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Basquiat Exhibition Opening

Remarks of Ambassador Victoria Reggie Kennedy

Basquiat Exhibition Opening

September 8, 2022


Director Schröder, Ms. Basquiat, Ms. Heriveaux, Dr. Buchhart, Dr. Hoerschelmann,  Ladies and Gentlemen,

What a wonderful evening this is.  Dr. Schröder and his team have brought a comprehensive and memorable collection of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work to Austria for the first time.  Thank you for taking on this important project.  And thank you for including me.

As both a U.S. diplomat and lover of the arts, I am pleased that the Albertina has a tradition of highlighting American artists and themes, including recent exhibits by Alex Katz and Keith Haring and last fall’s exhibit on American photography.

I strongly believe in the power of the arts to connect people and build enduring bonds of friendship and understanding.  The arts enrich the human spirit.  As President John F. Kennedy once said: “Art knows no national boundaries.  Genius can speak in any tongue and the entire world will hear it and listen.”

President Kennedy could have been speaking about the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat.  The son of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, he broke barriers and captivated audiences around the world as he explored and shared his world and feelings through art, making powerful statements on complex social issues, like racism, colonialism, power structures, and their effects on our society.  Sadly, these issues are still with us.

Today, Basquiat’s legacy lives on through hundreds of paintings and drawings, many of which we are privileged to have here in Austria for the first time thanks to the Albertina’s efforts.

While his success can be attributed to his profound talent, intelligence, energy, and character, the entire Basquiat family also played an important role. His mother exposed him to the creative world of New York. His father encouraged his artistic abilities, even he simultaneously hoped for a more traditional career path for his son. And Jean-Michel enjoyed strong relationships with his two younger sisters, Lisane and Jeanine, both of whom are here tonight to support this important exhibit of their brother’s work.

Basquiat’s respect for his own heritage, together with a powerful message and a unique artistic style, combined to make him one of the first Black painters to break through into international consciousness.  Indeed, his work has been highly sought after around the globe.  Just five years ago, an untitled Basquiat painting from 1982 sold at auction for the highest price ever for an American artist.  That record held until this year, only to be broken by the sale of “Marilyn,” the iconic piece by Basquiat’s friend and mentor Andy Warhol. Not bad company to be in, don’t you agree?

It’s important however, that Jean-Michel Basquiat’s influence on the artworld is much more significant than the prices paid for his art, as monumental as those may be.  Basquiat was an original, a teenage street artist who not only influenced modern street art and hip hop culture, but also brought Black and African themes into the world of fine art.

He did all this, despite facing discrimination and prejudice.  He used that experience and painted compelling images of racial struggles and cultural challenges, and he succeeded as the world class artist that he is recognized to be.

As we can see in his art, Jean-Michel Basquiat knew and felt the pulse of the people around him.  He translated those feelings, those experiences into images that resonate, deeply.  I feel sure you will agree once you tour this amazing exhibit that Basquiat has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most influential American artists of the 20th century.

Yes, artistic genius can indeed speak in any tongue.

Thank you, Dr. Schröder and the Albertina for giving us the opportunity to bear witness to that genius as we experience this superb exhibition.

It is now my profound honor to officially open “Basquiat. Of Symbols and Signs.” Thank you and have a wonderful and inspiring evening!