Jean-Michel Basquiat and “The Art of (Dis)Empowerment” (2000)

Untitled, 1981 – Acrylic and mixed media on canvas – 81 x 69 1/4 in.

He was also known to be reluctant to involve himself in black politics, often finding himself estranged from “up town” black artist communities.

By Louis Armand,  from a lecture at the Comparative Studies Colloquium, August 30, 2000, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.

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 that he left behind was prodigious. In a tribute at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York (Sept 21-Nov 23, 1996) his work was described as “remarkable in its diversity of subject matter, materials and quality.”

His greatness 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.

I have quoted this passage here for a number of reasons. Firstly because it rightfully points to the virtuosity of Basquiat’s performance of 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. In a similar vein, Phoebe Hoban, in her recent and widely distorted biography of  Basquiat, A Quick Killing in Art, has described him as “the Jimi Hendrix of the art world.” While others, like art dealer Larry Gagosian, have exhibited a condescension and less subtle racism that characterised Basquiat’s relationship 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 back by it, and kind of put off.”

In his preface to the catalogue for the 1999 Basquiat retrospective at the Museo Revoltella, in Trieste, Bruno Bischofberger (Basquiat’s Swiss dealer), echoing these ideas, 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.

All that is lacking 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 African-American diaspora-in contradistinction to the European anthropological fetishism of the surrealists and the “naive” 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 all art, 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 a kind of metonym for the “dark continent” itself, recalling all the worst clichés of post-Freudean psychoanalysis, as well as centuries of European racism.

Boxer, 1982

A typical example of this can be found in an interview given by Basquiat in 1988 and published in New Art International. The interviewer, Demosthenes Davvetas, addresses Basquiat’s “primitivism” in a way that not only seeks to define the artist within a limited scope, but also challenges the artist’s right of refusal to act out the primitivist role. 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 qualified. As Davvetas makes clear, many people believed at the time that Basquiat’s success derived mainly from his ability to attract the attention of Andy Warhol, while accounts such as Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film also call into question the “authenticity” of Basquiat’s African-American persona.

The “facts” of Basquiat’s life are fairly simple. 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 that Basquiat sought to conceal his less than underprivileged background-hoping to trade on the popular view of black disempowerment (however real that may be) – the opposite seems to have been more the case. Basquiat himself publicised details of his early life in a piece called Untitled (Biography), 1983, and he was also known to be reluctant to involve himself in black politics, often finding himself estranged from “up town” black artist communities. At the very least Basquiat was ambivalent to the racialising of his art, even if elements of racial politics are accommodated within that art.

Commentators have consistently focused upon race, in a manner that insists upon the stereotype of the black artist as a kind of metonym for the “dark continent” itself, recalling all the worst clichés of post-Freudean psychoanalysis, as well as centuries of European racism.

That Jean-Michel Basquiat was black may be undeniable, but it is questionable that his work belongs to any such category as “black art.” But even if this were the case, we need to ask whether or not there is sufficient critical basis for evaluating Basquiat’s art, and “black art” in general, in this way. 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 argues 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.

When we look at Basquiat’s critical reception, both during his lifetime and since his untimely death in 1988, we can see that Tate’s conclusion is born out. With few exceptions Basquiat’s “primitivism” has become a mark of the faddishness of the art market, of the passing fascination of the white art establishment with a black “genius child,” and of the fickleness of an industry concerned more with celebrity than with enduring talent.

Titian, 1983

Indeed, 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 ‘eighties’ painters, critics have tended to neglect the artistic 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. Indeed some critics, like Robert Hughes, have been so distracted by the conjunction of events (black Latino artist-eighties consumerism) as to be reduced to name-calling, referring to Basquiat as “Jean-Michel Basketcase.” The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists, on the other hand, simply labels Basquiat as 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 which deeply engages both Western and non-Western traditions of art. Others, like Hal Foster and Rosiland Krauss, simply fail 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, in spite of the fact that Foster devotes extensive sections of his book to issues such as “commodification” and “primitivism,” and addresses the work of Andy Warhol (with whom Basquiat collaborated and exhibited) at length.

The assignation of Basquiat as a Graffiti or street artist doubtless has a lot more to do with racial politics than with art criticism. Basquiat’s work itself exhibits few characteristics of graffiti, and the resemblance is largely based upon the fact that he employed textual elements in his work. 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 graffiti slogans and symbols with a Magic Marker on walls in lower Manhattan, signing them with the tag SAMO(c) (which referred to “same ol’ shit”), with the copyright symbol recalling the typographics of a corporate label. There was nothing innocent in what Basquiat and Diaz were doing-they didn’t plant their street texts just anywhere, but predominantly at strategic points throughout SoHo and the East Village, sometimes even at art openings were they were likely to be seen by influential people. These texts were also tinged with a certain irony if we consider their mercenary role as personal advertisements for the to-be artist Basquiat. Such texts as: “Riding around in Daddy’s limousine with trust fund money” only heighten the ambiguity of Basquiat’s own position later on in relation to the art world establishment.

The assignation of Basquiat as a Graffiti or street artist doubtless has a lot more to do with racial politics than with art criticism.

At the same time Basquiat was inventing himself as something of a wild boy figure in the East Village. Inspired by John Cage he played guitar (with a file) and the synthesiser in a noise band called Gray. He worked at odd jobs, sold “junk” jewellery, crashed parties, painted on clothing, and frequented the punk hang-out, the Mud Club, and the new wave Club 57. Always broke, he had done his first paintings on salvaged sheet metal and other materials foraged from trash cans or found abandoned on the sidewalk, including an old refrigerator. His paintings were both childlike and menacing, described as “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.”

In the summer of 1980, Basquiat participated in the so-called “Times Square Show,” where he displayed a wall covered in spray paint and brushwork. One critic described the installation as combining Willem de Kooning’s Abstract Expressionism 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.” Regarding the hybridity of Basquiat’s style, 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 another “transitional” figure, Robert Rauschenberg, whose combines have also been described as working a seam between Abstract Expressionism and Pop-Art, with elements of Dada, particularly in the use of textual and visual irony. Avowed influences for Basquiat also included the work of Picasso, African masks, children’s art, hip-hop and jazz. The outcome itself has been described as a type of visual syncopation, or “eye rap.”

His prolific verbal and visual fragments were painted in a mixture of black and bold, saturated colours. A particular example can be found in a 1983 painting, entitled Savonarola, which has been described as “nothing more or less than a painted fragment of an index.” 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 Rauschenburg, Basquiat’s adherence to a Cubist grid points to a synthesis of ideas usually held to be mutually exclusive, and which also contradict any straightforward assumptions of spontaneity in Expressionist, or “neo-primitivist” art. In this, Basquiat’s approach to composition is not 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 “direct” mediation by the artist which became, to a greater or lesser extent, a signature effect similar to the overprinting and streaking in Warhol’s silkscreened images.



Sugar Ray Robinson, 1982, acrylic and oil stick on wood


Basquiat’s association with Warhol began well before his recognition as an artist. 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 Andy 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 PS 1. 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 provoked a positive shift in 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 naif” into the habits of art world capitalism and superficial glamour. Basquiat became a target for intense sarcasm in his “trademark” paint-spattered Amarni suits and bare feet-an image which persisted, and which in the minds of some critics symbolised a new form of “blacksploitation.” There is no doubt that such criticisms were fuelled by the fact that Basquiat was the first black American artist to achieve international fame.

In 1995, the February 10 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.” According to cultural theorist Dick Hebdige, the cover image portrayed 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.” An ethnographic curiosity, or a designer label-either way the art itself is more often than not concealed beneath the competing interpretations that circulate about Basquiat as a figure. 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.”

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.

Untitled (Fallen Angel), 1981

Rene Ricard, who first encountered Basquiat’s paintings and drawing in various sublets in New York’s East Village (an encounter made famous in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film), and whose 1981 article in Artforum brought critical attention to Basquiat, 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.

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.” 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 “ruined” serial images (here, the “crowns” which re-emerge throughout Basquiat’s ouvre). Elsewhere Basquiat introduced trademark and copyright symbols, contributing to his so-called “graffiti” texts a critical/satirical edge that may have disconcerted some of his early society patrons.

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.

In one of his compositions from 1981, entitled TAR TOWN(c), there appears the words: JIMMY BEST ON HIS BACK TO THE SUCKERPUNCH OF HIS CHILDHOOD FILES. In Basquiat’s case, it was enough that the “childhood files” be taken to refer to his black and Latino 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 aware of this double-bind linking the black artist to a form of racist commodity fetishism, and there is something veritably portentous about TAR TOWN(c) 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(c)? written above. It was painted soon after the murder of the black “graffiti 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.

There is 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 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 famous 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.” Coincidently it was Basquiat’s exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery, in May 1984 (his fist 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, came in at $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), 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, his work at the Fun Gallery was also drastically under-priced, thereby providing 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.

The problem of success (as a non-white) was also a constant theme in Basquiat’s paintings.

The 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 black figures like Malcolm X, Langston Hughes and Marcus Garvey, to black athletes, boxers and musicians, including Hank Aaron, Jesse Owens, Sugar Ray Robinson, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. And throughout his work there are textual references to money, value, authenticity and ownership (REGISTERED TRADE MARK, (c), 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 for Basquiat was always fraught with contradictions, and the politics it engendered ultimately interfered, detrimentally, in many of his relationships, most notably with Andy Warhol.

In 1994 Bischofberger commissioned a three-way collaboration between Warhol, Basquiat, and the Italian 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 instinct. 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. 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 1995 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 …

 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 …

According to Paige Powell and other friends of the artists, however, 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 had suggested that Basquiat had become too obviously influenced by Warhol, and this prompted Basquiat to try to distance himself from the Warhol Factory. Likewise, Victor Bockris in his recent biography of Warhol suggests that by September 1985, when their show of collaborations opened at the Tony 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.


Jim Crow, 1986, acrylic and oil stick on wood

Basquiat’s “primitivism” has become a mark of the faddishness of the art market, of the passing fascination of the white art establishment with a black “genius child,” and of the fickleness of an industry concerned more with celebrity than with enduring talent.

The negative reaction by critics to the Warhol-Basquiat show, coupled with the intense speculation surrounding the two artists’ 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 Tony 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. Warhol seems to have responded 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 until his death seemed to have been painted as if in anticipation of his absent collaborator.] At the same time Basquiat exchanged his own technique of colour xeroxing for the use of commercial silk screens, enacting 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).

Similarly, 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.

In Untitled (Rinso) a classic racist metaphor is exposed in the form of a reference to a popular washing powder.

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 menacing, 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(c), appearing above and beside three stylised renderings of Negroes, seem to point towards the word SLOGAN(c) 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.

Leeches, 1983

In another painting, 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(c) written across the front of it), standing beside a gun-toting “bwana” in a penile safari hat. Basquiat further ironises this depiction in the accompanying (capitalised) text: COLONIZATION: PART TWO IN A SERIES and GOOD MONEY IN SAVAGES. A reference to animal skins is made ambiguous in the rendering of $KIN$, which suggests that the “animals” being hunted/exploited by the POACHERS/MISSIONARIES are black.

In Untitled (1984), this 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(c). 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. Elsewhere Basquiat’s economy is more sparse. In one of the fourteen drawings collected as Untitled (1981), the single word MILK(c) appears. As Rene Ricard explains, “The political implications here are intense with a comic nightmare of greed: the patent on milk!” In a later painting, entitled Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta (1993)-referring to Jack Kerouac’s fictional portrait of Louis Armstrong, Basquiat includes the text “The ‘Cow’ is a registered trademark(r),” which serves to amplify the irony.

Perhaps we are invited to think of a “cash cow,” or of the “sacred cows” of the art world. Perhaps, also, we are invited to think of milk as the “food of innocence.” But then milk is also white, and innocence, in Basquiat’s terms, is a white(c) concept. Not to play the role of noble savage or idiot savant could only reveal, to the art establishment, Basquiat’s “black” sin-a daring to assume the position of successful American artist usually reserved for whites. “Innocence,” as Basquiat’s reference to the SUN GOD/TRICKSTER implies, is merely a state of being willingly duped by the missionaries of Western capital. Basquiat refused this role, even if at times he could be said to have exploited it. He was resented for his success, trivialised and slandered by critics. He sought fame, and like many who have achieved it, he found himself isolated in an often hostile and unpredictable environment. He was black, young, and a heroin addict. To many he was merely a stereotype, almost a parody. For some he proved an old saying: “die young and leave a beautiful corpse.” It would not be inappropriate to imagine the word corpse, here, to be spelt with a copyright symbol. In death, as in life, Basquiat has become a commodity. A cash corpse. The ironic evasions and counter-evasions of his work now eclipsed by this final, perhaps inevitable, irony.




* This article was first presented as a lecture at the Comparative Studies Colloquium, August 30, 2000, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.

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

5 ‘Collaborations: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol,’ Akira Ikeda Gallery, Tokyo, 1994; ‘Collaborations: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, Andy Warhol,’ Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich, 1994; ‘Collaborations: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, Andy Warhol,’ Akira Ikeda Gallery, Tokyo, 1995; ‘Warhol and Basquiat: Paintings,’ Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1995; ‘Collaborations: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol,’ Akira Ikeda Gallery, Tokyo, 1996; ‘Collaborations: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol,’ Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich, 1996.

6 Cf. Hebdige, Dick. ‘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): 68 n.5. Dick 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 (eg., SAMO(c) 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 imagination.

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

8 Geldzahler, Harry. ‘Art: From Subways to SoHo, Jean-Michel Basquiat.’ Interview 13 (January, 1983): 46.

9 Hebdige, op. cit., 62.

10 Marshall, Richard. ‘Repelling Ghosts.’ Jean-Michel Basquiat, 15.

11 Ricard, Rene. ‘The Radiant Child.’ Artforum 20 (December 1981): 35-43.

12 Ricard, Rene. ‘World Crown(c): Bodhisattva with Clenched Mudra.’ Jean-Michel Basquiat, 48.

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

14 It is also worth noting that TAR, a pejorative term for Negro, is also an anagram of ART.

15 Quoted in Hoban, Phoebe. ‘SAMO(c) Is Dead: The Fall of Jean-Michel Basquiat.’ The New York Times (September 26, 1988): 43.

16 Ricard, op. cit., 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, op. cit., 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 Reynor, Vivien. ‘Basquiat, Warhol.’ The New York Times (September 20, 1985): 91.

20 Heartney, Eleanor. ‘Basquiat, Warhol.’ Flash Art 125 (December 1985-January 1986): 43.

21 Bockris, op. cit., 469.

22 Cf. Livingstone, Mario. ‘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, op. cit., 47.

Louis Armand is a senior lecturer in the Department of English and American Studies, Charles University, Prague, and a lecturer in art history at the University of New York, Prague. He is the author of Techne: Joycean Hypertexts, Finnegans Wake and the Question of Technology.


(All rights reserved. Text @ Louis Armand, Images @ The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat)

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