The artist reveals creativity, genius and spiritual power.
-- Kellie Jones, in her "Basquiat" catalogue essay
A relentless April downpour does nothing to dampen the heaving weekend crowds at the Brooklyn Museum's Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective. The museum estimates that the number of visitors has more than doubled since the opening of the show on Mar. 11, 2005 (after closing in Brooklyn on June 5, Basquiat subsequently appears at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, July 15-Oct. 9, 2005, and the Houston MFA, Nov. 18, 2005-Feb. 12, 2006).
The "Basquiat" curatorial team included Fred Hoffman, Kellie Jones, Marc Mayer and Franklin Sirmans. In early April, prior to the start of her sold-out lecture on "Curating Basquiat," Jones graciously sat down for a brief interview about the artist and his exhibition.
With more then 25 national and international shows to her credit, Jones was more than qualified to work on the Basquiat show. She has been a curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Jamaica Arts Center in Queens, the aborted Broida Museum in SoHo and the Studio Museum of Harlem. She has organized shows for the So Paulo Bienal in 1989 and the Johannesburg Biennale in 1997.
A New York native, Jones is the daughter of poetry icons Hettie Jones and Amiri Baraka. She was raised in "what is now the East Village -- we used to call it the Lower East Side" -- surrounded by artists and creativity. "I grew up around artists during the beginnings of SoHo, artists who made Soho what it is," she told me. "Al Lovings daughters were my friends, and Elizabeth Murray was one of my early teachers in the Downtown Community School (which no longer exists).
"I attended Music and Art High School in Manhattan, and when I went to college, I was surprised that the other students werent more familiar with art. You do grow from your environment. One reason I became a curator was because I realized what a pleasure it was to be around artists and to proselytize for the arts community, to help bring that to the rest of the world."
Basquait and Jones would have been contemporaries if not for the artist's tragic death at age 27 in 1988. Jones met Basquiat in 1987 and always wanted to work with him, though didn't get the chance while he was alive.
"It's been a great opportunity to work with his art now, to present it at the Brooklyn Museum for a local audience, because Brooklyn is where he's from." Son of a Puerto Rican-American mother and Haitian-American father, Basquiat had an early introduction to art that certainly included the Brooklyn Museums vast collections.
The Brooklyn Museum survey is receiving widespread kudos. It spans Basquiat's career, beginning with a collage from 1979 and finishing with his "Eroica" series, completed near the end of his life. Jones noted, There were several different curatorial views. I was interested in what Basquiat was trying to say, the complexity of his language and the complexity of his work.
"Every time I went back to the paintings, no matter how much I had already looked at them, his paintings said something new. They're very dense, and somehow, I wanted to allow the viewers to understand that and think about that. That was one of my goals, to show just how complex an artist Basquiat was.
"It was a joy to work on this show, because there are so many works to choose from. If anything was difficult, it was making a decision about what was in and what was out."
At the museum, the crowd swirls through the two floors of the exhibition. When asked about the reception of the show, Jones breaks into a beautiful grin. "We have had great publicity, posters everywhere, radio advertisements. This show was more challenging because everyone comes with his or her own list of must-see works. But its good to grow in other ways, to compromise and see other people's visions."
Currently a professor at Yale University, Jones is the author of several books, including Lorna Simpson (2002), Tracey Rose: Post-Apartheid Playground (2003), Black West, Thoughts on Art in Los Angeles (2005) and To/From Los Angeles with Betye Saar (2005). Currently she is hard at work on a book about African American artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and '70s, scheduled to be published by M.I.T. Press in 2007.
Jones' other projects include an exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem titled "Energy Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction 1964-1980," opening in April 2006 and including the work of her old friend, the groundbreaking abstract painter Al Loving. She was also selected by Atlanta's High Museum of Art as the first recipient of the new David C. Driskell Prize honoring contributions to the field of African American art and art history.
Speaking about her career, Kellie said, "When I was very young, I wanted to work at the United Nations and be diplomat and travel all around the world. And as a curator, I have been able to do the same thing, and meet artists from all over." She went on, "I've moved from being a curator full time to being a professor of art history and a curator part time.
"When I was full-time curating, I would meet people who would say, 'I didn't know that was a real job.' They never thought about how these things get on the wall, or how these things get interpreted. I met people who worked in retail and they would say, 'I could do this." And I would answer, "Yes, these are objects. Luxury objects that people buy, and sometimes museums actually buy them, also. Curating is a great field to be in."
When asked what advice she might give to curatorial hopefuls, Jones quickly replied: "Go for it. There are plenty of opportunities." She also spoke about the current art scene, noting that "young artists are always exciting. They're always exciting because they're always having new takes on things. One of the best things about teaching is that I get a lot of art students taking my classes and I am able to keep in touch with what people are doing.
"I know we talk about videos and projections and all that, but I think theres a whole group of people out there who are still doing great paintings, great sculpture, great drawings."
Are there any young artists she especially likes? "Many. Sure. William Cordova is great, he has a show opening July at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Wangechi Mutu does drawings and collages, and Leslie Hewitt and Wardell Milan are both in New York, too."
We wind up our conversation, as the time has come for Jones to give her lecture. Her future schedule includes a visit in the spring to Bellagio, Italy, as a Rockefeller Foundation Scholar. There's no doubt that this charming dynamo will continue to be a vital and positive presence in the art world.
For a final question, I asked her what her ideal project would be. "A show of David Hammons work," she exclaimed, without missing a beat.