UIU doctoral student Cate McGowan shares her visit to the Orlando Museum of Art exhibition of Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Thaddeus Mumford, Jr. Venice Collection.
After over two years of social distancing and staying at home during the pandemic, on an early spring day, I ventured out to the Orlando Museum of Art in my adopted hometown. This city’s known for its theme parks, not its culture, but I was hoping that a particular blockbuster (and controversial) Jean-Michel Basquiat show would satiate my need for an in-depth and well-curated exhibition. So, I paid my $20 admission and entered Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Thaddeus Mumford, Jr. Venice Collection.
But my curiosity was already piqued before I even stepped foot in the OMA—I’d read an explosive “exposé” in the New York Times questioning whether the works on display are actual Basquiats. Indeed, the controversy has lit up the art world, with quite a few art authenticators insisting that the show should be listed in the history books with an asterisk. They claim stylistic and concrete evidence might prove that the 25 works are not authentic, while others have embraced the paintings’ provenance and given the OMA their blessing, including a forensic handwriting specialist.
The owners of the art, William Force and Lee Mangin, claim the works were painted on dissembled cardboard boxes during Basquiat’s 1982 stint of living in Venice, California, when he worked in a studio located on the grounds of Larry Gagosian, the art dealer who fostered the nascent painter’s career. He traded the works on the sly for cash, and the pieces, abandoned for decades, were found at auction in a storage unit by a pair of shrewd treasure hounds, Force and Mangin.
The authenticity debate centers around stylistic deviations and one particular work painted on a FedEx box. It features a FedEx logo not used by the company until years after the artist died, according to the New York Times, which first reported the story. Flip over one of the works, and you’ll find that it was painted on the back of a shipping box with a clearly visible company imprint: “Align top of FedEx Shipping Label here.” According to Lindon Leader, an independent brand expert consulted by The Times, who was shown a photo of the cardboard, the typeface in the imprint was not used by Federal Express before 1994. He should know. That was the year he personally redesigned the company’s logo and its typefaces while working as senior design director at the Landor Associates advertising firm.
It’s apparent the OMA director, Aaron De Groft, is nonetheless willing to gamble on the provenance to bring in curious crowds. He is, however, aware of the discrepancy. According to a person close to the Orlando museum, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to reveal internal discussions, its curatorial staff expressed their concern to De Groft that the FedEx text did not seem to be from 1982. “This show raised red flags for them,” the person said, but the director brushed off their concerns.
This damning evidence made me want to look at the show—I’ve seen other Basquiat works in the past, dating back to the mid-1980s, and I wanted to compare them to the works I remember. The Orlando Museum has put on a tight, but small showing; the institution makes the most of the exhibit’s space.
At the entrance, a wall-sized graphic includes a biography of the artist and the story of the displayed artwork’s discovery. Sadly, the text is overly effusive and not well-written. The labels throughout are also lacking. In essence, the background on the labels attached to each of the works read like encomium, not education. The museologist and de facto director of the Smithsonian, George Brown Goode, once stated the importance of quality labels in a museum: “An efficient educational museum may be described as a collection of instructive labels, each illustrated by a well-selected specimen.” In this way, the Basquiat exhibit fails in its fawning sycophancy and neglects to provide insightful information to visitors willing to read the inscriptions.
Nevertheless, the controversy around this show was not apparent as I shuffled through the crowd in the smallish, rectangular gallery. Visitors genuinely engaged with each painting’s colorful mixed media on that infamous cardboard, some small, some the size of windshields. A few of the works captivated me, too, with their raw vibrancy and expressionistic freneticism. I was transported back to living in a grittier New York City in the 1980s and 90s, where I often stood on subway platforms mesmerized by the strange beauty of graffiti-emblazoned subway cars zooming past.
As I lost myself in those memories, a video installation at the center of the room droned on a loop; the informational short film’s content contextualizes Basquiat’s milieu for those who may not know about him or the 1980s art world. The artist hailed from humble immigrant beginnings in Brooklyn and ran away at fifteen in the 1970s to the lower Eastside’s burgeoning art scene. He got his start as a wunderkind graffiti artist and underground musician and quickly ascended to the highest ranks of the art world, showing and selling his works worldwide at exclusive galleries for enormous amounts of money. Tragically, Basquiat died from a drug overdose at the age of 27 in 1988, but his superstar status endures—in 2020, his work, Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump, fetched $111 million at auction, the highest amount ever paid for an American work of art.
The paintings in OMA’s show are mainly Basquiat portraits, but feature one or more of the artist’s famous motifs: crowns, urban imagery, cats, monsters, spirals, flags, and machines, to name a few. But I was especially drawn to Basquiat’s lettering, particularly the artist’s oft-repeated symbolic graffito of the all-capped word, SAMO (same old), a throwback to his own copyrighted moniker from his early graffiti days.
I perambulated the gallery clockwise, ducking groups and sidling up close to each piece, finding sweet spots on the paintings where the spotlights shimmered on Basquiat’s acrylic brush swipes, shiny oil stick and magic marker strokes. The cardboard-box edges of each piece are uneven and frayed, and this ripped effect is charming, reinforcing the found-object narrative behind the group’s provenance.
After I lapped the show and took stock, I realized I’d been viewing two different exhibits. Yes, I saw some Crayola-bright, primary-colored complex works layered with meaning and references to Basquiat’s memories, such as Untitled (Cat and Firetruck), which I studied for many minutes, trying to absorb the whole for its parts.
In Untitled (Cat and Firetruck), an abstracted American flag floats over a city depicted with broken, urgent lines as a firetruck speeds across the lower foreground, the repeated word fire haloing the vehicle in a siren cry and rising through the work. And in the center of the predominantly emerald and crimson-hued surface, an oversized cat head looms, its swirly eyes befuddled and gazing to the edge of the canvas and away from the fire. It’s an exceptional, more significant work struck through with multiple media, its thick and thin jagged lines unsettling, its ambiguous, layered meanings underscoring Basquiat’s genius. It is a much more substantial and compelling work compared to the compact self-portraits dominating the show.
Indeed, some of those portraits are not viscerally effective. In fact, they strike me as inauthentic. I note that some of these works feature more simplistic, less chaotic representations than other Basquiat paintings I’ve studied in person in the past. This disparity’s disconcerting. If these are not real Basquiats, the forger nonetheless employed all the usual suspects, drawing on Basquiat’s complex iconography.
But if the artist is Basquiat, these works are certainly not his most successful renderings. The magic is missing. They’re a little too neat, too dependent on the leitmotifs and style playbook. I felt no thrill when I looked at these portraits. It was like viewing an Etsy knock-off store. Some lines are too cleanly drawn, the signatures too upright or large, and the draftsmanship too simple and centered.
The New York Times article notes some experts’ similar contentions about the works’ configurations. “One dealer who personally worked with Basquiat and saw photographs of the paintings in the Orlando museum said, ‘the way Basquiat places elements in the composition has an interior logic which is missing in these images.’”
The final artwork featured in the show is a poem typed by Thaddeus Mumford, the original owner of the paintings, on the backside of a piece of dot-matrix computer paper. It was initialed by Basquiat.
Director De Groot claims the signed-by-Basquiat Mumford poem serves as a receipt and concrete proof of the works’ authenticity. I don’t buy this explanation. The very authorship of the poem is under contention, just like every other piece in the show. But if the verse can be attributed to Mumford, a television writer who died down on his look, I contend that the 25 artworks in the poem are metaphorical. The number does not necessarily have to be taken literally; perhaps it’s symbolic, an inside joke we will never know.
Maybe some, but certainly not all of these paintings are original Basquiats. The larger pieces and a couple of the more miniature portraits present differently from most of the works. They offer the requisite Basquiat crowns and cats, wacky phrases, and hallmarks, but they embrace more mimicry than reality. And my theory is not baseless—I would not be questioning some of this work unless others had brought it to my attention. The best evidence that engenders doubt for me is the Fed Ex typographic discrepancy.Honestly, I may not have even visited the show if not for the controversy. So perhaps the art world buzz surrounding these long-lost and now found paintings serves its purpose.
We may never know if all the works in this show are real Basquiats. But what I find most disturbing is that the museum is passing all of these works off as authentic. There is no mention of any problematic attribution. Perhaps a more exciting show might have presented the works as possible Basquiats, educating the reader about his style, media, motifs, and history, letting each viewer decide for themselves. It would have been a fascinating interactive experience. The works’ discovery and the explosive and conflicting reactions by art experts and curators make for a great story, nonetheless.
I wish I could report that Heroes & Monsters provides a transcendent experience. It does not. But it is interesting. Throughout my hours in the gallery, I fought the urge to inform people (most of whom were not masked during the Omicron surge—yikes!) that the art they were ogling might not be the real deal. But I held back. I realized that exposure to Basquiat’s ideas and maybe some of his oeuvre, no matter how debatable the exhibit, beckoned a crowd indoors to an art museum on an unusually temperate Saturday in a profoundly conservative tropical state more famous for its roller coasters, cartoon mouses, and culture wars than its cultural venues.
Cate McGowan is an essayist, poet, fiction writer, and author of two books—she won the Moon City Press Short Fiction Award for her debut short story collection, True Places Never Are; her debut novel, These Lowly Objects, appeared in 2020. Find out more about Cate’s published pieces and awards at www.catemcgowan.com.