‘I like the ones where I don’t paint as much as others, where I don’t paint as much as others, where it’s just a direct idea’ (J.-M. Basquiat, quoted in H. Geldzahler. ‘Art: From Subways to Soho: Jean-Michel Basquiat’, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Gemalde und Arbeiten auf Papier, exh. Cat., Museum Wurth, Vienna, 1999, p.21).
Hovering left of centre upon a blank page is a name and a checkbox. ‘Lee Harvey Oswald’ stands boldly in black, written in Basquiat’s unmistakeable capitals: enigmatic in intent, the artist explores the power of text and image. Devoid of any context, why is it that this name has such impact? Much as Basquiat ritualistically scrawls the titles of his heroes and historical figures throughout his oeuvre – as well as words and phrases, in different languages, from sources as diverse as advertising, food menus, comic books and Gray’s Anatomy – this work on paper conjures a defining moment of history through the invocation of a single name. Lee Harvey Oswald, arrested for the murder of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 and shot dead two days later by nightclub owner Jack Ruby as live TV cameras rolled, is one of the most iconic figures of American culture. Myriad conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination persist to this day, over half a century later. Was the US government responsible? Was there a second gunman? By placing a crossed box next to his name in the present work, Basquiat hints at Oswald being checked off a register – he could be one in a line of murdered scapegoats taken out by a higher power, or an important name to add to Basquiat’s resonant cast of characters, or as meaningless as an item on a grocery list. Reminiscent of Basquiat’s early graffiti tags as SAMO©, the work may even imply a personal identification with the man whose name he signs. Perhaps, floating in blank space, the very letters of Oswald’s name take on an incantatory poetry independent of any such associations. Basquiat’s mercurial wit as a semiotic shaman of language and culture is brought to the fore in a subtle, distilled and powerful statement. The artist’s boldness in confronting the viewer with such a simple, provocative gesture caught the eye of Johnny Depp, who made his first ever purchase of Basquiat with this work.
JOHNNY DEPP’S ESSAY ON BASQUIAT
On a turbulent flight out of Vienna, en route to Paris, I was asked to write a couple of pages about the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The passengers on this bumpy journey – Enrico Navarra, Sebastian Moreu, and myself were in the throes of what happened to be an enormous Austrian pork hock... at least we hoped it was. We’d acquired the beast at a small, run down, carnival-like market on the edge of Vienna. Our feast was primitive and ferocious. Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that it had been at least 24 hours since any solid had slithered down my gullet and my appetite was ravenous. And now, here we were, bearing down on this greasy pig meat and all too grateful for it, even as the plane dipped and jilted us around like kewpee dolls. The brain has been fed well that day, having just seen a collection of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s works and then on to another museum for a quick peak at a huge Warhol exhibition. All this information, in the matter of a few hours, is enough stimulation to drive any man to the nearest carnival-like market and throw down all of his coin for as much pork as humanly possible. So we did just that...
Between bites, Enrico brought up the idea of me writing something for the new and updated big book of Basquiat paintings he was about to re-publish. He said that if I wrote the piece, I should, at all costs, try to avoid writing about Basquiat’s life. Everyone, it seems, has a tendency to write more about the man than the work itself. This seemed fair enough, especially since I didn’t know the guy and had never met him, so the only thing that I really have is my opinion and my take on the legacy of what he left behind... in art. That, and of course, we seemed to share the same affinity for pork products. However, it is almost impossible to speak about his works without it becoming a crude dissection of the man. On any canvas or drawing, he spilled himself... maybe even without wanting to. His thoughts, his feelings – however fleeting, unfinished or incomplete are captured in that moment when he connected with his target. Early drawings show that he even literally shed his own blood onto the paper as proof of his commitment to the piece, his art... an acceptance of his destiny. A blood fusion, like a voodoo ritual, making the man and his art inseparable, an unholy bond merging the two into one.
If we really get down to brass tacks here, we can begin by saying that Basquiat is not for everyone. Much like pork is not for everyone. You either get it, or you don’t. One either loves with a passion, or despises with a vengeance. I’ve never heard of anyone saying, ‘Well, he’s okay, I guess...’ No, to my knowledge, that doesn’t happen with Basquiat. This is a very difficult result to achieve in any art form. The capability of not merely floating nicely in the middle, like a medium-tempered, semi-well-intentioned, virtually-invisible neighbor, whose passivity grates on one’s very being, but rather, the ability to speed like a bullet into the brains and bodies of the many jaded, and therefore ruined, intellectual art-hag and simpleton alike. That is the objective. It is a game of hit or miss. And when this motherfucker hits, he hits hard, on many levels.
There are some of his works that kill me and some that do absolutely nothing for me. But once you are touched by him, you are burned into either a kind of emotional stillness, or you may find yourself on the verge of doubling over into a painful belly laugh. Because as much honesty and history and life experience that he spewed into his drawings, paintings, objects, writings, whatever ... he had a killer sense of humor. Even in some of his most poignant works, his devilish sense of the absurd came through like gangbusters, completely unfiltered. As did his heartfelt disappointments in the human race, and his hopes for it. The signature imagery that comes to mind: the crown, the halo of thorns, portraits stripped of flesh, vital organs pumping blood- blue veined or devoid of any life, his childhood heroes Hank Aaron and Charlie Parker, etc., sainted for all eternity, the homage to his ancestry, endless references to his childhood ... he splayed himself open like a can of sardines for all of us to pick at, as he, in fact, devoured us.
He was never truly able to hide his feelings or influence in the work. He openly acknowledged Cy Twombly, Picasso, the word juxtaposition of William Burroughs and Brian Gyson, Andy Warhol, Leonardo da Vinci, Be Bop Jazz, T.V. programs and cartoons. He sometimes even used the drawings of his friends’ children as inspirations. His deep understanding and profound confusion with the American culture that he practically drowned himself in, was also an infinite reservoir from which he could draw upon for his chaotic assaults.
Looking at these works, one cannot escape without feeling the almost perverse sense of care taken to raw detail with what seems an acute distracted concentration. However crude the image may be or how fast it appears to have been executed – every line, mark, scratch, drip, footprint, fingerprint, word, letter, rip and imperfection is there because he allowed it to be there.
His paintings and drawings come alive for me every time I look at them, and if Jean-Michel Basquiat had stuck around for a bit longer, I like to think that he might have eventually moved into animation, for a time at least, combining his music, his language and drawings into an arena seemingly more palatable to the rank and file, but one that would have opened the floodgates for his messages to attack the masses. Something akin to Lenny Bruce’s ‘Thank You Mask Man’, an ingenious weapon that enabled him to scatter his divine tirades out into the world without the hammer of censorship slamming him hard.
Had Jean-Michel Basquiat lived through the fatal times that eventually took him away from this world, there’s no telling what he would’ve been able to do. The possibilities are endless.
Nothing can replace the warmth and immediacy of Basquiat’s poetry, or the absolute questions and truths that he delivered. The beautiful and disturbing music of his paintings, the cacophony of his silence that attacks our senses, will live far beyond our breath. Basquiat was, and is music ... primitive and ferocious.
Published in E. Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, pp. 16-17.