the age of 28. -JOHN-
IN THE LATE 1960В’s, Philip Guston faced a crisis in the evolution of his art. Although he had earned considerable recognition in the 1950В’s as one of the pioneer Abstract Expressionist painters, he had become increasingly troubled by the remoteness and inaccessibility of the content of his paintings. With the turbulent 1960В’s marked by such conflicts as Civil Rights struggles and the Vietnam War, Guston acknowledged a lack of social relevance in his work.
Seeking to remedy this, he shifted gears and began making recognizable images. First in his drawings and subsequently in paintings Guston unleashed a provocative visual vocabulary of personal symbols. Executed in a sure, direct drawing style that reflected his longtime love of comics, Guston developed a lexicon of recurring images that permitted autobiographical reflection as well as the articulation of a moral world view. Foremost among these is a hooded figure, a reference to the Ku Klux Klan as well as a universal archetype for the darker side of humanity. Concerned with poverty and economic injustice, Guston, through his art, conveyed a compassion for the worker and the underprivileged, alluding to them in the form of emblematic symbols such as shoe soles or trash-can lids. In many works, the artist also revealed his personal frailties. A heavy smoker and drinker, Guston suffered from exhaustion and had a near- fatal heart attack in the late 1970В’s. Referring to his own mortality, he frequently produced images of hand-held cigarettes, calendars, clocks, and bare light bulbs, perhaps soon to burn out.
In spite of the fact that his imagery had become figurative, Guston never abandoned the Abstract Expressionist process of producing art via free association. He simply directed his intuitive impulses, rather than turn them over entirely to the dictates of the unconscious. In many respects, this is true of the three other artists in this exhibition Bill Traylor, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Gary Komarin.
Unlike Guston, Bill Traylor had no formal training as an artist. Yet, when life placed him at a significant crossroads, he embraced rapid-fire image-making as a form of salvation. Born into slavery in 1856, Traylor lived most of his life on a Southern plantation, where he married and raised approximately 20 children. He didnВ’t leave the plantation until 1938, after his wife and В“white folksВ” died and his children had all settled elsewhere. Upon moving to Montgomery, Alabama, he worked briefly in a shoe factory, but was forced to retire due to rheumatism. In 1939, at age 85, Traylor seated himself in front of the blacksmith shop where he had worked, and began drawing for the first time in his life. From 1939-42, he produced around 1500 drawings that, like the drawings and paintings of Guston, are distinguished by an iconographic system of recurring pictographic symbols. Similarly, TraylorВ’s subjects were a reflection of the world he knew. Blending memories and direct observations, his lexicon included animals from the plantation, tools of the blacksmith shop, and caricatures of the passers-by on the streets of Montgomery. Among the familiar stereotypes of TraylorВ’s drawings are a one-legged man with a cane, men with pitchforks, and gossiping women with children in tow. Essentially a storyteller, Traylor possessed a keen ability to orchestrate what Guston once referred to as В“the language of things.В” Executed with a quick but steady hand, Traylors composition exhibit a visual logic, where meaning is expressed with clarity through such attributes as positioning and scale.
While Traylor is often categorized as an В“outsider artist,В” his art has been widely celebrated for its formal resolve. The life and art of Jean-Michel Basquiat stand in curious counterpoint to TraylorВ’s, in that Basquiat was a formally-trained artist who styled himself after В“the outsider.В” Perhaps not surprisingly, he ultimately ended up in a similar place, developing a rich image repertoire where meaning is communicated through signs and symbols.
The son of Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, Basquiat was raised in Brooklyn and was a frequent visitor to New York City museums as a child. In the 1970В’s, while a student at a progressive alternative high school, Basquiat befriended graffiti artist Al Diaz, with whom he produced his first artistic works. Adopting the persona of В“street artist,В” Basquiat joined Diaz in spray -painting graffiti on the subway cars of lower Manhattan. Soon thereafter, the young artist became an active participant in the East Village club scene, where he performed in a band and met numerous artists, musicians, and film makers. It is in this milieu that his artistic talents were discovered. In 1980, at the age of 19, Basquiat was included in a major exhibition that launched the careers of many of the В“East VillageВ” artists. Within a few years, he catapulted to the heights of international recognition, as one of the premier В“Neo-ExpressionistВ” artists. Tragically, his overindulgence in the culture of sex and drugs resulted in an untimely death from a drug overdose, at the age of 27. BasquiatВ’s legacy, however, is the sizable body of art work that he produced like Traylor in a remarkably short time span. Choosing to draw and paint on any available materials which ranged from cardboard boxes to refrigerator doors Basquiat was an obsessive mark-maker, whose scribbles and scrawls may have appeared to be random, but were actually based on literary and cultural sources. From 1980-88, his imagery included references to mortality in the form of skeletons and masks, homageВ’s to African-American legends from the arenas of sports and music, and a densely interwoven array of multi-cultural words and phrases.
When paying tribute to personal heroes such as Charlie Parker or Sugar Ray Robinson, Basquiat frequently employed a simple emblematic rendering of a crown or halo. In these homage pieces, he exhibited a stylistic affinity with Guston in that both favored a graphic style based on comic-book illustration, yet neither employed it with humorous intent. That task, it seems, has been left to Gary Komarin, an artist with even stronger connection to Guston.
Komarin, in fact, was a student and studio assistant of Guston in the 1970В’s. Influenced by his teacher, Komarin pursued a parallel path, working through an Abstract Expressionist period before rejecting abstraction in favor of a narrative figural style. A conceptual humorist, he has simplified his vocabulary in recent years to consist of quirky and whimsical emblematic images, stylistic hybrids of the figural and the abstract. Recurrent in his paintings are playful renderings of cakes, vessels, hats, and a peculiarly shaped object that he refers to as "The French Wig.В” Komarin is especially attracted to this latter form because it is suggestive of so many possible meanings. According to the artist, it is В“В…something to put on something; a way of covering up; to adorn or embellish, to hide, to accentuate; these are qualities that relate to the experience in the studio, to the process of making a painting.В” That process, for Komarin, entails painting over common materials, such as wax paper, wire, paper bags, and the like, because the very act of reworking these fragile materials triggers free associations from which evolve richly textured images that are layered with ambiguous, multiple meanings. In this respect, the artist remains the ever faithful protégé of Guston, for whom the search for В“meaningВ” was the very basis for making art.1
(1) David S. Rubin, 1996