Past Masters: Jean-Michel Basquiat
The following excerpts are from Jean-Michel Basquiat by Richard Marshall (exhibition guide published by the Whitney Museum of Art, 1992):
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. It is now time to return to that art in order to assess, chronologically and analytically, Basquiat's brief but highly productive nine-year career. This measured approach reveals an artistic statement that is clear, intentional, and cohesive, with conscious references to earlier art and a number of recurring subjects and images. These include autobiography, black history, and popular culture, as well as graffiti-related signs and symbols, and carefully chosen words and phrases. . . .
Basquiat's work typifies a synthesis of the many artistic sensibilities and sociopolitical attitudes that coexisted in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Imagistic painting, which reemerged after a long phase of Minimalist domination in the work of artists such as Philip Guston ad Susan Rothenberg, had assimilated an Abstract Expressionist approach to painting yet allowed recognizable subject matter. By the early 1980s, Francesco Clemente, Jonathan Borofsky, and David Salle had introduced a more personalized and subjective figurative imagery, often appropriated from non-art sources and featuring psychological and conceptual undertones. And Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger had made pointed sociopolitical phrases about racism, sexism, and inequality the subject of their art. The art world thus offered a sympathetic atmosphere for Basquiat's painterly, figurative, and political inclinations.
Basquiat looked to the vocabulary of modern art for the technical means and painterly styles that would accommodate his message. His earliest works have a strong affinity to those of Jean Dubuffet -- not necessarily a conscious mimicking, but a related and compatible Art Brut sensibility. Dubuffet, believing that true art could only be found outside the traditions of the artistic elite, sought inspiration in the art of children and the insane. Both artists painted awkward and rough observations of city life, rejecting perspective for an intentionally naive presentation of space. . . . Dubuffet also turned for imagery to the city's pavements and walls, as in Wall with Inscriptions (1945), whereas Basquiat's original canvas was the walls themselves. . . .
By late 1980, Basquiat had given up spray-panting SAMO phrases on city walls, had found his first semi-fixed address and a small amount of money to buy art supplies, and set out to establish himself as an artist. Simultaneous with his exploration of the painting styles and techniques of earlier, established artists, Basquiat was evolving his own ambitious vocabulary of symbolic marks, subjects, and themes. His works of 1980-81 take New York City as their subject, specifically urban street life. For the previous three years, Basquiat had by choice been living in the streets, in abandoned buildings or with various friends, never having a home or a studio of his own. . . .
Some of these early paintings are signed SAMO©, indicating that Basquiat had not yet fully rejected his previous persona as street artist. But it is appropriate since these works pay homage to street life and street existence. . . .
Central to Basquiat's art is the human figure. He quickly abandoned the automobile and cityscape as subject, and introduced his unique depiction of man, specifically black man. Basquiat's earliest figures are frontal and flat, of stick-figure simplicity, and often partially reveal their internal skeleton and organs. . . .
The visual collaging of many images and words in one work is a common feature of Basquiat's art, as is the physical collaging of paper elements. In his earliest paintings, . . . Basquiat had glued torn bits of paper to the surface to achieve a textured and rough look. The practice of collaging his own drawings and color photocopies of details of his drawings becomes more frequent, culminating in a group of works from 1984-85. . . . The entire surface of these large canvases is covered with color photocopies, on which Basquiat overpainted large masklike heads or black crows and rats. In an elaboration of his collaging method, Basquiat then began using silkscreen, which allowed him to make even denser surfaces and gave him more flexibility in placement and scale of images. . . .
In addition, Basquiat incorporated symbols of childhood and juvenile popular culture, such as cartoons and comic books; cartoon and comic characters; comic book joke tricks; and junk foods. . . . Integrated into this modern-day world are drawn or painted references to African, Aztec, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures and directly appropriated images from Manet, Degas, Rodin, Matisse, Ingres, and Leonardo. Much of this was derived from Basquiat's growing library of world history and art history books and his more frequent European travels. He chose freely from these sources with the same pointed determination and ease that he chose references to black athletes or cartoon characters. Manet's Olympia held special interest because of the black maid at Olympia's side; the Aztec female earth goddess, Tlazolteotl, intrigued him because she is also referred to as the goddess of vice and "filth eater," personifying cruel and evil forces; and "black face soap," a joke item advertised in the back of comic boks, represented the internalized racism characteristic of American society and promulgated in young readers. . . .
A shift in painting style also characterizes [his] late paintings. The broad, jagged swatches of color in layers of under- and overpainting, with whole areas of drawn and painted images canceled out, have given way to monochromatic fields or isolated figures. The figures Basquiat uses in these works are also flatter, less detailed, and more cartoonlike. . . .
The altered style, subject, and mood of these late paintings shows Basquiat exploring a new vocabulary. Understandably resistant to being identified only with his familiar masklike heads, skeletal black men, and tributes to famous black musicians, he was seeking out new means of visually expressing his deep-felt concerns with issues of race, identity, and aesthetics. Yet this desire to grow artistically and to challenge himself and his viewers' expectations was mitigated by his feelings of disillusionment and loss, all exacerbated by his drug dependency. Riding with Death (1988), a powerful and moving image with an eerie foreboding message, was one of Basquiat's last works. Based on an allegorical drawing by Leonardo, the painting depicts a thin and loosely delineated black figure (again a surrogate self-portrait) sitting astride a bridled skeleton (another of Basquiat's recurring skeletons, but this time representing Death), on a brushy, monochromatic ground. The painting and its title are a direct reference to the artist and his precarious physical and emotional position. Where he had previously seen himself with death only as a potential threat . . . Basquiat now pictures himself riding death, with the final destination understood but unspoken.
Copyright 2004, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont