Published  10/06/2005

Basquiat, Brooklyn Museum, New York

Basquiat, Brooklyn Museum, New York

On 11 March 2005, the Brooklyn Museum in New York opened its 'Basquiat' exhibition. Located in the Morris A and Meyer Schapiro wing on the fourth and fifth floors of the museum, the exhibit includes more than 100 works dating from 1979-1988 by Brooklyn-born artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988).

Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat 1985. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo by LIZZIE HIMMEL©

Brooklyn Museum, New York
11 March - 5 June 2005

Remarkably, Basquiat's paintings have been exhibited every year at various venues in the USA and abroad from 1981, when the 20-year-old graffiti artist's work began to be exhibited by important Soho galleries in New York. The exhibition catalogue was written by the four co-curators of the exhibition: Marc Mayer, 'Basquiat' Project Director, formerly the museum's Deputy Director for Art and now Director of the Musée d'art Contemporain de Montréal, Canada; Fred Hoffman, Ahmanson Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Kellie Jones, Assistant Professor of the History of Art and African American Studies programme at Yale University; and Franklin Sirmans, a New York-based independent writer, editor and curator.

Basquiat was born on December 22, 1960, in Brooklyn, where he was raised as a middle-class, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual child of the African diaspora. His father, Gérard, was a black Haitian American and, as a result, the French language was familiar to Basquiat. His mother, Matilde, a black Puerto Rican, was an artist, and her son's artistic inclination undoubtedly came from her. During the mid-1970s, Basquiat lived in Puerto Rico for several years, and Spanish language words appeared in his work from the beginning of his career. Precocious and talented, Basquiat's earliest artistic expressions were encouraged and nurtured by his parents. He was also a frequent visitor to the Brooklyn Museum, where his mother enrolled him as a junior member when he was six years old.

Basquiat's career officially began in 1977, under the pseudonym SAMO, when his spray-painted aphorisms appeared on buildings near clubs and galleries in downtown Manhattan. In these expressions, Basquiat distilled his perceptions of the outside world down to their essence and transformed his observations into pithy text messages. Finally, on 29 April 1979, he revealed himself to be the producer of the SAMO writings. As one of the curators of the exhibition noted, Basquiat's principal concern in his paintings, 'was the direct representation of an African cultural heritage in the artistic tradition of the West.' His paintings also exhibit, 'an exuberant spontaneity' and, 'a firm command of art materials', however they were created. He used acrylic, oil paint stick and spray paint on canvas, linen, metal and paper; and markers, paper collage, crayon and colour transfer on printed paper and on canvas mounted on tied wooden supports, on wood, or on an old door or window.

Basquiat was the artist of a blighted New York City of the 1980s, self-taught and naturally gifted in drawing, painting and composition, composing pictures fearlessly and with neo-Expressionist abandon. As Project Director, Marc Mayer wrote in the exhibition catalogue, Basquiat used art, 'to process what he knew about history, about the cultural richness of the African Diaspora and his Caribbean roots specifically, and about the epic historical struggle of African Americans. He knew about music, especially jazz and nascent hip-hop, and about sports, particularly boxing and baseball,' and, 'he celebrated the black musicians and athletes who inspired him by painting dedicatory works' to them with an art brut sensibility.

One of Basquiat's greatest strengths, apparent in the paintings in this exhibition, is his use of colour in the service of his figurative and narrative agenda. As Mayer noted, he used 'unmixed colour structurally, with direct and theatrically ham-fisted brushwork...' He liked a saturated, subtropical palette with 'sunny Floridian pinks, apple green, kindergarten yellow and wan pastel aqua' as well as bright, strong hues but also dark and murky ones. He also used colour to make random doodles, scrolling and clumsy smears. But although 'colour holds his pictures together, his paintings are drawn as much as painted with quick, confident, linear strokes or scratched into the wet colour with the handle of a brush.' He also glued his drawings, or photocopied multiples of them, to canvas and simply drew over and around them in paint and with larger gestures. He used silk screens to transfer his drawings to canvas.

Mayer also indicates in the catalogue, and in labels in the exhibition, that the core technique of Basquiat's type of communication since his adolescence, as the graffiti poet SAMO, was to keep the viewer in a state of half-knowing, mystery-within-familiarity. The viewer could read his pictures without strenuous effort as far as the words, images, colours and construction were concerned but not actually know the point that they made since the deepest levels of meaning were obscured. In Mayer's words, Basquiat 'painted a calculated incoherence', endlessly crossing out words, writing them again, correcting, emphasising and obliterating. 'He used body parts, machine parts, parts of speech, figures, groups, cartoons, exclamatory symbols, declarations, official seals, farmyard animals, trailing lines, graphs, numbers, scientific diagrams, formulas and countless orphaned words.' Many of his best paintings are full of words as well as images. 'A number of them are made up of words alone - some are brilliantly controlled psuedo-gibberish although they even feel like real information; some are thick with words that appear related to each other logically but never progress beyond a state of raw expression and teasing suggestion.' Mayer claims that Basquiat's use of text in his paintings 'amounts to turning the propaganda of authority back on itself.'

Basquiat used the technique and chose the freedom enjoyed by graffiti artists, who painted in the New York subways during the 1970s and 1980s - and still do to this day - on the walls of buildings throughout the city, to create large movable paintings and drawings that could be exhibited in galleries and museums and acquired by collectors. Although not recognised as such by the co-curators of the exhibition or even contemporary art critics, Basquiat became a 'graffiti' artist of the 1980s and was immediately recognised as embodying a new artistic spirit. His personal style had fully matured by the age of 22, and before he was 25 years old, his name was known throughout the contemporary art communities of North America, Europe and Japan. His work was widely admired from his very first exhibition and it continues to have financial success today. Just recently, in a New York auction, one of his paintings sold for over a million dollars.

The Brooklyn Museum exhibit, which is organised chronologically, takes visitors through Basquiat's eight years of painting from 1979-1980 to 1988, when, as a heroin addict, he died at the age 27 on 12 August 1988, from an overdose of drugs. His earliest painting, dating from 1979-1980, is a relatively small work entitled 'Untitled (We have decided...)', executed in acrylic, blood, ink and paper collage on paper. This piece is now in the collection of Enrico Navarra.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Head 1981. Acrylic and mixed media on canvas 81 x 69 1/4 in. (205.7 x 175.9 cm). The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Los Angeles

Basquiat's major paintings of 1981 include 'Untitled (Head)', acrylic and oil paint stick on canvas [81 1/2' x 69 1/4'], in the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Los Angeles, which Basquiat began in the early months of 1981. The piece is reproduced as the front cover of the catalogue. It depicts an oversized head that extends across the pictorial field. In this work, Basquiat shows little regard for either physiognomic accuracy or individual likeness. As its label and its mention in the catalogue by Fred Hoffman describe, Basquiat emphasised the expressive qualities of the head and included the left upper and lower teeth, the left ear, both eyes, the nose, a suggestion of hair and 'the subtle neural pathways connecting the sense organs to their internal processor and ultimately capturing the fluidity between external and internal or the complex, living processes connecting seeing, hearing, smelling and knowing'. Hoffman added that this work also introduces 'the unique X-ray-like vision Basquiat brought to his subjects, breaking down the dichotomy between external and internal and revealing the innermost aspects of psychic life and a concern for spiritual truth.'

Two other major works of 1981 are 'Acque Pericolose' (or 'Poison Oasis' as the work was often called), acrylic, oil paint stick and spray paint on canvas [66' x 96'], in the Schorr Family Collection, on long-term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum, and 'Per Capita', acrylic and oil paint stick on canvas [80' x 50'], in the Stephanie and Peter Brant Foundation, Greenwich, Connecticut. 'Acque Pericolose' depicts a nude, haloed, black male figure with long, flowing dreadlocks and arms folded across his chest. The single figure is placed in a vaguely defined, but rich, atmospheric landscape setting, midway between a coiled snake and a seemingly decomposing cow with two flies hovering over the remains of its head. Hoffman notes that the figure may be interpreted as Basquiat's first major self-portrait. Basquiat executed the landscape in a painterly manner with tones of red, orange and yellow, which Hoffman says were 'employed for their expressive power and symbolic associations perhaps connoting an apocalyptic world of fire and upheaval.' According to Hoffman, the cow's skeletal remains, a coiled snake and a pair of hovering flies on the figure's right 'imply imminent death'.

'Per Capita' depicts a single male figure wearing Everlast boxing shorts, positioned halfway between a vaguely defined cityscape and a surrounding pictorial field of abstract atmospheric effects. This piece initiated Basquiat's use of the iconography of male boxers, red and black warriors, and other male figures that evince heroic or even exalted gestures. These figures appear in some of Basquiat's most recognised paintings, including 'Untitled (Self-Portrait)' (1982), acrylic and oil paint stick on linen [76' x 94'], in a private collection; 'Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump' (1982), acrylic, paint stick and spray paint on canvas [94 1/2' x 65 1/2'], in the Stephanie and Peter Brant Foundation; and 'Untitled (Boxer)' 1982, acrylic and oil paint stick on linen [76' x 94'], in a private collection.

Basquiat's stress of heroic masculinity revolves around the year 1982, which was one of his most productive. 200 of his paintings bear that date. During the same year, he had six one-person exhibitions: two in New York City, and one each in Los Angeles, Zurich, Rome and Rotterdam. In June 1982, he became one of the youngest artists to be included in the 'Documenta 7' exhibition in Kassel, the international contemporary art exhibition held every five years in Germany. At this exhibition, his work was shown along with such critically acclaimed artists as Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol.

Basquiat's painting 'Notary' 1983, acrylic, oil paint stick and paper collage on canvas in three panels and mounted on wood supports [71' x 158'], in the Schorr Family Collection and also on long-term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum, is, in Hoffman's words, 'a rich compendium of figurative imagery and references' with 'an array of specific textual references to Greek mythology, Roman history, African tribal culture, systems of monetary exchange, and natural commodities, as well as states of health and wellbeing.' The painting, Hoffman claims, concerns 'the darker aspects of human existence, ... reveals the artist's spiritual journey' and 'exposes the plights and pitfalls along his path'. Hoffman claims to see the work 'as Basquiat's portrayal of his own inner turmoil', his 'grappling with the contradictions between a realisation of profound inner truths and the responsibilities accompanying public notoriety - at the very moment that his art had obtained public recognition and market value'.

Another notable painting in the exhibition is 'Grillo' (1984), acrylic, oil, photocopy collage, oil paint stick and nails on wood [96' x 212' x 18'], in a private collection. It is quite massive and in places looms out a foot and a half from the wall. As exhibition co-curator, Kellie Jones describes, in 'Grillo', 'the figurative element is doubled: one body sports a crown and the other a halo composed of a black wood bar topped with spiky nails' recalling the Nkisi* power figures of the Kongo peoples of central Africa, whose power comes from magical substances stored inside their bodies and heads and who were believed to protect a person from envy, identify thieves and be used for predicting the future. Jones also says that in 'Grillo', 'Basquiat articulates his fascination with the Yoruba war deity, Ogun, by repeating his avatars, iron and blade. On the left side of the painting, referring again to Ogun, he writes, he is present in the speeding bullet. The connection with Superman's likeness to ammunition ('faster than a speeding bullet') allowed Basquiat to link his love for comics and his obsession with the histories of the black diaspora.'

The black athletes and jazz musicians that Basquiat included in his paintings or made reference to expressed his strong sense of ethnic and cultural identity. During his eight years of painting, Basquiat continually used his work to reaffirm this identity, derived from his father's heritage, as well as his ties to Hispanic culture, through his mother. His inheritance of the sense of the black diaspora is expressed throughout his work, as is the preponderance of Spanish language messages woven throughout the paintings and drawings over the span of his career. In his last paintings from 1987 and 1988, Basquiat included text passages drawn from his underground career as SAMO.

After it closes on 5 June, this exhibition will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, where it will open on 17 July and remain until 10 October. The show's final destination is the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where it will be on view from 18 November 2005 until 12 February 2006. JP Morgan Chase sponsored the national tour of the exhibition.

*Nkisi figures are made by the Kongo people of central Africa. Their power comes from magical substances stored inside their bodies and heads. They are used by ritual experts known as nganga as witnesses to oaths taken at the end of war or judicial proceedings. For example, representatives from each side involved in a conflict would hammer an iron wedge or knife into the nkisi figure and fire a salute to signal a peaceful agreement. In judicial disputes over land, swearing an oath, sealed by hammering a nail, would be sufficient to secure the land for generations. Personal vows could also be sealed through the figures. They could protect a person from envy, identify thieves and be used for predicting the future. A carver made the nkisi and a nganga prepared the sacred medicines that are attached to them or put inside them. It is these magical substances that persuade the spirit to take up residence in the nkisi. Many of the figures were named after chiefs and were paid similar forms of respect. A typical introduction might begin, 'Sir, open your ears, be attentive, so and so is coming to make an oath on you, may your eyes be clear, your ears open'. The spirit that the minkisi (plural of nkisi) was believed to embody, however, was that of a hunter, returned from the land of the dead.

The magic substances contain a great variety of material. One Kongo writer described the contents of a medicine bundle attached to one nkisi as including 'teeth of vipers and all snakes that bite with especial viciousness. Also the claws of mongoose and jackal'. X-ray analysis of two of the figures on display at the Horniman showed earth, beads, animal teeth, and in one case a cartridge case. Throughout the world, societies value things that are rare and difficult to acquire. In many cases, rare material from other societies is considered exotic and endowed with special properties. This may explain the presence of mirrors, beads and cartridges in the medicine or magical bundles.


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