When asked about his frequent use of "carbon" (tar, asbestos), Basquiat shot back, "How black do you think I have to be?"1 Basquiat, quintessential black artist, brilliant rebel whose astronomical rise in the international art market in his 20s, was dead of a heroin over-dose by age 27. During his short lifetime, he produced thousands of paintings and drawings. Driven, talented, full of paradoxes, aware and vulnerable, Basquiat, wild child of his times, is the focus of a blockbuster show, 'Now's the Time,' currently on at the AGO, where over 80 of his paintings and drawings are on display until May 10, 2015.
His blackness, like everything in his life and oeuvre, is entangled with paradoxes. While he would give us each bars of black soap (Black Soap, 1981) so that when we washed we would become blacker, he moved in an almost exclusively white world. Phoebe Hoban, who knew Basquiat and wrote a vivid biography of him:
Perhaps Basquiat, who, at the beginning of his 'public' career as an artist painted his graffiti near SOHO Galleries, always had his eye on becoming a famous artist. "Since I was seventeen," Basquiat said, "I thought I might be a star."
Basquiat was one of the artists who formed a new movement, Neo-Expressionism, that broke through the bland surfaces of Minimalist and Conceptual art of the 60s and 70s by re-introducing the figure and bright, expressionistic colour into paintings. His "canon revolves around single heroic figures: athletes, prophets, warriors, cops, musicians, kings and the artist himself."3 Basquiat himself says, "The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings. I realized I didn't see many paintings with black people in them."4 In his art, there are many references to and explorations of black history, homages to black figures like musicians and boxers and we find fury at the slave trade and black labour in his art, yet the world he moved in, as Hoben elucidated, was largely a white one. Perhaps one of the reasons Basquiat became a successful international artist was that he wanted, not to be a famous Black artist, but a famous artist, and was able, on some level, to divest himself of his colour while maintaining a burning anger at the ironies of discrimination, segregation, and a multitude of racial violences against Black people as the core subject matter of his work.
Basquiat's meteoric rise to fame came with a price the AGO ignores. There are no references to his drug use or the cause of his death anywhere in the AGO tour guide or the mass-market $10. art book of the works in the show.5 It is a bizarre exclusion. The curator of the show, Austrian art historian, curator and critic, Dieter Buchhart, seeks to establish Basquiat's place in art history and locates his work at the crux of important dialogues on black identity and the social forces of discrimination and the way the state sanctions that with various forms of violence towards Black Americans. While I feel Basquiat's art transcends his blackness, it is undeniable that the thrust of his art speaks to and draws upon issues of Black power, empowerment and creativity. Basquiat is a socially conscious black artist whose work remains politically relevant — this is a crucial point and much is made of it in “Now’s the Time.” In 1986, he had a show in the capital of the Ivory Coast and Emmerling conjectures that Basquiat may have been "seeking out an identity that did not reject or ignore his blackness, but accepted it as fundamental."6
"I don't think about art while I work. I try to think about life." Basquiat put the problems of race at the centre of his art. And yet he was somewhat removed from the difficult experience of blackness in America in terms of the ghetto of poverty and street violence. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in a wealthy middle class family. He went to private schools, his father, an accountant, drove a Mercedes. His mother, a New Yorker of Peurto Rican descent, his father, Haitian, separated when he was 8 and within 3 years his mother was admitted to a mental institution, which she would be in and out of many times in the ensuing years. Basquiat was a precocious, gifted child who, taught by his mother, became fluently tri-lingual, speaking and writing English, French and Spanish.
By Grade 10, he had dropped out of school, and left home, citing emotional and physical abuse from his father, and was adopted by a friend's family, couch-surfed and lived sporadically on the streets of New York. While working in the art department of Unique Clothing Warehouse, he became a graffiti artist by night, developing a name, SAMOS (with Al Diaz), spray painting signs and inscriptions that were an epigrammatic street poetry. He created a noise rock band, "Gray." Nowhere do we find an 'art education.' While much is made of a childhood accident that put him in hospital and where he studied Gray's Anatomy (hence the name of his band), a book his mother gave him, and that his mother took him and his sisters to many galleries throughout his childhood, Basquiat is essentially a self-taught artist. He later said, "I don't listen to what art critics say. I don't know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is."
And this is the central paradox of Basquiat for me. Despite being a 'Neo Expressionist' working in the 1980s at the height of Conceptualism, I find that Basquiat's paintings and drawings would be incomprehensible without the critic who provides the cultural contexts and explanations for his work. The painting that the AGO titles this major show with, Now's the Time (1985), is an enormous (235cm), if irregular, wooden circle painted black. On it, Basquiat drew a circle in white oil stick within which he writes, "NOW'S THE TIME" with a © symbol (one of Basquiat's trademark signs) and PRKR (which we learn refers to the bebop musician Charlie Parker) and then there is a very small white circle drawn at the centre (or approximation of). While the painting resembles a large LP album, I found myself questioning it as ‘fine art’ as I stood before this massive icon. It seemed both clever advertising icon and an example of Conceptual art, which is so sparse and empty of form as to rely on a critic and on cultural context to enflesh it with meaning. While I am sure many would disagree with me for saying such a thing about a Basquiat, I had to wonder if someone from a part of the world who knew nothing about Western culture would understand this abstracted icon. That said, it works marvellously as a logo for the show at the AGO.
Could I accept it as concrete poem? Maybe I'd have an easier time with that. He "typically covered" surfaces, canvas, paper, "with text and codes of all kinds: words, letters, numerals, pictograms, logos, map symbols, diagrams and more.”6 The utterances in paint, oil stick and words can be too sparse, though, too abstracted. The most successful Conceptual artists give the critics a simplicity of image that gives the critics free reign to embellish and 'explain.' Basquiat is not exempt from the academic machine that has grown up around this type of art.
I find the reliance on references that are almost fully outside of the frame of the canvas, wood, door in Basquiat's paintings both a source of frustration and enjoyment in reading the text that needs to accompany them because the many references and histories we learn about enriches the experience of his work. With this type of Conceptualism, though, we are often left wondering who the real artist is, the painter or the critic, reviewer, researcher, writer whose language comes alive with their explanations and interpretations of what we see.
There are some metaphors that I do like which describe the notational quality of Basquiat's enscribed and enigmatic drawings and paintings. One is that he is like a matador who invites us to rush towards him only to have him move out of the way as we storm through. Another is what Parker was known for, "suspended accentuating," that he would let beats pass to make a sound stand out. There are many erasures in Basquiat's art. Moments half way to where they might be. What he leaves out, crosses out, paints over, expresses the idea of that painting. It is like inspiration in the middle of the night, things are scribbled, there are brilliant ideas, but the work is never finished. Basquiat, one might say, is not master of the understated but of the not-quite-done, the un-done, which leaves much space for the viewer, critic, teacher, art-lover to tell the story of his paintings according to their own needs and visions. Basquiat said that he did cocaine to stay up all night and paint, and heroin to sleep. Towards the end of his life, he claimed he was doing 100 packets of heroin a day, and so the paintings, we must assume to some extent, are fuelled by a drug-induced intoxication. Basquiat has been described as a megolomaniac who was also deeply vulnerable and who was alone in many ways. While the sense of the not-finished style of his art, the way his paintings (for this viewer) border on incoherence, and his drug-use may have parallels, I find it more intriguing to surmise on his drug use as the method by which he was able to surmount and silence 'long enough' the discriminatory critic within and paint his wild and raw paintings.
Today, as the retrospective at the AGO shows, Basquiat's work has been located firmly in the African diaspora and any critical examination of his work involves important dialogues on racial identity. He has become a figurehead of the success of the Black artist. There is the tremendous paradox of a Black artist who made it in the predominantly white world of high-priced international art, an artist who, while he divested himself of his black compatriots while alive, worked with almost singular passion on disturbing images that reveal the ironies and horrors of Black life in America, and by extension, all Western nations. That said, he will continue to inspire many generations of artists of colour, and he speaks to the rebel in us all.
Besides the typical approaches and apperceptions of Basqiat -- that he fits into the Romantic ideal of the tortured sensitive artist who lives life with a ferocity as if on fire and dies young, the political relevance of his work, and the insidious implication that the art world grabbed Basquiat as a Black mascot and forced him to paint day and night as he was propelled to fame and big money -- what happens in front of a Basquiat painting? We each see something that has relevance to us differently. So, I, too, will enter the arena of his art and describe one of my favourite paintings of his, a very famous one, "Untitled, 1981" (acrylic and oil stick on canvas).
Basquiat's method often is to paint blocks of colour, forms, to un-paint with cover-ups, erasures and so on, or with a pentimento technique of scratching away layers to give glimpses of what's beneath, and then to define the form of the painting, a head or person or cart or car, with a loosely drawn and sometimes quite scribbled outline that may not be complete but suggestive enough in oil stick. There is a writerly quality to the works that he develops in this way due to the oil stick drawn lines, as well as the word or verbal signs he often incorporates into his paintings.
In the "Untitled" head of 1981, however, we do not find lines of oil stick drawing overlaying blocks of colour like doodles of afterthoughts, but, rather, an integration of colour and line. The 'finishing' drawing syncopates with the background in an inter-textual meshing. The painting reveals a pulsing, raw, flayed head around which there is blue and orange, and so I see water and flames. The whole painting is united by a mad coherence. The head brings to mind an Aztec obsidian head of Tezcatlipoca at the British Museum (and later in the AGO show there is a drawing entitled, "Cruel Aztec Gods).
In the spirit of the scribbled, the incomplete, I offer my unedited notes as I stood in front of this painting: 'Drawing an outline over the painting to define the head, flayed head, where the city exists in the innards of the artist's imagination. Doors, tracks, red rivers, picket fences, earth and sun, fire, soot, bony yellow jaw, cut-away buildings like in 'Rear Window.’ Eyes that are different - one gazing in sadness; one quite cyborg and visionary with sun fronds. The stitches around the eye remind me of the scene in 'A Clockwork Orange,' where the eyes are mechanically held open. The ear's strange, like a lump or a landmass. That hair made of sticks or the lines on train tracks on the forehead. Wounds - surgical stitches. Nose black like soot. The head is almost pinned into place on the canvas. Everything stitched or stapled. Surgery. It is a terrifyingly beautiful portrait.'
As I complete this difficult article on the Basquiat show at the AGO, I will share some notes I made before certain paintings - these are not statements, or even sentences. They are not necessarily what I consider Basquiat's 'best,' or even my ‘favourite' works, but are simply ones I stopped and hand-wrote notes on my iPad (which the AGO allowed, and I was at times followed by security guards as they ascertained I was only writing, since photographing and drawing are barred).
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, A Film by Tamra Davis, Arthouse Films, 2010 (highly recommended - with original footage of Basquiat)