REVIEW: MCA exhibit features Jean-Michel Basquiat’s earliest chapter

The resourceful exhibit, among the most critically acclaimed to date from the 21-year-old MCA and spanning four galleries on the main floor, follows some of Basquiat’s earliest narratives by way of archival material on loan from one of the artist’s girlfriends, Alexis Adler, with whom he briefly shared a small, sixth-floor walk-up in the East Village in 1979

DENVER | I’m not an artist, an art historian or someone who might be considered an expert of the fine arts in any way. I dabbled a good bit — drawing and painting, sculpting and even delving into some larger, multi-media projects over the course of about a decade. But if you’re looking to compare, say, abstract expressionism (think Jackson Pollock) to art nouveau (look up one of my favorite illustrators, Aubrey Beardsley), I’m only going to be able to fake my way for so long.

That said, the story of neo-expressionist street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat came to me not through art studies or casual viewing or even association with artists, but through the 1996 biopic, “Basquiat.”

In that self-titled movie — directed by Basquiat “buddy,” painter and director Julian Schnabel and featuring a star-studded cast that includes David Bowie as Andy Warhol — we meet the title character (Jeffrey Wright) as he awakens from a cardboard box in the bushes of a New York City park. From there, we watch the talented-but-tormented graffito — who gained notoriety through his ubiquitous, urban SAMO© epigrams — quickly blossom into a staple of 1980s Big Apple pop culture as both a painter and a personality, before ultimately burning out like so many artists before him.

Basquiat died of an overdose in 1988, at the age of 27.

“Basquiat before Basquiat,” showing now through May 7 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver’s LoDo neighborhood, is a rare insight to his life before we find him semi-homeless and on the cusp of stardom in the biographical movie adaptation.

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Visitors take in the “Basquiat before Basquiat” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, which includes some of the earliest works of neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The exhibit, which spans four galleries on the main floor and is among the most critically acclaimed to date from the 21-year-old MCA, follows some of Basquiat’s earliest narratives by way of archival material on loan from one of the artist’s girlfriends, Alexis Adler. From the Hip Photography/MCA Denver

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These photos at the “Basquiat before Basquiat” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver depict some early performance art by neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The exhibit, which spans four galleries on the main floor and is among the most critically acclaimed to date from the 21-year-old MCA, follows some of Basquiat’s earliest narratives by way of archival material on loan from one of the artist’s girlfriends, Alexis Adler. From the Hip Photography/MCA Denver

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Visitors take in the “Basquiat before Basquiat” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, which includes some of the earliest works of neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The exhibit, which spans four galleries on the main floor and is among the most critically acclaimed to date from the 21-year-old MCA, follows some of Basquiat’s earliest narratives by way of archival material on loan from one of the artist’s girlfriends, Alexis Adler. From the Hip Photography/MCA Denver

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Visitors take in the “Basquiat before Basquiat” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, which includes some of the earliest works of neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The exhibit, which spans four galleries on the main floor and is among the most critically acclaimed to date from the 21-year-old MCA, follows some of Basquiat’s earliest narratives by way of archival material on loan from one of the artist’s girlfriends, Alexis Adler. From the Hip Photography/MCA Denver

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Visitors take in the “Wall Writers” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, which serves as a precursor to main attraction, “Basquiat before Basquiat.” That exhibit features some of the earliest works of neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat and is among the most critically acclaimed to date from the 21-year-old MCA. From the Hip Photography/MCA Denver

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A visitor takes in the “Wall Writers” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, which serves as a precursor to main attraction, “Basquiat before Basquiat.” That exhibit features some of the earliest works of neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat and is among the most critically acclaimed to date from the 21-year-old MCA. From the Hip Photography/MCA Denver

The resourceful exhibit, which spans four galleries on the main floor and is among the most critically acclaimed to date from the 21-year-old MCA, follows some of Basquiat’s earliest narratives by way of archival material on loan from one of the artist’s girlfriends, Alexis Adler, with whom he briefly shared a small, sixth-floor walk-up in the East Village in 1979.

According to the MCA website, the exhibition “… (presents) New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s through the prism of Basquiat’s art and (provides) a window into the art-rich time that he emerged from, as well as impacted so profoundly. It will sharpen and deepen our understanding of this artist at a vital yet mostly unknown, or at least under-discussed, moment of his career.”

And that it does. For the lesser trained eye, including my own, some of what’s on display might be considered “art” in the loosest terms: doodles in notebooks, smears of paint across cotton sweatshirts, pictures documenting curious performance art, raw collage paintings with overt messages of protest, and other repeated narratives of suffering, failure and the fear of mediocrity, scrawled over and over in neat block print on legal pad paper, in a script that would come to symbolize the early SAMO© brand and eventually launch Basquiat from street artist to top gallery draw.

To me, the value of the exhibit lies in that peek we get into the mind of an artist on the precipice of making a decision to fully pursue a career with no clear definition, no straight path. Here we see Basquiat exploring strange new artistic territory at a time when cultural tastes were being violently shook up by the post-punk antiestablishment, and there was Basquiat jockeying, in his quiet and quirky way, for a spot at the front of the mob.

While “Basquiat before Basquiat” might be enough to stand alone, the MCA offers some nice context, too. “Wall Writers,” a basement display featuring the roots of graffiti in New York City and Philadelphia, allows visitors to connect the dots of street art through scripted, cryptic messages spray-painted in the late 1960s and ’70s throughout the East Coast inner cities.

On the other end of the “street art” spectrum, the second floor features an ambitious exhibit with more than 1,500 photographs by Ryan McGinley, whose self-published book “The Kids are Alright” captures “his crew of downtown friends and lovers in varying states of nudity, ecstasy and reckless abandon,” according to a recent New York Times review. Hmmm, that sounds about right to me.

While McGinley’s work is graphic in nature and could be offensive to some viewers, it also provides one of the most meta moments of the exhibit as a whole and, in a way, allows it all to come full circle. In one of McGinley’s milder self-portraits — which features the artist wearing a ski mask with no shirt and holding what appears to be a car mirror — the book “Basquiat: Works on Paper” sits prominently on a shelf in the background over the artist’s left shoulder, serving as a sort of testament of the latter’s influence on the former.

And if McGinley is in fact something of a sequel to late-70s/early-80s neo-expressionist movement, “Basquiat before Basquiat” is without a doubt the quintessential preface to the movement’s story as a whole.

“Basquiat before Basquiat” is showing at the Museum of Contemporary art in Denver through May 7. Admission is free for members and anyone 18 or under; tickets start at $8 for non-members. For more information go to mcadenver.org or call 303-298-7554.