Basquiat: The Genius of Combined Simplicity and Intricacy
Basquiat. An incessant paradox. A marginalist who became an icon. Although he was a graffiti artist who strongly opposed the monetisation of art, he is still capable of drawing crowds to the Louis Vuitton Foundation thirty years after his death.
An autopsy of a stunning phenomenon…
Through Basquiat we discover an urban art that thrived through a consecration. This urban art conveyed the growing rejection of conceptual and minimalist art- incapable of representing the youth of the 80s. Street art provided a voice to a dialogue subdued for decades. Communities that were otherwise condemned to silence found a way to express themselves upon inner-city walls. Amongst these communities were African Americans- Basquiat himself included. He added a soul and style to this neo-expressive and revolutionary painting method. An advanced child, he could already read and write at the age of 4 and was fluent in three languages by the age of 8. Gifted but delinquent, he left school definitively at the age of 16. While living off small jobs, he entered New York’s underground movement. There he began to illustrate humorous and enigmatic lines across the metropolitan façade. With his friend Al Diaz, he formed a collective known by their tag ‘Samo’ (pronounced Same-Oh); an acronym for Same Old Shit. Often he reflected on children's illustrations rather than the work of ‘authentic’ artists. His entire work shows a fascination with fast, naïve and instinctive visuals. His contradistinctive side is achieved by associating a heavy subject matter (the financialisation of art and the human being, racism, physical violence, spears, baseball bats, swords, death, etc) and his infantile manner. Voluntary, make no mistake. The proof is evident in the work Dos Cabezas, 1982. In this piece he portrays himself alongside Andy Warhol just after their first meeting. Warhol photographed Basquiat with a Polaroid in the aim of recreating his likeness. Two hours later, Basquiat's assistant, who sprinted on foot as the painting could not fit into a taxi, appeared at the Factory and gave Warhol the barely dry portrait. Warhol responded with dry humour and bitterness; "I'm jealous, he's faster than me.” The speed of the work’s creation, attested by several witnesses, and the likeness of the faces prove how easily Basquiat could have adopted a more conventional style. By capturing just a few key features, he manages to create perfectly characteristic faces. Any object or character that appears in his paintings are significant, essential and a matter of illustrative choice. An illustrative choice comprised of spontaneity, vigour and speed. Nevertheless, were he entirely not satisfied with the final result, he would start over. Like a child, he had a raging impulse to paint. When an idea hit, he grabbed whatever medium available (palisades, doors, old shutters) in order to bring that idea to life. Anything could be his brush, his crayon, his aerosol can or his collage. Thus ensuing many arguments with friends who accommodated him, once having found their doors or fridges repainted à la Basquiat… Always ahead of the game, The Radiant Child met dazzling success: in 1982, Larry Gagosian organised an exhibition of his works. It was completely sold out on the opening evening.
Tendency to Rage
Contrary to what can be derived from his childish stylistic choice, the work of Basquiat requires thorough reflection. Certain iterative symbols form the foundation of his expression: keys, crowns (those of kings, or those formed of thorns for martyrs), economic symbols (10 cent coins, dollars), emblems of power (police, slave traders) or objects of a more morbid theme (crosses, skeletons, graves). Each painting deserves particular attention in order to perceive its entire meaning. Be it minimalist like Untitled (Sugar Ray Robinson) 1982, riddled with notations like Notary (1983), or immediately striking like Untitled (Shériff) 1981. Likewise, Basquiat retained from his graffiti days a sort of scriptural bulimia that seeps into his work. Each text carries a message or an allusion to a famous character. A simple © becomes the symbol of ownership and exploitation. Similarly, Gringo Pilot Anola Gay (1981), black and red bi-chrome, deserves a detailed observation: it recalls the bombing of Hiroshima. The name of the pilot, Paul Tibbets, is tirelessly repeated. Telling, testifying and denouncing.
The artist also liked to blur themes and amalgamate powerful symbols, not necessarily related to each other. A simple game or the noise of a spirit in perpetual exploration? No hypothesis is to be excluded. Basquiat searched to both confuse and to express himself spontaneously; which does not necessarily facilitate the understanding of his work! Throughout the years his repertoire has been embellished with cultural references, various sources, pictograms, symbols, and themes that saturate the canvas such as in Negro Period, 1986. One can almost speak of illustrative poems.
To further his ambiguity, he perpetually denounced the art market. Already a success, in 1982 he agreed to an exhibition at The Fun Gallery in East Village. Sale prices were considerably lower, thus protesting the exploitation and commercialisation of his work. At the time, some of his paintings were yet to be completed, and still gallerists took them to sell. To the point that today, questions remain about their state of completion. Is it really the intentional expression of his will that some parts appear unfinished?
In Obnoxious Liberals, 1982, we see a "NOT FOR SALE" sign next to ‘Sansom’, a biblical slave figure in front of a man wearing a cowboy hat, whose attire is composed of dollars. The symbol of capitalism. The height of denunciation is reached in Five Thousand Dollars, 1982, where the work consists only of its price (5000 dollars) on a black background. It is reduced to nothing at this price. Money has engulfed the art.
He himself declared, his paintings are "80% anger”. And even rage. Rage to denounce the violence, exploitation and martyrdom of African Americans (the crown of thorns), the victims of white oppression (Profit I, 1982) and those murdered by truncheon as in The Death of Michael Stewart, 1985. Alongside the martyrs are the heroes. African American boxers such as Ray Sugar Robinson or Cassius Clay; who held the power to hit and defeat whites in the ring. The black sportsman, like the J.O. of Berlin or Mexico City in 1968, is the embodiment of a political symbol of revolt. A raging desire to denounce the misery he would not stand. From time to time he would slip stacks of notes into the pockets of beggars. A constant contempt for money, an appetite for life, and a desire to tell it…
Emulating Leonardo da Vinci
In addition to his own personal experience, evidence of a visionary are revealed in his collages, inscriptions and repetitions. So avant-garde was the manner of his network, that his repertoire hinted the arrival of the internet. One of his most remarkable paintings, Riding with Death, 1988, was created the year of his death- one year after that of Warhol. It suggests that Basquiat was strongly inspired by Leonardo da Vinci. Undeniably, it evokes Two Allegories of Envy by the master of the Renaissance. His influence is also felt in the composition of many works that depict limbs, such as texts and mentions like Eyes and Teeth.
Vinci also enunciated body parts. Like Vinci, he adorns his characters with crowns and mixes two otherwise unrelated works. It has been said that Basquiat drew body parts and internal organs because he received a book on anatomy at the age of 7. It is possible, but the manner of presentation evokes the spontaneity of Vinci in his notebooks. Basquiat kept his notebooks of life in his work. He establishes various links between the classical and the modern. He cites numerous cultural references, proposing diptychs and triptychs that evoke a form of religiosity, all the while employing contemporary materials.
Through collage, he exerces a sort of visual rap. He samples Vinci's Mona Lisa (him again!), he references the truncated US motto E Pluribus [Unum] in Per Capita, 1981 and he also uses the renowned Superman ’S’ in reference to the hero.Basquiat drew his inspiration from television, comics, the street and his contemporary media thus producing a modern art inspired by classics. An observant glance reveals the extent in which these works, though initially appearing simplistic, are in fact immensely complex. Basquiat knew how to preserve his childlike nature. Hysteria and a conveyance of emotions and obstacles present both a tragic and romantic vision of the world that emanates from an inner universe torn between will and experience. Picasso affirmed: "We must act in painting as in life, directly.” Basquiat explained his art: "When I work on a painting, I do not think about art. I try to think about life.” For him, life and art are constantly intertwined. Art is in life, as life is in art. Thus, the instantaneous and evocative nature of his universally communicative work.