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Jean-Michel Basquiat & the Art of (Dis)Empowerment,* 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 he left behind was prodigious. In a tribute at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York in 1996, his work was described as “remarkable in its diversity of subject matter, materials and quality.” Basquiat’s greatness, according to the tribute catalogue, “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.”

Jean-Michel-Basquiat-by-Andy-Warhol-via-NY-Daily-NewsI’ve quoted this passage for a number of reasons. Firstly because it rightfully points to the virtuosity of Basquiat’s performance 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 – and that the worth of Basquiat’s art is founded on this. In a similar vein, Phoebe Hoban, in her less-than-reliable biography, A Quick Killing in Art, described Basquiat as “the Jimi Hendrix of the art world” (presumably because Basquiat and Hendrix were both black). Others, like art dealer Larry Gagosian, have exhibited a condescension and less subtle racism that characterised Basquiat’s relationship during his lifetime 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 aback by it, and kind of put off.”[1]

In his catalogue preface for the 1999 Basquiat retrospective at the Museo Revoltella in Trieste, Bruno Bischofberger (Basquiat’s Swiss dealer), echoing these perceptions, 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] Implicit 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 Afro-American diaspora – in contradistinction to the European anthropological fetishism of the surrealists and the “naïve” 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 art in general, 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 the exception – the other – or as a kind of metonym for the dark continent itself, recalling all the worst clichés of centuries of Anglo-American bigotry.

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 work in a way that defines the artist within the limited scope of ethnicity and challenges the artist’s right of refusal to act out the assigned “primitive” stereotype. 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 somehow qualified. Davvetas implies a wide-spread belief that Basquiat’s success derived from his relationship with Andy Warhol, while accounts such as Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film call into question Basquiat’s authenticity by casting aspersions on precisely the type of street-cred Davvetas sets up as the only available criterion for gauging “black art.”

The actual details of Basquiat’s life are fairly straight-forward. 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 Basquiat sought to conceal this less than underprivileged background in the hope of trading on the popular view of black disempowerment (however real that may be), there’s little to support this view beyond a natural aversion to the class- and race-baiting to which Basquiat was routinely subjected. Basquiat himself was candid about his early life, put on frank display in a piece called Untitled (Biography) (1983)[4] – though he went to pains to distinguish between his personal biography and the collective identity imposed from both sides of the racial divide. Reluctant to involve himself in socalled “black” politics, he often found himself as estranged from the up town “black” artist communities as from the “white” establishment. Basquiat was particularly ambivalent to the racialising of his art, even if elements of racial politics are accommodated within that art.

That Jean-Michel Basquiat’s skin colour was black did not mean that his work belonged to any such category as “black art,” and this was a prejudice Basquiat was made to struggle against throughout his career. 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 argued 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.

In large part, this was because of an enforced racialism, a type of critical apartheid that caused American artists with darker skin colour to be discussed, if at all, in a separate category from artists in general, forming a type of ghetto of African-American studies, precisely the sort of ethnological marginalising that Basquiat rejected. The problem has been that in breaching this apartheid enclosure, Basquiat’s art came to be saddled with the charge of art market faddishness, an object of the passing fascination of the “white” art establishment with a “black” genius child – more evidence, if evidence were needed, of the fickleness of an industry concerned more with celebrity than with enduring talent. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

To be sure, 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 ’80s painters, critics have tended to neglect the genuine 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. Robert Hughes (in his book and PBS television series American Visions), seemingly distracted by the conjunction of events (black artist, ’80s consumerism), was reduced to name-calling, referring to Basquiat as “Jean-Michel Basketcase.” Effectively the same thing, the Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists at the time labelled Basquiat 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 that deeply engaged with both western and non-western art history. Others, like Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss, simply failed 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, despite the fact that Foster devotes whole sections of his book to “commoditisation,” “primitivism,” and Andy Warhol (with whom Basquiat collaborated and exhibited).

The labelling of Basquiat as a graffiti or street artist doubtless has more to do with racial politics than with art criticism. Basquiat’s work itself exhibits few characteristics of conventional graffiti and what resemblance there may be is based largely upon the use of textual elements in his work (similar to those Krauss has preferred to acknowledge in the work of Cy Twombly). 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 slogans and symbols with a Magic Marker on walls in lower Manhattan, signing them with the tag SAMO© (“same ol’ shit”), with the copyright symbol mocking the typographics of corporate labels.[5] Of course there was nothing innocent in what Basquiat and Diaz were doing – they didn’t tag indiscriminately, but predominantly around SoHo and the East Village (the fashionable bohemia of the time), even at gallery openings where they were likely to be spotted by art world taste-makers – which they were. These texts were tinged with a certain irony for the celebrity-in-waiting. Lines like “Riding around in Daddy’s limousine with trust fund money” only heightened the ambiguity of Basquiat’s later relationship to the moneyed art world establishment.

Basquiat with William Burroughs and Debbie HarryWhile SAMO© was beginning to get people’s attention downtown, Basquiat was busy inventing himself on the East Village scene. Inspired by John Cage he played guitar (with a metal file) and the synthesiser in a noise band called Gray (named in honour of the anatomist). He worked at odd jobs, fashioned junk jewellery, crashed parties, painted on clothing, appeared in an underground film with Debbie Harry, and was a regular at the Mud Club and the new wave Club 57. Usually broke, Basquiat made his first paintings on salvaged sheet metal and other materials foraged from trash cans or found abandoned on the sidewalk, including an old refrigerator. These were described as both “childlike” and “menacing” – “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.”[6]

In the summer of 1980, Basquiat was invited to participate in what was later known as the “Times Square Show,” where he displayed a wall covered in spray paint and brushwork. One critic described the installation as combining Willem de Kooning 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”[7]). But there were perhaps more notable similarities between Basquiat’s work at this time and the collaborative word paintings of Larry Rivers and Kenneth Koch, such as “New York in the ’50s” (1960).

Regarding the hybridity of Basquiat’s style and materials, 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 a previous transitional figure, Robert Rauschenberg, whose work fit uneasily with the dominant schools of painting in the 1950s and ’60s (Ab-Ex and Pop) just as Basquiat’s did with the Neo-Expressionism of the 1980s (with whose major practitioners – Kiefer, Baselitz, Schnabel, Clemente – it seems in retrospect to have had little or nothing in common), particularly in the use of textual and visual irony.

Basquiat Savonarola

Basquiat’s prolific verbal and visual fragments are often painted in a mixture of black and bold, saturated colours. Avowed influences for Basquiat also included the work of Picasso, African masks, children’s art, hip-hop and jazz. The outcome itself has been called a type of visual syncopation, or “eye rap.” A good example is Savonarola (1983), described by Robert Farris Thompson as “nothing more or less than a painted fragment of an index.”[8] 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 Rauschenberg, Basquiat’s adherence to a cubist grid points to a synthesis of ideas in direct contradiction of assumptions about spontaneity in Expressionist or neo-primitivist terms. In this, Basquiat’s approach to composition isn’t 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 mediation by the artist which became, to a greater or lesser extent, a signature effect similar to the overprinting and streaking in Warhol’s silk-screened images.

Basquiat’s association with Warhol began well before his recognition as an artist. During the late ’70s 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 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 PS1. 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 rejuvenated 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 naïf” into the habits of art world capitalism and superficial glamour. Basquiat became a target for intense sarcasm in his trademark paint-spattered Armani suits and bare feet – an image which persisted, and which in the minds of some critics symbolised a new form of blaxploitation. There’s no doubt that such criticisms were fuelled by the fact that Basquiat was the first black American artist to achieve international fame.

Basquiat New York Times Magazine coverIn 1995, the 10 February 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.” Fashionable cultural theorist of the time, Dick Hedbige, described the cover as portraying 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] Ethnographic curiosity or designer label – either way the art itself was more often than not concealed beneath the competing nonsense that circulated around Basquiat as a figure, and continue to do so. 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 mythologized 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 distressed serial images (here, the crowns symbols which re-emerge throughout Basquiat’s oeuvre). Elsewhere Basquiat introduced trademark and copyright symbols, contributing to his socalled graffiti texts a critical/satirical edge that may have disconcerted some of his early society patrons.

Basquiat_Jimmy Best 1980In one of his compositions from 1981, entitled TAR TOWN©, there appear the words: JIMMY BEST ON HIS BACK TO THE SUCKERPUNCH OF HIS CHILDHOOD FILES, extracted from an earlier street work from 1980.[14] In Basquiat’s case, it was enough that the “childhood files” be taken to refer to his black and Caribbean 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 inflected by this double-bind linking the black artist to a form of racist commodity fetishism, and there’s something veritably portentous about TAR TOWN© 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©? written above. It was painted soon after the murder of the black spray 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.

basquiat_defaciamentoThere’s 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 routine 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 notorious 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 first 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, was bid up to $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, Basquiat’s work at the Fun Gallery was drastically under-priced, a factor which provided 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.

basquiat stjoelouisThe 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 figures like Malcolm X, Langston Hughes and Marcus Garvey, to 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, ©, 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 was always fraught with contradictions, and the politics it engendered ultimately interfered, detrimentally, in many of his relationships, most notably with Andy Warhol.

Basquiat-Jean-Michel-Warhol-Andy-1984In 1994 Bischofberger commissioned a three-way collaboration between Warhol, Basquiat, and the Italian artist 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 instincts. 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 1985 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, 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 suggested that Basquiat had become too obviously influenced by Warhol, and this prompted Basquiat to try to distance himself from the older artist. Likewise, Victor Bockris in his recent biography of Warhol suggests that by September 1985, when their show of collaborations opened at the 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]

basquiat and warholThe negative reaction by critics to the Warhol-Basquiat show, coupled with the intense speculation surrounding the two artists’ private 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 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 seemed to respond 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 till his death was painted as if anticipating his absent collaborator’s interventions.) At the same time Basquiat exchanged his own technique of colour xeroxing for the use of commercial silk screens, performing 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).

Basquiat_RinsoSimilarly, 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 disturbing, 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©, appearing above and beside three stylised renderings of Negroes, seem to point towards the word SLOGAN© 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 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© written across the front of it), standing beside a schematic, two-dimensional line drawing of a gun-toting bwana in a pith helmet. Basquiat further ironises this depiction in the accompanying text: COLONISATION: PART TWO IN A SERIES and GOOD MONEY IN SAVAGES. A reference to animal skins, in the rendering of $KIN$, implies that the animals being hunted/exploited by the POACHERS/MISSIONARIES are Africans – the successive and antecedent parts of this series being easily deduced from the political subtext of the tableau.

Basquiat_Untitled, 1984In Untitled (1984), the colonialist 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©. 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.

Whatever his fault, Basquiat was resented for his success and trivialised by critics. Fame brought the usual complications, the usual contradictions. Black, young, a hustler and a heroin addict: to many he was merely a stereotype, almost a parody. For some he proved an old adage: die young and leave a beautiful corpse. Perhaps the word corpse, here, needs to be accompanied by a copyright symbol – the evasions and counter-evasions of Basquiat’s work summed-up by so little an irony. If in life he was a dilemma for an art world unused to rubbing shoulders with its conscience, in death Basquiat became that ideal commodity: a cash corpse©.

–Louis Armand

Republished from Louis Armand, The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the Avant-Garde (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2013) 128-146.*


  *   A version of this paper was presented as a lecture at the Department of Comparative Studies, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, 30 August 2000; first published in Litteraria Pragensia 11.21 (2001).

[1]   Phoebe Hoban, 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 in Jean-Michel Basquiat œuvres sur papier (Paris: Fondation Dini Vierny-Musée Maillol, 1997) 153.

[5]   Cf. Dick Hebdige, “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) 68n5. 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 (e.g., samo© 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 American imagination.

[6]   Victor Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol (London: 4th Estate, 1998) 450.

[7]   Harry Geldzahler, “Art: From Subways to SoHo, Jean-Michel Basquiat,” Interview 13 (January, 1983): 46.

[8]   Robert Farris Thompson, “Royalty, Heroism and the Streets: Jean-Michel Basquiat,” The Hearing Eye: Jazz and Blues Influences in African American Visual Art, eds. Graham Lock and David Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 264.

[9]   Hebdige, “Welcome to the Terror Dome,” 62.

[10]   Richard Marshall, “Repelling Ghosts,” Jean-Michel Basquiat, 15.

[11]   Rene Ricard, “The Radiant Child,” Artforum 20 (December 1981): 35-43.

[12]   Rene Ricard, “World Crown©: Bodhisattva with Clenched Mudra,” Jean-Michel Basquiat, 48.

[13]   The Andy Warhol Diaries, ed. Pat Hackett (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989) 610.

[14]   TAR, a pejorative term for Negro, is also an anagram of ART.

[15]   Quoted in Phoebe Hoban, “SAMO© Is Dead: The Fall of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” The New York Times (September 26, 1988): 43.

[16]   Ricard, “World Crown©,” 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, “Art: From Subways to SoHo,” 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]   Vivien Reynor, “Basquiat, Warhol,” The New York Times (September 20, 1985): 91.

[20]   Eleanor Heartney, “Basquiat, Warhol,” Flash Art 125 (December 1985-January 1986): 43.

[21]   Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, 469.

[22]   See Mario Livingstone, “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, “World Crown©,” 47.

About Equus Press

EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.


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"Modernity today is not in the hands of the poets, but in the hands of the cops" // Louis Aragon
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“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” // Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollack, 27 January 1904
January 2015
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