|Eric Jay, ARTnews, 9/84
“This Haitian-born artist’s work operates on the level of childlike fancy and play. While there is a cagey, arts-professional reticence and style to them, his paintings achieve their effects through the use of private, quirky symbols…Basquiat paints these characters in bright carnival colors: yellow, silver, pink, red, blue and green. He respects his colors and knows their force, rather than forcing them together—he is a colorist rather than a color lover…Doodles embroider the figures, contributing to the lively sense of silliness. Basquiat insists on imposing his vocabulary of signs an d squiggles, but then he makes them either very easy to understand or superfluous. His paintings are offhand, disorderly and random, mixing rough and smooth, drawn and barely drawn, to create an impression of facility and ease. The painter clearly tries not to try, going slack instead of slick…a big smile substitutes for happiness.”NYTimes piece
“As part of the never-ending marketing effort, paintings by Basquiat and other hot young art stars are always being crated and shipped. They are flown to an exhibition in Europe, a dealer on the West Coast, a collector’s home” NYTimes piece “In fact, neither he or the graffitist Keith Haring had ever “bombed”—spray painted—dormant subway cars in the train yards at night, a necessary rite of passage in the authentic graffiti subculture. More importantly, as the critics pointed out, Basquiat’s paintings embodied more formal ties to the history of art. He may have grown up, like most kids, on a diet of comic books, but clearly he had also had a taste of Picasso.”Jeffrey Dietch, Art in America, 1980
“a knockout combination of de Kooning and subway scribbles.”Rene Ricard, ARTFORUM 1981
“If Cy Twombley and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption, it would be Jean Michel. The elegance of Twombley is there…and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet…”
|Cathleen McGuigan, NYTimes, 2/10/85
“His color-drenched canvases are peopled with primitive figures wearing menacing masklike faces, painted against fields jammed with arrows, grids, crowns, skyscrapers, rockets and words…The extent of Basquiat’s success would no doubt be impossible for an artist of lesser gifts. Not only does he possess a bold sense of color and composition, but, in his best paintings, unlike many of his contemporaries, he maintains a fine balance between seemingly contradictory forces: control and spontaneity, menace and wit, urban imagery and primitivism.”
|Demosthenes Davvetas, Lines, Chapters, and Verses: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, ARTFORUM, 4/87
“By literally converting devalued materials into useful ones, Basquiat has illustrated the transformative workings of art…The same type of thing happens to line. In all its different linguistic and imagist expressions, it aggressively enters the realm of painting…These signs have a double function: from one side they speak about the visible, while from the other they make visible what is usually little noticed, or, rather, what is often repressed…Perhaps the work is less like a mirror than like an eye or a voice: as eye, it observes and interprets life, collecting selected items and organizing them within itself; thus organized, it becomes voice, a clear utterance expressing what has been seen.” Henry Geldzahler, NYTimes quoted from, comment upon purchasing a Basquiat “I decided to over pay. I offered $2,000 for it. I knew he was authentic and I wanted to say, ‘Welcome to the real world.'”
|Elizabeth Hess, Village Voice, 11/3/92
“Jean-Michel Basquiat would not have appreciated the fact that the art world is divided up into those who think he was a genius and those who think he was a fraud. “White supremacist” critics and curators—and there are many—refuse to give any living black painter his or her due. Nevertheless, basquiat was born with an artist gene (in Brooklyn); he made it all the way to Documenta, the prestigious German art fair, by the time he was 21 because he was already painting exceptional works of art…As the Reagan-Bush years wore on and racism became more rampant, opinion turned against basquiat and all the graffiti masters…He was dangerously good. basquiat was dismissed as a kind of opportunist party boy with a big ego. (name one famous male artist with a small one.)…His shocking OD death at the age of 27 was devastating. The Rude Boy had not yet secured his place in history…Right now I’d take students to see Basquiat before Matisse [Matisse and Basquiat retrospective held at same time in NYC in ’92]. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that Basquiat is the better painter, but that he’s the infinitely more relevant painter. Matisse may be the most socially disengaged artist we have ever seen in depth at the Modern; basquiat’s work is saturated in the political culture of the moment (his own heritage is Haitian and Puerto Rican) and the search for the artist’s self. While much of the work is abstract the overt subject is always racial identity…his paintings describe, over and over, the artist’s anger. Basquiat was a great poet, with a rare ability to combine both pigment and text on one surface…Basquiat’s poems often have a visual shape, as if they are dimensional…At their best, the artworks are layered with references to…the unpredictable. The artist’s anxious hand is always moving. As many critics have suggested, the influence of Dubuffet and Twombly are obvious, along with the bravado of Picasso. But the mood is jazz. Basquiat, apparently, worked to music and television, which explains why his output is so unconnected to social realities. And disconnected too…”
New Basquiat Exhibition Reveals the Master Behind the Hype
In the nearly 25 years since his death, Jean-Michel Basquiat has not ceased to grow in significance. More often than not, that popularity has thrived off a cycle of hype bolstered on the one hand by a bevy of eager collectors and on the other by the allure of his tragically short biography. “[There’s] no underestimating the popular appeal of this tragic young African-American artist who embodied the idea of the charismatic supernova, burning bright and fast, leaving behind a prolific body of work that was taken up immediately in his own time, and which continued to escalate in stature and value as it has circulated in the international art market,” says Louise Neri, a director at Chelsea’s Gagosian Gallery.
A dazzling, though at times disorienting, new survey of his works at Gagosian’s 24th Street complex (on view through April 6), his first major show in New York City since a 2005 Brooklyn Museum retrospective, offers a welcome opportunity to mute the hoopla and concentrate on the art. “It is a general survey of works, from the beginning of his career to the end, which underscores some of the themes and approaches in his art that rewrote cultural history and introduced cross-fertilized knowledge systems,” Neri says. “He conflated modernist and indigenous expressionism and symbols of classical painting with recurring motifs in primitive art, consciously lo-tech bricolage with complex layering of surface and image.”
The sheer amount of visual information in most of the pieces featured in the show is astounding, and will require multiple visits for close readers to process. Working on paper, doors, wooden boards, canvases crudely stretched over shipping palettes, and any other available material, incorporating painting, drawing, handwriting, and Xerox copies of his own work, Basquiat evidences — in the more than 60 paintings brought together from public and private collections for this show — a voracious appetite for incorporating disparate materials into his expansive lexicon.
His paintings include countless historical and modern allusions that simultaneously suggest a deep reverence for the past and an unshakable confidence in his own vision. His nods to art history include the large seated figure in his 1986 riff on Rodin’s The Thinker, the sketches referencing the Venus de Milo, Titian, and the Atlas myth that are layered into Untitled (1981) — a six-panel painting whose sections are joined by door hinges — and his continual re-appropriation of the Primitivist iconography painters like Picasso took from traditional African sculptures in his mask-like treatment of faces.
Running parallel to Basquiat’s historical awareness is his knack for incorporating contemporary themes and motifs. Here, they include elements like the comic book imagery in 1987′s Riddle Me This Batman and the parody advertising slogan “Onion gum makes your mouth taste like onions” in Onion Gum (1983). For all the pain that’s plainly legible in many of the works here, Basquiat also demonstrates a wicked sense of humor.
On top of all these materials absorbed from the outside world, he developed an iconography all his own. Foremost among his signature motifs are the free-associative word strings and small crowns that were fixtures of his early street art and are peppered liberally throughout this show. The 1987 painting Harlem Paper Products, for instance, features the Dadaist sequence of words “Equator/Horizon/Tesla Coil/Glass Eye/Earwax/Lucha Libre.” Subjects in the paintings brought together here, most of which are portraits, include athletes, jazz musicians, friends, superheroes, the cop in one of the exhibition’s most overtly political works, Irony of Negro Policeman (1981), the artist himself, and, most ominously, the figure of death in one of the latest works on view, the sparse, shimmering and apocalyptic Riding With Death (1988). With its encyclopedic system of references, signature images and inscrutable texts, Basquiat’s work epitomizes the maximalist tendencies of today’s visual culture.
His incredible proficiency and prolific nature also mean that he produced some mediocre work, as the shortage of paintings in the exhibition from 1984-86 tacitly acknowledges. For instance, the 1985 piece Now’s the Time, a cut-out circle of plywood evocative of Gordon Matta-Clark, marked with the titular words, a copyright sign, and the letters “PRKR” to suggest a giant Charlie Park LP, is only memorable for its flimsiness. Meanwhile, a superb, haunting and untitled 1982 oil stick portrait of a figure wearing a crown of thorns languishes in the hallway behind the reception desk. A dozen fewer pieces and more spacious hanging may have done wonders for this exhibition.
An overly generous visitor might even say that the show’s chockablock walls and lack of any identifiable thematic, historical, or formal organization complements Basquiat’s chaotic and multidirectional aesthetic. However, some attempt at organization, even a simple chronological hanging, may have made this extremely compelling show more intelligible. The paintings transcend this lack of continuity, of course. The total absence of contextualizing information — save a helpful, if often-rhapsodic, press release and unwieldy checklist — makes it easier to become lost in the works’ whimsical wordplay, their arresting faces, and the slippery boundary between beautiful and tortured imagery that Basquiat straddled so briefly and successfully.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1960-1988
By Daily Art Fixx On January 30, 2013
Born on December 22, 1960, in Brooklyn, New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a successful graffiti and Neo-Expressionist artist who continues to influence modern artists today.
Basquiat showed a passion for art at a young age and was encouraged by his mother who had an interest in fashion design and sketching. Early influences include cartoon drawings, Alfred Hitchcock films, cars and comic books. An avid reader that spoke 3 languages, he was also inspired by French, Spanish, and English literature.
From 1976-78, Basquiat created ‘Samo’ (Same Old Shit), a fictional character who earned a living selling ‘fake’ religion. He also collaborated with his close friend and graffiti artist Al Diaz. Basquiat and Diaz ‘s graffiti took the form of spray-painted messages that were seen around Lower Manhattan. In 1978, SAMO gained some recognition when a positive article was printed in the Village Voice. The collaboration ended in 1979 and “Samo is dead” was seen on walls in SoHo.
In the late 1970s Basquiat met artists and musicians in various clubs and this led to his introduction to New York art collectors and dealers. During this period Basquiat created postcards, collages, drawings, and T-shirts that depicted events such as the Kennedy assassination and themes such as baseball players and Pez candy.
Basquiat’s first public exhibition was in the group “The Times Square Show” alsongside David Hammons, Jenny Holzer, Lee Quinones, Kiki Smith, and others. By 1982, he was showing regularly and became part of the Neo-expressionist movement. That same year, he began dating the then unknown Madonna and met Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated and formed a close friendship. Basquiat’s first solo exhibition was also held in 1982 at the Annina Nosei Gallery in New York.
Basquiat’s art was influenced by imagery and symbolism from African, Aztec, Greek, and Roman cultures, as well as that of his own Puerto Rican and Haitian heritage and Black and Hispanic cultures. The crown was Basquiat’s signature motif. In some paintings, the crowns are placed on top of generic figures. More often, he crowned his personal heroes including jazz musicians, such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and athletes, such as Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Hank Aaron.
Basquiat began many paintings by pasting his own drawings or photocopies of them onto the canvas. He also used words to elaborate his themes often repeating the same words over and over again creating a hypnotic effect.
In 1984, Basquiat began using a new layering technique using silkscreens. His drawings were transferred onto screens and printed onto the canvas. He then painted, drew, and added more silk-screened images to build the piece into a multi-layered composition.
In the mid-1980s Basquiat began using heroin, and much of his artwork appeared unfinished and repetitive. The death of Andy Warhol in 1987 had a profound affect on him. His grief turned into creativity and his painting displayed a new confidence and maturity. Many of his works during this period make references to death.
Following an attempt at rehabilitation, Basquiat died on August 12, 1988 of an accidental drug overdose. He was 27 years old. Several major retrospective exhibitions of Basquiat’s works have been held since his death, in the US and internationally. The Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland is holding a retrospective from May to September 2010 to mark the Basquiat’s fiftieth birthday.
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by LOUIS ARMAND
When Jean-Michel Basquiat died in 1988 at the age of twenty-seven he had only been painting professionally for seven years, yet the body of work that he left behind was prodigious. In a tribute at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York (Sept 21-Nov 23, 1996) his work was described as “remarkable in its diversity of subject matter, materials and quality.”
His greatness lay in his ability to integrate African-American culture, the love of music, pop-culture, and the history of jazz into an extraordinary visual language. Basquiat truly raised his voice above the din of the hectic era that was the 1980s. His work exhibits a frenetic and driven need to express and define his role in the larger world, and within the urban multi-ethnic culture of New York.
I have quoted this passage here for a number of reasons. Firstly because it rightfully points to the virtuosity of Basquiat’s performance of as an artist, but also because it qualifies this virtuosity, however naively it may seem, as the virtuosity of an African-American New York artist, whose urban multi-ethnicity is the mark of a chic ’80s neo-primitivism. In a similar vein, Phoebe Hoban, in her recent and widely distorted biography of Basquiat, A Quick Killing in Art, has described him as “the Jimmi Hendrix of the art world.” While others, like art dealer Larry Gagosian, have exhibited a condescension and less subtle racism that characterised Basquiat’s relationship with many of those in the white-dominated New York art scene. Gagosian’s memory of first meeting Basquiat is quoted in Hoban’s biography: “I was surprised to see a black artist and particularly one that was-you know-with the hair. I was taken back by it, and kind of put off.”<1>
In his preface to the catalogue for the 1999 Basquiat retrospective at the Museo Revoltella, in Trieste, Bruno Bischofberger (Basquiat’s Swiss dealer), echoing these ideas, wrote:
Jean-Michel Basquiat achieved his status in art and art history by painting and drawing his work in a chosen “primitive” style which reaches us in an expression of innocence.<2>
All that is lacking here, it seems, is an art historical appraisal of Basquiat’s “primitivism” as the authentic product of the African subconscious transmuted through the experience of the African-American diaspora-in contradistinction to the European anthropological fetishism of the surrealists and the “naive” art brut of post-war painters like Dubuffet, Fautrier and Wols. But despite Basquiat’s own insistence that his work be evaluated in the context of all art, and himself in the context of all artists, commentators have consistently focused upon race, in a manner that insists upon the stereotype of the black artist as a kind of metonym for the “dark continent” itself, recalling all the worst clichés of post-Freudean psychoanalysis, as well as centuries of European racism.
A typical example of this can be found in an interview given by Basquiat in 1988 and published in New Art International.<3> The interviewer, Demosthenes Davvetas, addresses Basquiat’s “primitivism” in a way that not only seeks to define the artist within a limited scope, but also challenges the artist’s right of refusal to act out the primitivist role. Questions repeatedly include words and phrases like “graffiti artist,” “totems,” “primitive signs,” “fetishes,” “African roots,” “magical,” “cult,” “child,” “weapon.” At the same time words like “survival” and “recognition” are placed within quotation marks, as if to suggest that, for a black artist, such terms as these must always be qualified. As Davvetas makes clear, many people believed at the time that Basquiat’s success derived mainly from his ability to attract the attention of Andy Warhol, while accounts such as Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film also call into question the “authenticity” of Basquiat’s African-American persona.
The “facts” of Basquiat’s life are fairly simple. He was born in Brooklyn in 1960, and lived in New York for most of his life. His mother was of Afro-Puerto Rican descent, while his father was Haitian. Both belonged to the middle class. But whereas Julian Schnabel’s “biopic” suggests that Basquiat sought to conceal his less than underprivileged background-hoping to trade on the popular view of black disempowerment (however real that may be)-the opposite seems to have been more the case. Basquiat himself publicised details of his early life in a piece called Untitled (Biography), 1983,<4> and he was also known to be reluctant to involve himself in black politics, often finding himself estranged from “up town” black artist communities. At the very least Basquiat was ambivalent to the racialising of his art, even if elements of racial politics are accommodated within that art.
That Jean-Michel Basquiat was black may be undeniable, but it is questionable that his work belongs to any such category as “black art.” But even if this were the case, we need to ask whether or not there is sufficient critical basis for evaluating Basquiat’s art, and “black art” in general, in this way. In his 1989 Village Voice article, ‘Nobody Loves a Genius Child: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lonesome Flyboy in the Buttermilk of the ’80s Art Boom,’ Greg Tate argues that:
Black visual culture suffers less from a lack of developed artists than from a need for popular criticism, academically supported scholarship, and more adventurous collecting and exhibiting.
When we look at Basquiat’s critical reception, both during his lifetime and since his untimely death in 1988, we can see that Tate’s conclusion is born out. With few exceptions Basquiat’s “primitivism” has become a mark of the faddishness of the art market, of the passing fascination of the white art establishment with a black “genius child,” and of the fickleness of an industry concerned more with celebrity than with enduring talent.
Indeed, few contemporary artists have suffered as dramatically from critical re-appraisals as Jean-Michel Basquiat. In reaction to the highly inflated reputations and prices of many ‘eighties’ painters, critics have tended to neglect the artistic achievement of Basquiat, often viewing his work as merely the product of a market boom that established him, during his brief career, as a mascot of art capitalism. Indeed some critics, like Robert Hughes, have been so distracted by the conjunction of events (black Latino artist-eighties consumerism) as to be reduced to name-calling, referring to Basquiat as “Jean-Michel Basketcase.” The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists, on the other hand, simply labels Basquiat as a New York “street artist,” including him solely under the entry for GRAFFITI, thus denying him either the dignity of a personal entry or credit for a body of work which deeply engages both Western and non-Western traditions of art. Others, like Hal Foster and Rosiland Krauss, simply fail to take Basquiat into account at all. In Foster’s 1996 study, The Return of the Real: the Avant-Garde at the Turn of the Century, Basquiat doesn’t rate a single mention, in spite of the fact that Foster devotes extensive sections of his book to issues such as “commodification” and “primitivism,” and addresses the work of Andy Warhol (with whom Basquiat collaborated and exhibited)<5> at length.
The assignation of Basquiat as a Graffiti or street artist doubtless has a lot more to do with racial politics than with art criticism. Basquiat’s work itself exhibits few characteristics of graffiti, and the resemblance is largely based upon the fact that he employed textual elements in his work. More commonly, art commentators have pointed at Basquiat’s early history as a high school drop-out and to his collaboration with school friend Al Diaz in drawing graffiti slogans and symbols with a Magic Marker on walls in lower Manhattan, signing them with the tag SAMO(c) (which referred to “same ol’ shit”), with the copyright symbol recalling the typographics of a corporate label.<6> There was nothing innocent in what Basquiat and Diaz were doing-they didn’t plant their street texts just anywhere, but predominantly at strategic points throughout SoHo and the East Village, sometimes even at art openings were they were likely to be seen by influential people. These texts were also tinged with a certain irony if we consider their mercenary role as personal advertisements for the to-be artist Basquiat. Such texts as: “Riding around in Daddy’s limousine with trust fund money” only heighten the ambiguity of Basquiat’s own position later on in relation to the art world establishment.
At the same time Basquiat was inventing himself as something of a wild boy figure in the East Village. Inspired by John Cage he played guitar (with a file) and the synthesiser in a noise band called Gray. He worked at odd jobs, sold “junk” jewellery, crashed parties, painted on clothing, and frequented the punk hang-out, the Mud Club, and the new wave Club 57. Always broke, he had done his first paintings on salvaged sheet metal and other materials foraged from trash cans or found abandoned on the sidewalk, including an old refrigerator. His paintings were both childlike and menacing, described as “raw, frenzied assemblages of crudely drawn figures, symbols like arrows, grids and crowns, and recurring words such as THREAT and EXIT in bold, vibrant colours.”<7>
In the summer of 1980, Basquiat participated in the so-called “Times Square Show,” where he displayed a wall covered in spray paint and brushwork. One critic described the installation as combining Willem de Kooning’s Abstract Expressionism with Subway spray art-an observation born-out to a degree in a remark that Basquiat himself made during an interview, describing his subject matter as “Royalty, heroism and the streets.”<8> Regarding the hybridity of Basquiat’s style, the critic John Russell noted in a 1984 review that “Basquiat proceeds by disjunction-that is, by making marks that seem quite unrelated, but that turn out to get on very well together.” Basquiat himself observed: “I get my facts from books, stuff on atomisers, the blues, ethyl alcohol, geese in the Egyptian style … I put what I like from them in my paintings.” This recalls another “transitional” figure, Robert Rauschenberg, whose combines have also been described as working a seam between Abstract Expressionism and Pop-Art, with elements of Dada, particularly in the use of textual and visual irony. Avowed influences for Basquiat also included the work of Picasso, African masks, children’s art, hip-hop and jazz. The outcome itself has been described as a type of visual syncopation, or “eye rap.”
His prolific verbal and visual fragments were painted in a mixture of black and bold, saturated colours. A particular example can be found in a 1983 painting, entitled Savonarola, which has been described as “nothing more or less than a painted fragment of an index.” But despite a casual, often remarked graffiti-like appearance, the picture surface itself is heavily reworked and semantically complex, while also maintaining a strict, underlying compositional discipline. Like Rauschenburg, Basquiat’s adherence to a Cubist grid points to a synthesis of ideas usually held to be mutually exclusive, and which also contradict any straightforward assumptions of spontaneity in Expressionist, or “neo-primitivist” art. In this, Basquiat’s approach to composition is not so far removed from that of Andy Warhol, although Basquiat’s textual and pictorial “quotations” always retained a manual element. He never xeroxed or silk-screened directly from his sources, but interpolated a level of “direct” mediation by the artist which became, to a greater or lesser extent, a signature effect similar to the overprinting and streaking in Warhol’s silkscreened images.
Basquiat’s association with Warhol began well before his recognition as an artist. Basquiat had actively sought out Warhol, often leaving graffiti messages at Warhol’s Great Jones Street studio (where Basquiat later became a tenant), and often made abortive efforts to gain entrance to the Warhol Factory. On one occasion in 1979, Basquiat approached Andy Warhol in a SoHo restaurant and persuaded him to buy a one-dollar postcard reproduction of one of his paintings. Two years later Basquiat achieved his first recognition, at a New York/New Wave group show at the Long Island City gallery PS 1. Both Warhol’s friend Harry Geldzahler and his Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger attended the show and were impressed by Basquiat’s work. Geldzahler purchased one of Basquiat’s assemblages-a half door covered with layers of torn posters and scribblings-and later taped an interview with the artist for Warhol’s Interview magazine. With Geldzahler’s support, and that of Bruno Bischofberger (who became his European representative), Basquiat eventually gained access to the Warhol Factory from which he initially had been barred. For many of Basquiat’s detractors, this was a moment of supreme opportunism on Basquiat’s part, and there have been widely conflicting reports as to the actual nature of Basquiat and Warhol’s relationship. While Basquiat has been credited with having provoked a positive shift in Warhol’s image-from Brooks Brothers shirts and ties to leather jackets, sunglasses and black jeans-Warhol was seen as a corrupting influence, seducing the young “barrio naif” into the habits of art world capitalism and superficial glamour. Basquiat became a target for intense sarcasm in his “trademark” paint-spattered Amarni suits and bare feet-an image which persisted, and which in the minds of some critics symbolised a new form of “blacksploitation.” There is no doubt that such criticisms were fuelled by the fact that Basquiat was the first black American artist to achieve international fame.
In 1995, the February 10 issue of The New York Times Magazine featured Lizzie Himmel’s photographic portrait of Basquiat on its front cover, along with the trailer: “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist.” According to cultural theorist Dick Hebdige, the cover image portrayed Basquiat as “the Dalai Lama of late twentieth-century painting-a poor boy plucked from obscurity by the priests and whisked off to the palace. Here was a Messiah for painting suited to the New World of the eighties: a Picasso in blackface.”<9> An ethnographic curiosity, or a designer label-either way the art itself is more often than not concealed beneath the competing interpretations that circulate about Basquiat as a figure. As Richard Marshall comments in his essay ‘Repelling Ghosts,’ “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.”<10>
One difficulty in appraising the significance of Basquiat’s art, however, owes to the fact that a large number of his paintings have never been seen by the public. Marshall, in curating the 1993 Basquiat retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan, drew attention to this problem, pointing out that much of Basquiat’s prolific output has neither been exhibited nor documented (one third of the paintings at the Whitney retrospective were on show for the first time). This in itself can be seen as symptomatic of the virtually insatiable demand by art investors during what many have described as the “decade of greed,” and of the consequent overproduction prompted by dealers seeking to supply this demand. A direct outcome of this was not only that artists could be expected to produce a certain quantity of indifferent work, but also that works of art often never went before the public at all, passing instead directly from the studio into private collections.
Rene Ricard, who first encountered Basquiat’s paintings and drawing in various sublets in New York’s East Village (an encounter made famous in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film), and whose 1981 article in Artforum brought critical attention to Basquiat,<11> described the scene during Basquiat’s first year working from the basement of Annina Nosei’s gallery:
Jean’s output was tremendous and never satisfied the demand … pictures would be purchased after the first hit with paint, even though his method was to rework with several layers of paint. The rather extraordinary ladies, and occasional men, whom his dealer brought to the studio would leave with as many unfinished canvases as they and their drivers could carry. His dealer’s advice to clients … seems to have led Jean-Michel to large canvases of big heads with no words. He produced an amazing number and left them, barely worked up, leaning on the walls, so the carriage trade could pick them up and leave without bothering him.<12>
According to Ricard, the words and phrases Basquiat habitually worked into his paintings bothered the collectors, just as later on his use of silk screens would bother dealers like Bischofberger who felt they detracted from his “intuitive primitivism.”<13> Ironically enough it was Basquiat’s inclusion of textual elements and multiple xeroxed images that comprised his most recognisable “trademark.” In his earliest paintings, such as Crowns (Peso Neto) (1981), Basquiat had used collage to achieve a surface texture of word fragments and “ruined” serial images (here, the “crowns” which re-emerge throughout Basquiat’s ouvre). Elsewhere Basquiat introduced trademark and copyright symbols, contributing to his so-called “graffiti” texts a critical/satirical edge that may have disconcerted some of his early society patrons.
In one of his compositions from 1981, entitled TAR TOWN(c), there appears the words: JIMMY BEST ON HIS BACK TO THE SUCKERPUNCH OF HIS CHILDHOOD FILES.<14> In Basquiat’s case, it was enough that the “childhood files” be taken to refer to his black and Latino ancestry-a mark that remained constantly against his name. In the end, the sucker punch came from both directions: from the art establishment who wanted to buy a piece of his “intuitive primitivism,” and from the critics who dismissed him as a kind of art world golliwog. Basquiat’s work is constantly aware of this double-bind linking the black artist to a form of racist commodity fetishism, and there is something veritably portentous about TAR TOWN(c) which finds an echo elsewhere in paintings like St. Joe Louis Surrounded by Snakes (1982) and Untitled (Defacement) (1983). This latter painting in particular serves as a reminder of Basquiat’s precarious situation, not only within the American art industry, but within American society at large. The painting is of two white comic-strip police officers beating a black (Christ) figure with the word ?DEFACEMENT(c)? written above. It was painted soon after the murder of the black “graffiti artist” Michael Stewart by transit police in the 14th Street L subway station. As Basquiat saw it, it could just as well have been him.
There is another side, however, to the depictions of violence and racial subjugation that form visible subtexts in Basquiat’s paintings. In Irony of Negro Policeman (1981), Basquiat focuses on one of the ways in which authority (here, the law) co-opts those who also symbolise the objects of its abuse. This irony is one that has been applied to the situation of Basquiat himself in relation to a white-dominated art industry. Successively deemed victim and collaborator, Basquiat has often been thought of as both naive and opportunistic. According to Mary Boone, a New York dealer famous for receiving more publicity than her artists, Basquiat was “too concerned with what the public, collectors and critics thought … too concerned about prices and money.”<15> Coincidently it was Basquiat’s exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery, in May 1984 (his fist solo exhibition), which saw him rise to prominence in the international art scene, and saw his paintings sell for between $10,000 and $20,000. In that same month a Basquiat self-portrait was included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, while at Christie’s spring auction another painting, which had originally sold for $4,000, came in at $20, 900. Basquiat’s tempestuous relationship with dealers has been well documented. Difficulties arising from exhibitions and sales led him from one gallery to another, signing with four New York dealers in succession within the space of seven years: Annina Nosei, Mary Boone, Tony Shafrazi and Vrej Baghoomian. Considered by some as caprice, these moves often accompanied a need on the artist’s part for creative freedom. In 1982, Basquiat’s move away from Annina Nosei’s gallery basement to a loft on Prince Street allowed him to escape the “art-feeding frenzy of invasive collectors” (as Ricard puts it),<16> in order to concentrate on developing his work. Importantly it was at this time that Basquiat participated in an exhibition at the Fun Gallery, an independent gallery in New York-one of the causes of his break with Annina Nosei (another cause was that Nosei had objected to a series of stretcher frames designed for Basquiat by his assistant, Steve Torton, which left twined cross-beams at each corner of the canvas exposed, creating an effect that was both idiosyncratic and arresting, and broke with the clean, packaged look of commercial gallery art). Notably, his work at the Fun Gallery was also drastically under-priced, thereby providing a direct counter-argument to those who, like Boone, insisted that artistic values were secondary in Basquiat’s mind to the acquisition of wealth and fame.
The fact of Basquiat’s success, however, was always going to embroil him in controversy, particularly as money began to equate to a growing sense of independence from the art world establishment. The problem of success (as a non-white) was also a constant theme in Basquiat’s paintings. His subjects ranged from historical black figures like Malcolm X, Langston Hughes and Marcus Garvey, to black athletes, boxers and musicians, including Hank Aaron, Jesse Owens, Sugar Ray Robinson, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.<17> And throughout his work there are textual references to money, value, authenticity and ownership (REGISTERED TRADE MARK, (c), ESTIMATED VALUE, ONE CENT, DOLLAR BILL, ANDREW JACKSON, TAX FREE, PESO NETO, 100%, NOTARY), as well as to trade, commerce and consumption (PETROLEUM, COTTON, GOLD, SALT, TOBACCO, ALCOHOL, HEROIN), and references to racism, oppression and genocide (SLAVE SHIPS, DARK CONTINENT, NEGROES, HARLEM, GHETTO, MISSIONARIES, CORTEZ, DER FUHRER, VASCO DA GAMA). Inevitably, it seems, these subjects became less and less distinguishable from the autobiographical elements Basquiat worked into his paintings. Success for Basquiat was always fraught with contradictions, and the politics it engendered ultimately interfered, detrimentally, in many of his relationships, most notably with Andy Warhol.
In 1994 Bischofberger commissioned a three-way collaboration between Warhol, Basquiat, and the Italian Francesco Clemente. After this initial collaboration, Warhol and Basquiat continued to work together. A series of large canvases were based on a New York Post headline, PLUG PULLED ON COMA MOM, and the Paramount Studios mountaintop logo. The collaboration between Basquiat and Warhol has been viewed with both scepticism and enthusiasm by different sectors of the art world. The effect of the collaboration upon the artists themselves has also been reported in accounts that widely contradict each other. In the eyes of many, Basquiat was seen as dominating Warhol, while others saw Basquiat as the victim of Warhol’s art-predatory instinct. Reports also vary as to what led Basquiat and Warhol’s relationship to break down.
Warhol, who represented for Basquiat a type of “Good White Father,” played various roles in Basquiat’s life, from landlord to collaborator, antagonist and life-support.<18> Their relationship gave rise, from the outset, to much discussion of white patronage of black art. Others, however, saw the relationship as mutually opportunistic, an accusation which has been seen by some as having caused a rift after their 1995 collaborative exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery elicited scathing reviews, two of which (by Vivien Raynor and Eleanor Heartney) are worth quoting:
Last year, I wrote of Jean-Michel Basquiat that he had a chance of becoming a very good painter providing he didn’t succumb to the forces that would make him an art world mascot. This year, it appears that those forces have prevailed …<19>
Having presided over our era for considerably more than his requisite fifteen minutes, Andy Warhol keeps his star in ascendancy by tacking it to the rising comets of the moment …<20>
According to Paige Powell and other friends of the artists, however, the break-up between Basquiat and Warhol began earlier, when Basquiat read a review in the New York Times by the critic John Russell about his second exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery. Russell had suggested that Basquiat had become too obviously influenced by Warhol, and this prompted Basquiat to try to distance himself from the Warhol Factory. Likewise, Victor Bockris in his recent biography of Warhol suggests that by September 1985, when their show of collaborations opened at the Tony Shafrazi gallery, the Warhol-Basquiat relationship had already disintegrated to the extent that neither man spoke to the other at the opening and Basquiat did not even bother to attend that night’s dinner party. The following day he called at the Factory, wanting to know what the exact dimensions were for the Great Jones Street loft, to make sure that Warhol, his landlord, was not overcharging him on rent.<21>
The negative reaction by critics to the Warhol-Basquiat show, coupled with the intense speculation surrounding the two artists’ relationship, has tended to overshadow the actual work that the collaboration produced, as well as the impact it had on the development of the individual artists’ later work. What has been most overlooked by the critics is the significant stylistic influence Warhol and Basquiat had upon each other. For instance, during the second of their collaborations in 1984, which eventually furnished the exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Warhol, for the first time since his Pop paintings of the early sixties, put aside silk screens and returned to the straightforward method of hand painting from enlarged newspaper headlines and advertisements.<22> Warhol seems to have responded well to Basquiat’s influence, and even after their relationship had come to an end insisted that their collaborative work had been good, better in fact than much of the work he himself had produced later on. [It has even been suggested that, apart from the deluxe editions of prints produced under his direction at the Factory, Warhol’s remaining work up until his death seemed to have been painted as if in anticipation of his absent collaborator.] At the same time Basquiat exchanged his own technique of colour xeroxing for the use of commercial silk screens, enacting something of a role reversal in the process. Of particular interest is how this development in Basquiat’s technique, arising directly from his collaboration with Warhol, advanced his own critical interest in questions of authenticity, ownership, and the originality of the copy and copyright (something which also has implications for the view of his work as neo-expressionist, gestural or intuitively primitivistic).
Similarly, the movement within Basquiat’s paintings from pictorial narrative to oblique linguistic references exceeds the view that, as an elevated street artist, his work was simply graffiti hung in a gallery space. On the contrary, the pictorial references in Basquiat’s paintings link him to an entire tradition within Western art, from Classical and Renaissance models (compare, for instance, Leonardo da Vinci’s Allegorical Composition with Basquiat’s Riding With Death (1988)), to more contemporary ones, including Robert Rauschenberg’s “combines,” Warhol’s serial images, Jean Dubuffet’s urban primitivism, and Cy Twombly’s “graffito” drawings. Moreover, the linguistic elements in Basquiat’s paintings not only engage the work in a wide-ranging dialogue with historical and cultural discourses, but also render, with compelling poetic economy, a critique of those discourses.
Borrowing elements of everyday language (brand names, trade marks, consumer clichés, political and racial slogans, etc.), Basquiat created juxtapositions that reveal latent power structures, whose realignment in turn produces ironies suggesting a fundamental arbitrariness within the institutions of social discourse. At once absurd and menacing, this sense of the arbitrary nevertheless remains attached to an idea of the exercise of power and to a critical notion of historical arbitration. In Untitled (Rinso) a classic racist metaphor is exposed in the form of a reference to a popular washing powder. The words NEW RINSO(c), appearing above and beside three stylised renderings of Negroes, seem to point towards the word SLOGAN(c) in the centre of the painting, which in turn gives on to an actual slogan-1950 RINSO: THE GREATEST DEVELOPMENT IN SOAP HISTORY-with an arrow pointing to the words WHITEWASHING ACTION at the bottom of the canvas. In case the viewer misses the implications of this text, or the possible references to the violence of the 1950s civil rights movements, the words NO SUH, NO SUH written on the left of the painting serve to lessen any ambiguity.
In another painting, Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari, the theme of black labour at the service of its own exploitation is depicted by the image of a stylised Negro carrying a crate above his head (with the words ROYAL SALT INC(c) written across the front of it), standing beside a gun-toting “bwana” in a penile safari hat. Basquiat further ironises this depiction in the accompanying (capitalised) text: COLONIZATION: PART TWO IN A SERIES and GOOD MONEY IN SAVAGES. A reference to animal skins is made ambiguous in the rendering of $KIN$, which suggests that the “animals” being hunted/exploited by the POACHERS/MISSIONARIES are black.
In Untitled (1984), this theme is again explored, although with greater poetic economy. In this painting the God of the MISSIONARIES has become SUN GOD/TRICKSTER, while the painting itself seems structured around the words GLOBAL INDUSTRIAL, substituting it would seem for an ‘earthly paradise’ which has become simply an open mine for industrial exploitation. At the top left of the painting, above an image of a native woman giving birth, is the slogan ABORIGINAL GENERATIVE(c). The copyright symbol here serves to ironise the exploitative ‘ownership’ of both indigenous peoples and natural resources by colonial powers and Western capital, including the very process of generation. Elsewhere Basquiat’s economy is more sparse. In one of the fourteen drawings collected as Untitled (1981), the single word MILK(c) appears. As Rene Ricard explains, “The political implications here are intense with a comic nightmare of greed: the patent on milk!”<23> In a later painting, entitled Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta (1993)-referring to Jack Kerouac’s fictional portrait of Louis Armstrong, Basquiat includes the text “The ‘Cow’ is a registered trademark(r),” which serves to amplify the irony.
Perhaps we are invited to think of a “cash cow,” or of the “sacred cows” of the art world. Perhaps, also, we are invited to think of milk as the “food of innocence.” But then milk is also white, and innocence, in Basquiat’s terms, is a white(c) concept. Not to play the role of noble savage or idiot savant could only reveal, to the art establishment, Basquiat’s “black” sin-a daring to assume the position of successful American artist usually reserved for whites. “Innocence,” as Basquiat’s reference to the SUN GOD/TRICKSTER implies, is merely a state of being willingly duped by the missionaries of Western capital. Basquiat refused this role, even if at times he could be said to have exploited it. He was resented for his success, trivialised and slandered by critics. He sought fame, and like many who have achieved it, he found himself isolated in an often hostile and unpredictable environment. He was black, young, and a heroin addict. To many he was merely a stereotype, almost a parody. For some he proved an old saying: “die young and leave a beautiful corpse.” It would not be inappropriate to imagine the word corpse, here, to be spelt with a copyright symbol. In death, as in life, Basquiat has become a commodity. A cash corpse. The ironic evasions and counter-evasions of his work now eclipsed by this final, perhaps inevitable, irony.
* This article was first presented as a lecture at the Comparative Studies Colloquium, August 30, 2000, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.
1 Hoban, Phoebe. Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (New York: Penguin, 1998).
2 Jean-Michel Basquiat (Trieste: Charta, 1999).
3 Demosthenes Davvetas, ‘Interview with Jean-Michel Basquiat,’ New Art International 3 (1988).
4 Ink on paper, reproduced Jean-Michel Basquiat ouvres sur papier (Paris: Fondation Dini Vierny-Musée Maillol, 1997): 153.
5 ‘Collaborations: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol,’ Akira Ikeda Gallery, Tokyo, 1994; ‘Collaborations: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, Andy Warhol,’ Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich, 1994; ‘Collaborations: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, Andy Warhol,’ Akira Ikeda Gallery, Tokyo, 1995; ‘Warhol and Basquiat: Paintings,’ Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1995; ‘Collaborations: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol,’ Akira Ikeda Gallery, Tokyo, 1996; ‘Collaborations: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol,’ Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich, 1996.
6 Cf. Hebdige, Dick. ‘Welcome to the Terror Dome: Jean Michel Basquiat and the “Dark” Side of Hybridity.’ Jean-Michel Basquiat, ed. Richard Marshal (New York: Whitney Museum, 1993): 68 n.5. Dick Hebdige recounts the story of how Basquiat and Diaz were paid $100 dollars by The Village Voice to explain “how they managed to graduate from cave painting (i.e. “bombing” subway trains) to Conceptualism (eg., SAMO(c) AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD, STAR TREK AND RED DYE NO 2).” Hebdige also remarks upon the similarity between SAMO and SAMBO, the missing B readily available to the white imagination.
7 Bockris, Victor. The Life and Death of Andy Warhol (London: 4th Estate, 1998): 450.
8 Geldzahler, Harry. ‘Art: From Subways to SoHo, Jean-Michel Basquiat.’ Interview 13 (January, 1983): 46.
9 Hebdige, op. cit., 62.
10 Marshall, Richard. ‘Repelling Ghosts.’ Jean-Michel Basquiat, 15.
11 Ricard, Rene. ‘The Radiant Child.’ Artforum 20 (December 1981): 35-43.
12 Ricard, Rene. ‘World Crown(c): Bodhisattva with Clenched Mudra.’ Jean-Michel Basquiat, 48.
13 The Andy Warhol Diaries, ed. Pat Hackett (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989): 610.
14 It is also worth noting that TAR, a pejorative term for Negro, is also an anagram of ART.
15 Quoted in Hoban, Phoebe. ‘SAMO(c) Is Dead: The Fall of Jean-Michel Basquiat.’ The New York Times (September 26, 1988): 43.
16 Ricard, op. cit., 48.
17 According to Henry Geldzahler, Basquiat was determined to make “Black man … the protagonist,” as against the object status of blacks within the body of Western history. Geldzahler, op. cit., 46.
18 This relationship, however, was fraught with complexities, particularly on the side of Warhol whose initial response to Basquiat was one of revulsion (which developed, however, into a type of voyeurism, and eventually into apparently genuine affection and concern). Interestingly, Basquiat was the only black person Warhol ever became intimate with.
19 Reynor, Vivien. ‘Basquiat, Warhol.’ The New York Times (September 20, 1985): 91.
20 Heartney, Eleanor. ‘Basquiat, Warhol.’ Flash Art 125 (December 1985-January 1986): 43.
21 Bockris, op. cit., 469.
22 Cf. Livingstone, Mario. ‘Do It Yourself: Notes on Warhol’s Technique.’ Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, ed. Kynaston McShine (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989): 76.
23 Ricard, op. cit., 47.
(c) LOUIS ARMAND, 2000. Louis Armand is a senior lecturer in the Department of English and American Studies, Charles University, Prague, and a lecturer in art history at the University of New York, Prague. He is the author of Techne: Joycean Hypertexts, Finnegans Wake and the Question of Technology. firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.louis-armand.com
Jean Michel-Basquiat was born in December of 1960 to a modest household in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of 5, he was (like most kids) heavily inspired by cartoons and began to sketch out his own. In his adolescent years, although very gifted intellectually (fluent in 4 languages by the age of 11), he became socially awkward, withdrawn and subsequently rebellious. When he was 15, Basquiat dropped out of high school and began running the streets, often seeking the shelter of a New York City park bench. At the age of 16, Basquiat (alongside childhood friend Al Diaz) started their writing campaign, scribing the pseudonym SAMO on walls in lower Manhattan.
By 1981, Basquiat had begun to develop his artistic style and shared the stage in his first ever group show at a pop-up space in Time Square, with an eclectic group of (now well renowned) artists of his generation including Kenny Scharf, Kiki Smith and Jenny Holzer. It was in June of 1982 when Basquiat began his official art career with Larry Gagosian when the gallerist offered his ground floor studio space in Venice, California to the artist in order to begin work on a series of paintings. As the calendar rolled over into 1983, Basquiat and Gagosian found themselves in the midst of the Neo-expressionist movement, solidifying both of their names in art history.
While Basquiat’s life and career were cut short by his own devices, Larry Gagosian continued his journey navigating through the contemporary art world, simultaneously building the names and careers of some of today’s biggest names in the art world. The most recent Basquiat opening (compiled of both private and public collections) at the Gagosian Gallery (555 West 24th Street location in New York) is a testament to the 30 plus years of Gagosian’s super dealer art status and to the short but definitive career of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Discuss Jean-Michel Basquiat here.
March 11–June 5, 2005
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) was born and raised in Brooklyn, the son of a Haitian-American father and a Puerto Rican mother. At an early age, he showed a precocious talent for drawing, and his mother enrolled him as a Junior Member of the Brooklyn Museum when he was six. Basquiat first gained notoriety as a teenage graffiti poet and musician. By 1981, at the age of twenty, he had turned from spraying graffiti on the walls of buildings in Lower Manhattan to selling paintings in SoHo galleries, rapidly becoming one of the most accomplished artists of his generation. Astute collectors began buying his art, and his gallery shows sold out. Critics noted the originality of his work, its emotional depth, unique iconography, and formal strengths in color, composition, and drawing. By 1985, he was featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine as the epitome of the hot, young artist in a booming market. Tragically, Basquiat began using heroin and died of a drug overdose when he was just twenty-seven years old.
This exhibition gathers together more than one hundred of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s finest works, including many that have never been shown in the United States. It is organized chronologically, with special sections highlighting Basquiat’s interest in music, language, and Afro-Caribbean imagery, along with his use of techniques such as collage and silkscreen.
The exhibition seeks to demonstrate not only that Basquiat was a key figure in the 1980s but also that his artistic accomplishments have significance for twentieth-century art as a whole. Basquiat was the last major painter in an idiom that had begun decades earlier in Europe with the imitation of African art by modern artists such as Picasso and Matisse. Inspired by his own heritage, Basquiat both contributed to and transcended the African-influenced modernist idiom.
Basquiat once told an interviewer, “Since I was seventeen, I thought I might be a star.” As a teenager, he plunged into the emerging eighties art scene. He met artists and celebrities at the Mudd Club; appeared on Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, a television show about the downtown scene; and starred in a low-budget film, Downtown 81 (New York Beat), based on his own life. All the time, he was also making art: hitting downtown Manhattan buildings with spray-painted aphorisms, selling hand-painted T-shirts and collages on the streets, and making drawings. His big break came in 1980, when critics singled out his work at the Times Square Show, an exhibition showcasing young New York artists. He finally got a studio in 1981, when his first New York dealer, Annina Nosei, invited him to paint in the basement of her gallery.Until then, he had little money to buy supplies, so he painted on window frames, cabinet doors, even football helmets—whatever he could find. After Basquiat began to make money, the quality of his art materials improved. Even so, throughout his career he often chose to paint on rough, handmade supports and intentionally pursued the awkward look of outsider art.
By 1982, at the remarkably young age of twenty-one, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a successful professional artist, living from the sale of his work. In what might be compared to a musician’s winning multiple Grammy awards in a single year, he mounted six acclaimed solo shows in 1982, in New York, Los Angeles, Zurich, Rome, and Rotterdam. That same year, he became the youngest artist ever to be included in Documenta, a major international contemporary art exhibition held every five years in Germany. And when Basquiat exhibited at the Fun Gallery, in the East Village, critics praised his exceptional talent and originality.Along with his meteoric commercial success, 1982 was also Basquiat’s most prolific year as an artist: at least two hundred of his paintings bear that date, including many of his finest. The early 1980s witnessed a revival of Expressionist figure painting in art, and Basquiat’s works from 1981 had already established him as a key player in that movement. A new breed of artists had emerged, one that was impatient with the austere rigors of so-called high modernism and eager to reform art by making recognizable images about contemporary life in the Expressionist style of early modernism from decades before. Their success with collectors grown flush from the booming economy encouraged more artists and broader experimentation. Basquiat’s ambitious works of 1982, with their evocative use of text, collage, and an ever-widening range of references, demonstrate his growing intellectual ambition while recalling the exhilarating spirit of the time.Basquiat’s paintings from these years often revolve around single, heroic, black, male figures. In these images, the head is a central focus, topped by crowns and halos. Here, Basquiat explores the intellect, creativity, and emotional complexity of his human hero.
The crown was Basquiat’s signature motif. In some paintings, the crowns top nameless, generic figures. But more often, Basquiat crowned his heroes. These included renowned jazz musicians, such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and celebrated athletes, among them Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), and Hank Aaron. Like the royal titles that famous African American musicians have sometimes adopted as nicknames—such as Duke Ellington or Count Basie—Basquiat used crowns, as well as halos, to ennoble his icons.In his unusual “portraits” of his heroes, Basquiat made almost no effort to paint his subjects with recognizable facial features. Often he merely named the person on the canvas or in the painting’s title. Perhaps he sought to invest his art with a votive presence, without relying on a direct visual likeness. The crown and the halo—the abstract symbols of honor—are all that are really necessary. Basquiat’s use of the halo, however, cannot help but remind us that in the modern world, art is no longer primarily dedicated to the service of religious worship.
Basquiat started his career as a graffiti writer, signing his work SAMO© (for “same old, same old” or “same old shit”). But while his contemporaries sprayed colorful pictorial symbols and tags all over New York, the teenaged Basquiat addressed the public in enigmatic sentences sprayed in a plain script, such as “SAMO© AS AN END TO MINDWASH RELIGION, NOWHERE POLITICS, AND BOGUS PHILOSOPHY” and “PLUSH SAFE HE THINK / SAMO©.” As a professional visual artist, Basquiat made language an increasingly important feature of his work. In some cases, words fill the entire canvas, leaving no room for images.Basquiat used words to elaborate his themes, adding layers of verbal complication to his pictorial ideas. Sometimes, following a Surrealist or stream-of-consciousness technique, he built up running lists or diagrams of related thoughts. Often, he repeated the same words over and over again, achieving an almost hypnotic effect.Basquiat’s words also serve a more strictly compositional function, playing a key role in the graphic construction of a painting. He was not the only artist using words in paintings during the 1980s, but he was perhaps the most successful at integrating text and picture into a dynamic whole. In Basquiat’s works, there is an especially harmonious affinity among written, drawn, and painted marks that have all clearly been made by the same hand.
Despite a brief career of less than a decade, Basquiat is a crucial figure in the story of modern art. He was perhaps the last major painter of the twentieth century to pursue a key aspect of the visual language invented by some of the century’s first great artists, including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, the German Expressionists, and others. These modern painters had turned to nontraditional sources—African art, as well as the art of children, the insane, and the untrained—for new ideas that would make their own work more direct, powerful, and expressive.Working eighty years later, and inspired by his own heritage, Basquiat not only contributed to this modern tradition but also transcended it. That is, he understood not only the African-influenced work of his predecessors from the beginning of the century, but also the state of contemporary art as his own generation had found it: austere, cerebral, exclusive, and detached from everyday life. Like many artists of the so-called postmodernist years, he was to a certain extent a revivalist in his effort to make art more immediately relevant to a larger public. But Basquiat was unique among his fellow artists of the 1980s for avoiding nostalgia, imitation, and irony in his attempt to provide a once revolutionary but now outmoded modernist pictorial language with a brilliant final voice.
Basquiat began many paintings by pasting his own drawings—or photocopies of them—onto the canvas. Some of the drawings are spare, economical meditations, distilling an idea into the meanderings of line. Others are dense with deposits of marks and words. The collage ground they created gave Basquiat a surface to which he responded with painted imagery. The collage technique produced dense and complex surfaces in his paintings. They recall the artist’s urban milieu—outdoor walls layered with posters, paint, dirt, and graffiti that he encountered every day in New York City. They are also reminiscent of Cubist collage, though rather than integrate visual materials from the outside world, such as signs and newspapers, as Picasso and Braque generally did, Basquiat used copies of his own works as collage elements, reaffirming the authority of his own controlling hand in his closed universe of marks.
Basquiat reached full maturity as an artist in about 1983, when he was twenty-two years old. Encouraged by success and optimistic about his life, he made paintings that year that are among the strongest and most complex of any in the twentieth century. This was also the year he was included in the Whitney Biennial, a prestigious exhibition of contemporary art. His girlfriend at the time, Paige Powell, introduced him to her boss, Andy Warhol, who soon became Basquiat’s closest friend.It was also in 1983 that a young, black graffiti artist named Michael Stewart died in suspicious circumstances while in police custody. Having once practiced graffiti himself, Basquiat realized that he could have suffered the same fate. Like many New Yorkers, he was deeply affected by the incident. Subsequently, his work began to explore themes drawn from the African Diaspora more fully, specifically the African experience in America.An interviewer asked Basquiat in 1983 if there was anger in his work. “It’s about 80% anger,” he replied. The interviewer continued, “But there’s also humor.” To which Basquiat answered, “People laugh when you fall on your ass. What’s humor?”
Music was intensely important to Basquiat. As a teenager, he co-founded an art band called Gray that mixed ska and punk with “noise muzik.” He also performed in Deborah Harry’s video for the song “Rapture,” and produced his own record, “Beat Bop,” now recognized as an early hip-hop classic. He was close friends with the hip-hop impresario and first MTV veejay Fab 5 Freddy, and he briefly dated Madonna.When Basquiat turned his energies to painting full time, music became a subject in his art. Jazz musicians and singers—among them Miles Davis, Max Roach, Billie Holiday, and Fats Waller—figured prominently in his paintings from 1983 to 1985. He especially loved bebop, a style that originated in the 1940s and emphasized free, rhythmic improvisation. One of its leading innovators, Charlie Parker, was Basquiat’s most cherished cultural icon.With its combination of music, dynamic wordplay, performance, and graffiti writing, Basquiat’s art embodied the hip-hop movement during its infancy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many of those who knew him have spoken of Basquiat’s ability to soak up information, and in true hip-hop fashion, he incorporated what he needed: his pop poetry evokes the emcee. The lists of words—cut, pasted, recycled, and repeated—function like beats, controlling the composition. And Basquiat approached the process of making art like a deejay: culling text, symbols, imagery, and styles from disparate sources and mixing them into something completely original.
Created in 1982–83, these thirty-two drawings were acquired from Basquiat as a single group, and they reveal the artist working out his ideas on paper. We catch a glimpse of his creative method: the sequencing of unconnected ideas; the practice of building up dense patterns of images and texts by transcribing from various illustrated books; the interest in history, science, commerce, and popular culture; and the development of slogans and texts from found and invented elements. Especially, we can see here how Basquiat deliberately honed a technique that might be called “suggestive incoherence,” in which he created images that are intentionally confusing in order to hold the viewer’s attention longer.Basquiat did not make preparatory sketches as part of the planning process for his paintings, and his drawings are considered independent works of art in their own right.
In 1984, Basquiat began pursuing a new layering technique. Instead of taking his drawings to the photocopy shop, he took them to a silkscreen studio, where they were transferred onto screens and printed onto the canvas. He then worked from this base—painting, drawing, and adding more silkscreened images to build the picture surface into a complex, multilayered network of interrelated images, all connected by rich, tactile brushwork.Basquiat worked at several silkscreen studios, including Andy Warhol’s. In fact, the two artists collaborated on a series of paintings in late 1984. It is in these works that we see the fundamental difference between the two artists: Warhol coolly chooses actual images from the existing world to reproduce photomechanically on canvas, while Basquiat reinvents and reinterprets them with marks made by his own hand.
New York in the 1980s was the epicenter of a new awareness of multiculturalism, and Basquiat, who was himself of many cultures, thrived in that scene. With a Puerto Rican mother and a Haitian father, the African Diaspora (the dispersal of African peoples and cultures around the world) was something he lived daily. In 1984, this cultural heritage began to emerge explicitly in Basquiat’s work, with a group of paintings exploring the concept of the griot.In many West African cultures, the griot (pronounced “GREE-oh”) is a revered figure who perpetuates a community’s history and traditions through storytelling and song. Basquiat’s griots feature grimacing expressions, elliptical eyes, and smooth heads. But Basquiat paints the griot in various guises. Sometimes the figure takes on a Latino identity, and its name is then given a Spanish spelling (grillo). Elsewhere in Basquiat’s art, it merges into a talismanic being that is associated with Haiti and New Orleans. These griot-related figures, derived from different aspects of Basquiat’s expansive heritage, become a single, protean symbol of diversity.
Basquiat continued to develop new pictorial ideas throughout his short career, but by the mid-1980s he had begun to use heroin, and his energy waned. He alienated close friends, such as Andy Warhol, who were concerned about his drug abuse, and for the first time, he produced some works that appeared unfinished and repetitive.The news of Warhol’s unexpected death in February 1987 profoundly affected Basquiat. He transformed his grief into a burst of creativity, evident in the paintings displayed in this section. Many of these works make explicit, even apocalyptic, references to death. Yet Basquiat was painting with new confidence, maturity, and innovation. The sense of renewed vigor so evident here makes Basquiat’s own death of an accidental drug overdose eighteen months later, following an attempt at rehabilitation, all the more tragic
New Again: JeanMichel Basquiat
ABOVE: PORTRAIT OF A 21-YEAR-OLD JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT BY 95-YEAR-OLD JAMES VAN DER ZEE, THE UNOFFICIAL PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE FROM 1916 THROUGH THE LATE 1960s.
Tonight is the Brooklyn Museum’s annual Brooklyn Artists Ball, an event which always reminds us of one of our old friends, the late Jean-Michel Basquiat. The Brooklyn Museum was, as Basquiat told us in the interview below, Basquiat’s favorite museum (though growing up in Brooklyn himself, he might have been a little biased). We thought we’d revisit this interview between art curator and critic Henry Geldzahler and Jean-Michel.
At only 23, Basquiat was already far into his art career—he began as a graffiti artist in 1976, working with a high-school friend under the name SAMO. By 1983 Basquiat had moved onto painting and was something of the toast of the town collaborating with our founder, Andy Warhol, appearing in Blondie music videos (“Rapture“) and showing alongside artists like Julian Schnabel. He also had a music project, Gray, with some other downtown ’80s scenesters, such as Vincent Gallo. In 1988, Basquiat died from a heroin overdose—a fact that makes many of his answers in this interview particularly upsetting.
Art: From subways to Soho
JEAN MICHEL BASQUIAT by HENRY GELDZAHLER
In 1976 Jean Michel Basquiat began “writing” his unique brand of graffiti throughout Manhattan under the name of “SAMO.” His work from the first consisted of conceptual, enigmatic combinations of words and symbols, executed with the curt simplicity of late Roman inscription. Graduating from subway walls to canvas and from the streets of New York to the galleries of Soho, Basquiat took the art world by storm with his rampageous one man show at Annina Nosei’s gallery, in early 1982. His first one man show, perhaps ironically, was not in New York but in Italy, in Modena. Exhibitions since then have included Documenta 7 and Fun Gallery, New York.
HENRY GELDZAHLER: Did you ever think of yourself as a graffiti artist, before the name became middle-class luxury?JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: I guess I did.GELDZAHLER: Did you work in the streets and subways because you didn’t have materials or because you wanted to communicate?BASQUIAT: I wanted to build up a name for myself.GELDZAHLER: Territory? Did you have an area that was yours?BASQUIAT: Mostly downtown. Then the “D” train.GELDZAHLER: How’d you pick the “D” train?BASQUIAT: That was the one I went home on, from downtown to Brooklyn.GELDZAHLER: But you knew Brooklyn wasn’t going to be your canvas from the beginning. Manhattan was where the art goes on, so that was where you were going to work?BASQUIAT: Well, SAMO wasn’t supposed to be art, really.GELDZAHLER: What were the materials?BASQUIAT: Black magic marker.GELDZAHLER: On anything? Or something that was already prepared and formed?BASQUIAT: The graffiti? No, that was right on the streets.
GELDZAHLER: Did you have any idea about breaking into the art world?
GELDZAHLER: But when I saw you, you were about 17 years old. You were showing me drawings, that was four or five years ago… I was in the restaurant, WPA, in Soho.
BASQUIAT: Yeah, I remember.
GELDZAHLER: So you already had work to show?
BASQUIAT: No, I was selling thesepostcards, and somebody told me you had just gone into this restaurant. It took me about 15 minutes to get up the nerve to go in there. I went in and you said, “Too young.” And I left.
GELDZAHLER: Cruel, but true.
BASQUIAT: It was true at the time.
GELDZAHLER: Were you furious?
BASQUIAT: Sort of. I mean, too young for what, you know? But I could see, it was lunchtime. “Who is this kid?”
GELDZAHLER: The next time I saw you was about two years later above a loan shop at the entrance to the Manhattan bridge. I was very impressed; I was amazed, especially by the picture I got. Is that going to fall apart? Should I have it restuck, or put it behind glass?
BASQUIAT: Anything is fine. A little gold frame.
GELDZAHLER: What was your idea of art as a kid? Did you go to the Brooklyn Museum?
BASQUIAT: Yeah, my mother took me around a lot.
GELDZAHLER: Did you have any idea what Harlem Art was?
BASQUIAT: No, I wanted to be a cartoonist when I was young.
GELDZAHLER: When I first met you, you mentioned Franz Kline.
BASQUIAT: Yeah, he’s one of my favorites.
GELDZAHLER: I heard you’d been spreading a rumor that you wanted to have a boxing match with Julian Schnabel.
BASQUIAT: This was before I’d met him. And one day he came into Annina’s gallery. And I asked him if he wanted to spar.
GELDZAHLER: He’s pretty strong.
BASQUIAT: Oh yeah, I thought so. But I figured even if I lost, I couldn’t look bad.
GELDZAHLER: Whose paintings do you like?
BASQUIAT: The more I paint the more I like everything.
GELDZAHLER: Do you feel a hectic need to get a lot of work done?
BASQUIAT: No. I just don’t know what else to do with myself.
GELDZAHLER: Painting is your activity, and that’s what you do…
BASQUIAT: Pretty much. A little socializing.
GELDZAHLER: Do you still draw a lot?
BASQUIAT: Yesterday was the first time I’d drawn in a long time. I’d been sort of living off this pile of drawings from last year, sticking them onto paintings.
GELDZAHLER: Are you drawing on good paper now or do you not care about that?
BASQUIAT: For a while I was drawing on good paper, but now I’ve gone back to the bad stuff. I put matte medium on it. If you put matte medium on it, it seals up, so it doesn’t really matter.
GELDZAHLER: I’ve noticed in the recent work you’ve gone back to the idea of not caring how well stretched it is; part of the work seems to be casual…
BASQUIAT: Everything is well stretched even though it looks like it may not be.
GELDZAHLER: All artists, or all art movements, when they want to simplify and get down to basics, eliminate color for a while, then go back to color. Color is the rococo stage, and black and white is the constructed, bare bones. You swing back and fourth very quickly in your work. Are you aware of that?
BASQUIAT: I don’t know.
GELDZAHLER: If the color gets too beautiful, you retreat from it to something angrier and more basic…
BASQUIAT: I like the ones where I don’t paint as much as others, where it’s just a direct idea.
GELDZAHLER: Like the one I have upstairs.
BASQUIAT: Yeah. I don’t think there’s anything under that gold paint. Most of the pictures have one or two paintings under them. I’m worried that in the future, parts might fall off and some of the heads underneath might show through.
GELDZAHLER: They might not fall off, but paint changes in time. Many Renaissance paintings have what’s called “pentimenti,” changes where the “ghost” head underneath which was five degrees off will appear.
BASQUIAT: I have a painting where somebody’s holding a chicken, and underneath the chicken is somebody’s head.
GELDZAHLER: It won’t fall off exactly like that. The whole chicken won’t fall off.
BASQUIAT [laughs]: Oh.
GELDZAHLER: Do you do self-portraits?
BASQUIAT: Every once in a while, yeah.
GELDZAHLER: Do you think your family is proud of you?
BASQUIAT: Yeah, I guess so.
GELDZAHLER: What do you think of James Vander Zee?
BASQUIAT: Oh, he was really great. He has a great sense of the “good” picture.
GELDZAHLER: What kind of a camera did he use?
BASQUIAT: Old box camera that had a little black lens cap on the front that he’d take off to make the exposure, then put it back on.
GELDZAHLER: Do you find your personal life, your relationships with various women get into the work?
BASQUIAT: Occasionally, when I get mad at a woman, I’ll do some great, awful painting about her…
GELDZAHLER: Which she knows is about her, or is it a private language?
BASQUIAT: Sometimes. Sometimes not.
GELDZAHLER: Do you point it out?
BASQUIAT: No, sometimes I don’t even know it.
GELDZAHLER: Do friends point it out to you, or does it just become obvious as time goes on?
BASQUIAT: It’s just those little mental icons of the time…
BASQUIAT: There was a woman I went out with… I didn’t like her after awhile of course, so I started painting her as Olympia. At the very end I cut the maid off.
GELDZAHLER: What’s harder to get along with, girls or dealers?
BASQUIAT: They’re about the same actually.
GELDZAHLER: Did you have a good time when you went to Italy, for the first show, in Modena?
BASQUIAT: It was fun because it was the first time, but financially it was pretty stupid.
GELDZAHLER: It was a rip-off?
BASQUIAT: Yeah, he really got a bulk deal.
GELDZAHLER: Has he re-sold them? Are they out in the world?
BASQUIAT: I guess so.
GELDZAHLER: Do you ever see them? Would you recognize them?
BASQUIAT: I recognize them. I’m a little shocked when I see them.
GELDZAHLER: Are there Italian words in them?
BASQUIAT: Mostly skelly-courts and strike zones.
GELDZAHLER: What’s a skelly-court?
BASQUIAT: It’s a street game with a grid.
GELDZAHLER: What about alchemical works, like tin and lead…
BASQUIAT: I think that worked.
GELDZAHLER: I think so, too.
BASQUIAT: Because I was writing gold on all this stuff, and I made all this money right afterwards.
GELDZAHLER: What about words like tin and asbestos?
BASQUIAT: That’s alchemy, too.
GELDZAHLER: What about the list of pre-Socratic philosophers in the recent paintings, and the kinds of materials which get into your painting always, that derive not so much from Twombly, as from the same kind of synthetic thinking. Is that something you’ve done from your childhood, lists of things?
BASQUIAT: That was from going to Italy, and copying names out of tour books, and condensed histories.
GELDZAHLER: Is the impulse to know a lot, or is the impulse to copy out things that strike you?
BASQUIAT: Well, originally I wanted to copy the whole history down, but it was too tedious so I just stuck to the cast of characters.
GELDZAHLER: So they’re kinds of indexes to encyclopedias that don’t exist?
BASQUIAT: I just like the names.
GELDZAHLER: What is your subject matter?
BASQUIAT [pause]: Royalty, heroism, and the streets.
GELDZAHLER: But your picture of the streets is improved by the fact that you’ve improved the streets.
BASQUIAT: I think I have to give the crown to Keith Haring. I haven’t worked in the streets for so long.
GELDZAHLER: How about the transition from SAMO back to Jean-Michel, was that growing up?
BASQUIAT: SAMO I did with a high school friend, I just didn’t want to keep the name.
GELDZAHLER: But it became yours…
BASQUIAT: It was kind of like… I was sort of the architect of it. And there were technicians who worked with me.
GELDZAHLER: Do you like showing in Europe and the whole enterprise of having a dealer invite you, going over and looking at the show…
BASQUIAT: Usually, I just have to go myself and I have to pay my own ticket ’cause I don’t know how to ask diplomatically…
GELDZAHLER: You are a bit abrupt.
BASQUIAT: And then I usually want to go with friends so I have to pay for them as well.
GELDZAHLER: So you end up not making very much money out of your show.
BASQUIAT: It’s okay.
GELDZAHLER: Do you like the idea of being where the paintings are?
BASQUIAT: Usually I have to check up on these dealers and make sure they’re showing the right work. Or just make sure that it’s right.
GELDZAHLER: I like the drawings that are just lists of things.
BASQUIAT: I was making one in an airplane once. I was copying some stuff out of a Roman sculpture book. This lady said, “Oh, what are you studying.” I said, “It’s a drawing.”
GELDZAHLER: I think “What are you studying” is a very good question to ask—because your work does reflect an interest in all kinds of intellectual areas that go beyond the streets and it’s the combination of the two.
BASQUIAT: It’s more of a name-dropping thing.
GELDZAHLER: It’s better than that. You could say that about Twombly, and yet somehow he drops the name from within. With your work it isn’t just a casual list. It has some internal cohesion with what you are.
BASQUIAT: My favorite Twombly is Apollo and the Artist, with the big “Apollo” written across it.
GELDZAHLER: When I first met you, you were part of the club scene… the Mudd Club.
BASQUIAT: Yeah, I went there every night for two years. At that time I had no apartment, so I just used to go there to see what my prospects were.
GELDZAHLER: You used it like a bulletin board.
BASQUIAT: More like an answering service.
GELDZAHLER: You got rid of your telephone a while ago. Was that satisfying?
BASQUIAT: Pretty much. Now I get all these telegrams. It’s fun. You never know what it could be. “You’re drafted,” “I have $2,000 for you.” It could be anything. And because people are spending more money with telegrams they get right to the point. But now my bell rings at all hours of the night. I pretend I’m not home…
GELDZAHLER: Do you want a house?
BASQUIAT: I haven’t decided what part of the world isn’t going to get blown-up so I don’t know where to put it.
GELDZAHLER; So, you do want to live…
BASQUIAT: Oh yeah, of course I want to live.
GELDZAHLER: Do you want to live in the country or the city?
BASQUIAT: The country makes me more paranoid, you know? I think the crazy people out there are little crazier.
GELDZAHLER: They are, but they also leave you alone more.
BASQUIAT: I thought they’d be looking for you more, in the country. Like hunting, or something.
GELDZAHLER: Have you ever slept in the country, over night?
BASQUIAT: When I said I was never gonna go home again I headed to Harriman State Park with two valises full of canned food…
GELDZAHLER: In the summer?
BASQUIAT: It was in the fall.
GELDZAHLER: And you slept overnight?
BASQUIAT: Yeah, two or three days.
GELDZAHLER: Were you scared?
BASQUIAT: Not much. But yeah, in a way. You know, you see some guys with a big cooler full of beer. And it gets really dark in the woods, you don’t know where you are.
GELDZAHLER: Do you like museums?
BASQUIAT: I think the Brooklyn is my favorite, but I never go much.
GELDZAHLER: What did you draw as a kid, the usual stuff?
BASQUIAT: I was a really lousy artist as a kid. Too abstract expressionist; or I’d draw a big ram’s head, really messy. I’d never win painting contests. I remember losing to a guy who did a perfect Spiderman.
GELDZAHLER: But were you satisfied with your own work?
BASQUIAT: No, not at all. I really wanted to be the best artist in the class, but my work had a really ugly edge to it.
GELDZAHLER: Was it anger?
BASQUIAT: There was a lot of ugly stuff going on at the time in my family.
GELDZAHLER: Is there anger in your work now?
BASQUIAT: It’s about 80% anger.
GELDZAHLER: But it’s also humor.
BASQUIAT: People laugh when you fall on your ass. What’s humor?
THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE JANUARY 1983 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.