In 1992, during the first retrospective of Basquiat’s work, Richard Marshall lamented: “Jean-Michel Basquiat first became famous for his art, then he became famous for being famous, then he became famous for being infamous—a succession of reputations that often overshadowed the seriousness and significance of the art he produced.” The artist’s place is even now much more secure in pop culture than in academe, so the Basquiat retrospective that opened at the Fondation Beyeler in 2010 and subsequently traveled to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris was not just a museum show to celebrate the artist’s fiftieth birthday but also an argument for Basquiat’s place in art history. Following precedent, this latest exhibition focused on the artist’s larger, midcareer canvases, but this essay reads several of Basquiat’s small-scale, early works as marked by often-overlooked inquiries into modernism, epistemology, and the potential of appropriation.

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