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Exhibit probes enigmatic artist

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"Ernok" (screenprint, 40 by 40 inches) by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“Ernok” (screenprint, 40 by 40 inches) by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

HOUSTON — No doubt about it, Jean-Michel Basquiat would have loved all the attention that the major touring exhibit now at the Museum of Fine Arts here has generated.

Organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, "Basquiat" made headlines on the East Coast last spring; then it landed in Los Angeles, where it once again fanned a fervent media buzz. As in his lifetime, critics have once again praised Basquiat, who died at age 27 in 1988, as a pioneering genius, a figure who shook up the art world and forever transformed it.

This is the second large retrospective for the late artist — the first, organized by New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, was in 1992 — no small honor for an artist whose career flamed out as quickly as it ignited. He was also lovingly memorialized in the 1996 biographical movie "Basquiat," made by his friend, artist Julian Schnabel.

But was he as seminal a figure as his backers so readily claim? Or was he instead a precocious talent, a prolific artist who had just the right stuff at just the right time?

A short time, that is. Basquiat burst onto the scene in 1981 when he was only 20. Seven years later, he was dead of a heroin overdose.

The son of a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat was raised in middle-class comfort in Brooklyn, and showed an early proclivity not only for drawing, but also for processing huge amounts of information. He landed on one goal: He wanted to be famous.

That much he accomplished. He slipped his way into the art world via his reputation as a counterculture East Village graffiti artist, part of the then-nascent hip-hop culture. That gave him an edgy sort of street cred. His race and mixed ethnicity further made him the ideal "exotic" for a scene saturated with white male artists.

In no time, Basquiat's paintings commanded top dollar and he was the subject of high-profile exhibits. Fueled by a booming Wall Street economy, the 1980s art market was flush with cash and newly minted collectors. Tired of cerebral minimalist objects and esoteric conceptual projects that dominated the 1970s, art-lovers hankered for color, line, texture, movement — and also actual paintings that they could buy.

Basquiat delivered all that.

He packed his enormous paintings with images from pop culture and African-American history, anatomy and medical illustrations, Haitian masks and comic books. He dotted his canvases with words and phrases, slathered on bright paint in large swaths, drew on top of the paint, filled corners with relentless doodles and slapped on pieces of paper and photocopies. When he got tired of canvases, he painted old doors, stretches of wooden fencing, leftover floorboards.

Basquiat also delivered something else very apropos of the heady 1980s: celebrity. Andy Warhol virtually adopted the young artist as soon as he hit the scene. Basquiat's night-clubbing antics became gossip page fodder. He briefly dated

Madonna. Celebrities who bought his paintings included John McEnroe, David Bowie, U2's Adam Clayton and Lenny Kravitz. And he posed for a New York Times Magazine cover photo in his studio barefoot, but in a paint-splattered Armani suit.

We'll never know how Basquiat would have developed into a mature artist — or even whether he would have. And judging from the more than 100 works that sprawl over the light-filled upper gallery of the Houston museum's Law Building, it's ultimately very hard to tell.

To be sure, Basquiat made some startling — and startlingly attractive — work. At his best (he seemed to hit his peak around 1982-83), he produced arresting, compelling images that demand attention. They read like poems: words and lines and symbols combining for a dense, energetic presence.

Basquiat was also an excellent and creative draftsman — of that there is no doubt — worth noting now with drawing so dominating the current art scene. And along with his peers such as Schnabel, David Salle and Francesco Clemente, Basquiat ushered in an important late 20th-century renaissance in painting that persists today.

At his worst, however, toward the end of his career, Basquiat's compositions become repetitive, his content thin and tiresome. His paintings decline into all style and no substance. They oftentimes don't justify their scale: Many are large paintings simply, it seems, because large paintings typically sell for more money (the record price for a Basquiat painting is $5.5 million sold in 2002 by Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich). And his decline is fairly easy to see, given that the current exhibit is basically arranged in chronological order.

Ultimately, "Basquiat," while offering an expansive overview of the artist's output, leaves unanswered the same question we can't help but ask from the get-go: yes, Basquiat was, and still is, a rare art-world star. But would he be, today, had he lived longer?