"Basquiat is art's answer to Jimi Hendrix and Charlie Parker" (L. Marenzi, 'Pay for Soup/Build a Fort/Set that on Fire,' in Basquiat, exh. cat., Museo Revoltella, Milano, 1999. P. xxxi).
Set against a backdrop of intense, inky blackness, the brightly colored figures in Jean-Michel Basquiat's Dustheads represent the ultimate tour-de-force of expressive line, color and form that has come to represent Basquiat's iconic painterly oeuvre. An acknowledged masterpiece from a pivotal year in the artist's career, this 1982 painting demonstrates Basquiat's unique ability to combine raw, unabashed expressive emotion whilst displaying a draughtmanship that was unrivalled in modern painting. Housed in the same private collection for almost 20 years, Dustheads was included in the seminal exhibition of the artist's work organized by the Fondation Beyeler, Basel in 2010 (and which later travelled to the Museé d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris) and is widely referenced in monographs about the artist, including the cover of the catalogue to the 2006 Basquiat retrospective organized by the Fondazione La Triennale di Milano. This painting displays the full force of Basquiat's emotive power as an artist and provides ample evidence of his unique painterly language--a language that came to define a generation and one that is still heard loudly today.
Monumental, yet intensely personal, Dustheads succinctly captures the vitality and vivacity of Basquiat's artistic practice during this key period of the artist's career. The pair of ghost-like figures is composed of a rich symphony of brushstrokes and marks that Basquiat draws together into an opus of line, color and form. Composed of broad brushstrokes of acrylic paint, entwined with expressive scrawls of oilstick plus accents of spray enamel and metallic paint, the resulting marks vary greatly in their variety, depth and rhythmic clarity. Expressionist in its exuberance, the frenetic brushwork acts as the framework for the rest of the composition, built up methodically through layers of drips, scrawls and passages of pigment massaged with the artists own fingers. The robust figure on the right, fully rendered in a pigment of blood red and silhouetted with a crisp white outline, aggressively dominates the composition, with its arms raised in dramatic fashion. The restrained execution of the body is contrasted with the amazing richness of the figure's mask-like face. Here, Basquiat unleashes the full force of his expressiveness with layer-upon-layer of colored pigment laid down beginning with a base layer of red, through subsequent strata of yellow, green, gray and blue and finishing with a triumphal layer of white and black which defines the ghoulish features of the face. This sumptuous figure is the latest in a lineage that Basquiat began with the loosely drawn simplistic stickmen of his early days as the graffiti artist SAMO, and by 1982 had morphed into more fully developed and executed figures yet with his use of spray paint and rapid execution, still bearing all the hallmarks from his days as a street artist tagging his work all over New York.
In contrast, the second--more rudimental--figure becomes almost a mirror image or alter-ego of the first. The head, bathed in golden hues of yellow, pink and orange is much simpler and dominated by a pair of hypnotic eyes that draw the viewer in by staring out with its myriad of multi-colored concentric circles. The complex layers that are visible in the first figure are transformed into much more lyrical aspects in the second, soft tones gently merging into one another giving the appearance of radiant skin. The features are defined by Basquiat's simple movement of the hand, outlining the contours of the face, chin, teeth and cheeks in oilstick and the fragments of a body, such as it is, consists merely of a few select lines of white paint drawn across the blackness of the background, delineating the merest notion of a figure. The sheer power and expressive quality of these energetic gestures marks out Dustheads as an outstanding example of the art being produced during the early 1980s, one of the most exciting and innovative periods of New York's art historical supremacy. Reviewing Basquiat's 1996 show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Elizabeth Hayt, critic for ARTnews, said "Dustheads is a great, gutsy painting of two wide-eyed, ghoulish figures. Crudely worked in primary colors, outlined in white, and set against a coal black background, the image is an emblem of rage and terror. By dripping his fingers in pigment and clawing the surface of the canvas so that long scratches rake across the image, Basquiat enhanced the expressive and primitive" (E. Hayt, ARTnews, January 1997, p. 114).
Dustheads is a rare painting in Basquiat's oeuvre in that it contains a pair of his totemic figures. These motifs are central to Basquiat's art, and in many cases are regarded as self-portraits. Beginning in 1982 he began moving away from the streetscapes and cars that populated his early paintings and initiated his unique version of the human figure. As curator and Basquiat scholar Marc Meyer pointed out, in the catalogue for his 2005 retrospective of the artist's work at the Brooklyn Museum, there are two main categories of figures--icons and heroes. The figures that fall into the first category serve the same purpose as the West African statues and Christian iconography that would have been familiar to the artist through his Catholic/Hispanic/African heritage. This iconography of African masks, Vodoun figurines and Western religious symbols such as angels, haloes, devils, saints and martyrs all feature heavily in the artist's work. Basquiat's portrayal of heroes is very much based on his own pantheon of idols and includes luminaries taken from the world of music and sport including Charlie Parker, Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis amongst others. The pair of figures in Dustheads garners elements from both these traditions--the mask-like definition of the face in the left figure and the golden halo hovering over the figure on the right--bringing together the artist's two main themes in one painting. As Jeffrey Deitch pointed out in 1992, "Basquiat's great strength is his ability to merge his absorption of imagery from the streets, the newspapers, and TV with the spiritualism of his Haitian heritage, injecting both into a marvelously intuitive understanding of the language of modern painting (J. Deitch, quoted in M. Franklin Sirmans, 'Chronology,' in R. Marshall (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 239).
Another of Dustheads distinguishing qualities is the richness of Basquiat's color palette. The artist deeply admired Jackson Pollock's chromatic masterpiece Guardians of the Secret (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), in particular the way that Pollock used passages of color to conjure up figurative imagery. Accentuated by the dark background, the sheer vibrancy of the reds, yellows, oranges, greens and blues of Dustheads explodes like fireworks against the night sky. Basquiat's non-representational use of color, and particularly the juxtaposition of highly-keyed tones of primary color, also recalls the radical innovation of Henri Matisse's Fauve masterpiece Femme au Chapeau or the colorful mask-like portraits of the Russian Expressionist painter Alexej von Jawlensky. Yet, while the Fauves were concerned with deconstructing the representational nature of color in painting, Basquiat was more concerned with the influence of color in defining the structure of his paintings. In the same way that Dustheads is carefully constructed in compositional terms, his use of color as part of the structure is as important, as Marc Mayer notes, "With direct and theatrically ham-fisted brushwork, he used unmixed color structurally, like a seasoned abstractionist, but in the service of a figurative and narrative agenda. Basquiat deployed his color architecturally, at times like so much tinted mortar to bind a composition, at other times like opaque plaster to embody it. Color holds his pictures together, and through it they command a room" (M. Mayer, "Basquiat in History," Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2005, p. 46).
The frenetic pace at which Basquiat would execute his paintings indicates that he wielded his paintbrush just as adeptly as a draughtsman handles his pencil. The rapid coalescing of energetic brushstrokes, sweeps of a spray paint, drips of pigment directly from the container and even swipes of paint dragged by the artists own fingers all demonstrate Basquiat's rare ability to bring together a variety of techniques into one coherent image. Yet, Basquiat understood the significance of his expressive style was as much historical as it was aesthetic, for the artist not only knew how to draw, but also what this meant within the contemporary culture of pictorial representation in the 1980s. Just as Picasso developed his own unique language of pictorial representation, first with Cubism and later with his calligraphic alterations of the human figure, Basquiat's style became a patented device too, "He papers over all other voices but his own," Marc Mayer claims, "hallucinating total control of his proprietary information as if he were the author of all he transcribed, every diagram, every formula, every cartoon character-even affixing the copyright symbol to countless artifacts of nature and civilization to stress the point-without making any allowances for the real-life look of the world outside his authorized universe" (M. Mayer, op cit., p. 48). Like other master draughtsman such as Picasso and Cy Twombly, Basquiat tried to reinvigorate the ancient tradition in an age dominated by the idea of appropriation. As Marc Mayer goes on to discuss, one of modern art's greatest dramas is the spectacle of an ancient craft trying to reassert its relevance and Basquiat's visceral power, like that of his predecessors, was that he liked to propagate the myth that he lacked any conventional skill, yet his paintings and drawings would have made no sense if they were produced by a more cultivated hand.
Although he worked at a frenzied pace, Basquiat's paintings are highly complex creations built up of carefully constructed levels of pigment. Even though he became well known for incorporating found objects such as doors, window frames and printed matter into his work, the way he constructs and builds up his paintings might also be considered an act of collage too. Updating a tradition begun by Willem de Kooning and his seminal Woman paintings from the 1950s, Basquiat's heavily worked surfaces brings together an array of colorful passages that are built up to reveal the final composition. One of the most complex areas of this particular painting, the face of the figure on the right, contains as many as nine layers of paint all applied in rapid succession so that each begins to merge into the next. Yet it is the figure on the left that is perhaps the most interesting in this respect as upon close examination it becomes clear that the face has been created not by placing the yellow pigment on a dark ground, as would be expected in traditional painting, but instead Basquiat forms the facial plane by placing the black paint on top of the yellow almost like a cutout and a dramatic reversal of the normal conventions of painting. Just as Franz Kline used to subvert tradition by creating the dramatic painterly architecture of his canvases by painting a top layer of white paint over a layer of darker pigment, Basquiat carefully positions each layer perfectly to achieve a harmonious whole.
By the beginning of 1982, Basquiat had become the incumbent art star and was installed in a spacious studio in the basement of Annina Nosei's Prince Street gallery and showcased in international exhibitions around the world. New York had been suffering from economic stagnation and foreclosure: whole swathes of the city were being vacated by white-collar workers and businesses in favor of the suburbs with many areas of the city being abandoned by well-heeled residents as crime levels soared. The drug culture filled the vacuum left by this 'white flight' and much of the emerging youth culture was centered on the use of hard and soft drugs. Rap, Hip-Hop and street art had become the new language of youth and Basquiat was at the center of this new cultural movement and this downtown culture had become a rich source of inspiration that Basquiat would continue to mine for the rest of his career.
In many ways, Dustheads is the quintessential painting that reflects this important period. The title itself refers to the street slang for habitual users of angel dust, the drug also known as PCP. Abused for its psychotropic qualities, the iconography of this particular painting--the vivid colors, rapid sense of frenetic movement and even the dilated eyes on both figures--lead to the drawing of clear parallels between the hallucinogenic properties of the angel dust and Basquiat's own unique visual aesthetic. Looking back on 1982, Basquiat himself recognized the tensions that he felt between the draw of his humble beginnings as a graffiti artist and his meteoric rise to become the wunderkind of the New York art world. "I had some money," he recalled of that important year, "I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. I was awful to people (J. Basquiat, in R. Marshall (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 241).
Yet despite his uncertainty, 1982 saw Basquiat continue his meteoric rise to fame with his first one-person show at Annina Nosei's gallery and an important trip to Los Angeles where he was introduced to--and proved to be a major hit with--influential collectors such as Eli and Edythe Broad, Douglas S. Cramer and Stephane Janssen. He was also the youngest of 176 artists to be invited to take part in Documenta 7 in Germany where the expressive nature of his lyrical lines was compared to that of the other master draughtsman of the post-war period, Cy Twombly. Indeed, Basquiat's work found favor with many influential critics who had been yearning for the return of 'the expressive' ever since the triumph of Minimalism in the late 1960s and 1970s. In Basquiat they found a new champion who clearly reveled in the joy of the artist's hand. "What has propelled him so quickly," extolled Lisa Liebmann in her Art in America review of Basquiat's 1982 exhibition at the Annina Nosei Gallery, "is the unmistakable eloquence of his touch. The linear quality of his phrases and notations shows innate subtlety-he gives us not gestural indulgence, but an intimately calibrated relationship to surface instead" (L. Liebmann, quoted in M. Franklin Sirmans, 'Chronology,' in R. Marshall (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 239).
Dustheads, with its dynamic portrayal of two dramatic figures, is among the finest examples of Basquiat's work from this pivotal period in his career. Its color, composition and sheer vivacity mark it out as a seminal work of an artist who came to define an entire generation of artists. Yet while his unorthodox beginnings set him apart from many of his art-school trained contemporaries, Basquiat was acutely aware of the canon of art history and sought to have his voice heard within that tradition. Largely self-taught from his frequent visits to the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat sought to continue the debate about the nature of painting started by many of the great twentieth century masters such as Picasso, Pollock, Kline and de Kooning--a debate that Basquiat had witnessed hanging on the walls of the museums he visited on a weekly basis. With Basquiat as the 'young pretender,' the debate was given new vitality and ensured its relevance for generations to come, as Marc Mayer, a former curator at Basquiat's beloved Brooklyn Museum, concluded, Basquiat was, "A sophisticated and thoughtful artist with great resources of concentration, possessed of an unusual pictorial intelligence and an uncanny sense of unfolding history and of how to avoid its traps, Jean-Michel Basquiat was an articulate and prolific spokesman for youth: insatiably curious, tirelessly inventive, innocently self-deprecating because of youth's inadequacies, jealously guarding his independence, typically disappointed by the inherited world he defensively mocked, yet filled with adulation for his heroes. His work is likely to remain for a long time as the modern picture of what it looks like to be brilliant, driven, and young" (M. Mayer, op cit, p. 46).