‘His impulse signature to combine a number of materials, elements, and subjects from made, found, constructed, and collaged artefacts were elemental to his works. Basquiat would have found an affinity with the Rauschenberg combines of the mid-1950s… The result was an aesthetic microcosm of the physical and visual reality of contemporary existence….’ (R. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992, pp. 18-21).
‘[Basquiat] used to make fun of me for having short hair. He’d say I had an atomic punk haircut. I’d call him Bullwinkle in response’ (G. O’Brien, quoted in D. Duray, ‘Holy Flashback, Batman! Glenn O’Brien Leads a Tour of Gagosian’s Basquiat Show’, in Galleriest, 5 March 2013).
Executed in the artist’s characteristic scrawl, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Slide Germ, 1982 is a largescale expanse of gestural energy. 1982 signaled a new phase of intensity for the artist’s practice which was derived from his street existence. Indeed his work from this time reveals a confluence of a multitude of interests in terms of both high and low culture. In Slide Germ, the contagious energy of the SoHo scene that had initially prompted Basquiat to create art using the materials found within his immediate environment continues.
Slide Germ was created at a time when the artist was invigorated by the buzz of celebrity and television and music-fuelled creativity, the same period which produced such works as LNAPRK, 1982, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and Six Crimee, 1982, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Seeking to recompose imagery sourced from comic books, Basquiat’s facility with his medium allowed him to fluidly pour out his compositions, impulsively filling the picture plane with the imagery he adopted. Basquiat was an avid admirer of cartoons and comic books for their ability to reflect deeper issues within society such as racism, discrimination, and erroneous representations of good and evil while remaining an accessible symbol from everyday life, and as such, freely incorporated them into his paintings. Set against a background populated with gestural drips and smears, Basquiat presents the towering figure of what would appear to be the loveable TV cartoon character Bullwinkle, a nickname assigned to him by friends for his wild hairstyle, surrounded by graffiti tags emblazoned with ‘AJAX’, the artist’s familiar motif of the 15 cent comic book stamps and a bright red moose hoof print. The curlicue scribbles radiating from Bullwinkle’s antlers coupled with his ‘X’ eyes signal that some catastrophe has befallen the dim-witted but good-natured hero. In an instance of art imitating life, that year the Bullwinkle balloon sprang a catastrophic nose leak just a few blocks shy of the finish line of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, an event Basquiat would undoubtedly have been aware of given his love of television.
This large scale portrait of Bullwinkle J. Moose also has an element of autobiography. Glenn O’Brien, who hosted the live public-access cable show, TV Party that Basquiat appeared on often notes, ‘He used to make fun of me for having short hair. He’d say I had an atomic punk haircut. I’d call him Bullwinkle in response’ (G. O’Brien, quoted in D. Duray, ‘Holy Flashback, Batman! Glenn O’Brien Leads a Tour of Gagosian’s Basquiat Show’, in Galleriest, 5 March 2013). Indeed Bullwinkle was not an arbitrary choice for the artist, as Richard Marshall notes, ‘Bullwinkle the Moose is acknowledged not only because he is amusing but because his simple-minded buffoon character is usually more perceptive and insightful than his supposedly smarter cartoon friends’ (R. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992, p. 23). The moose also featured in Basquiat’s work from a year later, Television and Cruelty to Animals.
Basquiat’s use of cartoon and comic book imagery sets this work more acutely in a dialogue with high and low culture when taken in conjunction with his graffiti tags of ‘AJAX’ in their simultaneous reference to the powdered household cleaner and the Greek Trojan war hero, Ajax. Indeed the ‘AJAX’ ensconced in the starburst near Bullwinkle’s head recalls the perforated spout of the canister, unchanged for generations. Through the endless stream of television Basquiat watched, he would undoubtedly have been impressed by the almost cultish popularity the product’s ad campaign from the 1970s and 1980s, ‘Armed... with Ajax!’ would have been cultivating. Basquiat may have been playing on the ubiquity of household cleaning ads predilection for showing hands wiping away dirt, leaving a pristine channel as the germs slide down the drain when he titled this work Slide Germ. And yet, yoked to this everyday reference is a tandem historical allusion. Basquiat was deeply interested in imagery from earlier cultures and mythological references in the same way as with other major 20th century artists such as Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso and Cy Twombly. Indeed the repetition of ‘AJAX’ across the expanse of Slide Germ recalls Cy Twombly’s Apollo and the Artist, which Basquiat confided in Henry Geldzahler was his favourite work by the artist for the ‘big “Apollo” written across it’ (J.-M. Basquiat, quoted in, H. Geldzahler, ‘Art: From Subways to Soho, Jean-Michel Basquiat’, in Interview, no. 13, January 1983, p. 46).
In Slide Germ, Basquiat has worked up his image in successive layers of viscerally gestural paint and oil stick directly on rows of sheets of paper placed over the canvas, recalling flyers billed on buildings throughout the city’s streets, thereby drawing a dynamic tension between high art and the impulsive spontaneity of Basquiat’s daily experience. Inspired by his early exposure to art history textbooks, as Richard Marshall explains, ‘Collaged surfaces had always appealed to Basquiat, and it was at this time  that he incorporated pasted drawings and photocopies of his own work with great abandon, achieving a textured, thick, and tactile surface of wood, canvas, paint, oil stick, and paper. His impulse signature to combine a number of materials, elements, and subjects from made, found, constructed, and collaged artefacts were elemental to his works. Basquiat would have found an affinity with the Rauschenberg combines of the mid-1950s… The result was an aesthetic microcosm of the physical and visual reality of contemporary existence….’ (R. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992, pp. 18-21). Lacing his works with text and imagery engendered with far-reaching references and meanings, Basquiat’s art from this time embraced icons of popular culture and history. The dominant text and imagery found in Slide Germ both celebrate and define an entire pantheon of characters– comic book heroes, boxing champions, art historical masters and Greco-Roman mythology, radiating, from Basquiat’s consciousness.
Created at a climactic moment following the artist’s break-through as an African American artist into the predominantly white art establishment, 1982 resulted in the production of some of Basquiat’s most ambitious and self-assured works. 1982 saw Basquiat continue his meteoric rise to fame with his first one-person show at Annina Nosei’s gallery following his debut success in 1981 in the 'New York/New Wave’ group exhibition at P.S. 1. Only twenty-one, Basquiat enjoyed an extraordinary succession of six solo shows in New York, Los Angeles, Zurich, Rome and Rotterdam, all of which were greeted by rave reviews and he was the youngest artist ever to be included in the prestigious Documenta 7 exhibition in West Germany, alongside leading artists such as Joseph Beuys, Cy Twombly and Gerhard Richter. This critical success sparked a new phase in Basquiat’s artistic production. Having secured the support of several ambitious art dealers and a studio in which to work, Basquiat was able to move out of the basement of Annina Nosei’s gallery and into an independent studio in January of that year. Energized by this new freedom, Basquiat began to produce some of the most vital paintings of his entire oeuvre. A liberating move, the seven-story loft at 151 Crosby Street in SoHo afforded the artist space to create large-scale works such as Slide Germ for the first time. Looking back on 1982, Basquiat remarked, ‘I had some money: I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. I was awful to people.’ (J.-M. Basquiat, quoted in C. McGuigan, ‘New Art New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist’, in The New York Times Magazine, 10 February 1985, p. 74).