An epic painting executed during a transformative year in the artist’s career, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Discography Two testifies to the artist’s enduring obsession with the heroes and martyrs of jazz. As an avid collector who amassed over three thousand records during his lifetime, Basquiat’s love affair with music is well known, and here he idolizes two of his all-time favorites, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. He inducts these legendary musicians into the pantheon of heroic figures, gods, kings, and famous athletes that became the subjects of some of his most fabled paintings. In Discography Two, Basquiat specifically references one of the greatest jazz albums of all time—Miles Davis All-Stars—that was recorded on August 14, 1947 in New York. It captures a seminal moment in jazz history, in which some of the finest musicians of their era created what has come to be regarded as one of the most memorable jazz albums ever recorded. Now considered one of Basquiat’s most significant paintings, Discography Two acts a highly personal homage in which the artist distills the very essence of jazz itself into a masterful tour de force, demonstrating a seriousness and swagger that’s remarkable given his tender age (he was not yet twenty-three years old). Having featured in numerous exhibitions and publications about the artist, Discography Two was acquired directly from the artist by the legendary collector and dealer Bruno Bischofberger, in whose collection it remained for over thirty years.
As a child, Basquiat had been introduced to jazz through his father, whose record collection he listened to while growing up in Brooklyn. The artist later referred to Miles Davis as being his favorite musician, but it was actually Charlie Parker who acted as his personal hero. Both jazz greats are honored in Discography Two, rendered on a scale heretofore not seen in Basquiat’s work. Measuring over five and a half feet tall, Basquiat coats the entire canvas in jet-black acrylic paint, which he’s then covered in cryptic words written in white oilstick. Beginning in the upper register, the artist lists a group made up of a “who’s who” of jazz legends. Under the heading Basquiat lists all five members of the quintet: Charlie Parker on tenor sax; Miles Davis on trumpet; John Lewis on piano; Nelson Boyd on bass; and Max Roach on drums. Widely regarded as the best jazz combo of its day, this quintet featured twenty-one-year-old Miles Davis playing alongside Charlie "Bird" Parker. The record was included in a five-album Parker box set that was published by Savoy Records in 1978, and is considered one of the seminal recordings of its time.
In Discography Two, Basquiat lists each song on the Miles Davis All Stars album with its accompanying catalog number in the order it would have appeared on the LP. Most of the songs on this album were given two or three takes (3440-1, for example, denotes the first take of the song Milestones, and 3440-2 refers to its second take, and so forth. Side F refers to the “B” side of the third album in the set). Here, Basquiat eschews figurative representation in favor of pure text, limiting his palette to a monochromatic black and white. Like a photographic negative, Basquiat’s white-on-black technique is restrained yet elegant, possessing an arresting beauty that evokes the rigors of minimalism but with a gritty elegance that reverberates with the very sound of jazz itself. In similar text-based works of 1983, Basquiat toyed with the medium of silkscreen, but in Discography Two (and its sister painting, Discography One), he selected white oilstick. The rawness and immediacy of this particular medium on such a sleek black background ensures the surface crackles with energy, thrusting the viewer directly into the world Basquiat creates. Like white chalk instructions on a black chalkboard, Basquiat seems intent on teaching a lesson to the uninitiated. Near the lower register, a few delicate smudges of white oilstick rise up through the smoky black ether, lending an ephemeral, dreamlike quality to the otherwise straightforward painting. Above all else, Basquiat insists on the gravitas of his subject, rendering it with both reverence and panache.
“As Jean-Michel’s painting took off he started spending more time inside, working in the studio, where music was always playing,” the influential critic Glenn O’Brien has written. “Now he could have any music he wanted and he began to explore jazz seriously. It’s all there in the paintings of 1983…” (G. O’Brien, “Basquiat and Jazz,” in G. Mercurio, The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show, exh. cat., Fondazione Triennale di Milano, 2007, p. 52). Indeed, starting in 1983—the year the present work was painted—Basquiat focused on jazz as a subject matter, creating no less than thirty-five paintings in homage to his personal hero Parker. Together with Davis, Parker was a favorite subject of Basquiat’s, a tragic figure whose career trajectory paralleled his own. His relatively brief recording career (1945-1955) was similar in length to Basquiat’s, and, like Basquiat, Parker never received traditional schooling in music. Beginning around 1941, Parker created legendary music that was revolutionary for its time, known for its freedom of improvisation and fast tempo. Together with another jazz great—Dizzy Gillespie—Parker was an essential contributor to bebop, a fast-paced and exuberant jazz style that’s celebrated in Discography Two, thus making the saxophonist one of the most important figures in the history of jazz music. Parker’s premature death—after battling drug and alcohol addiction for most of his adult life—has made him an iconic jazz legend. Similarly, Miles Davis is one of the most famous names in jazz; although he studied briefly at Juilliard, Davis famously abandoned the school in order to play alongside Parker. In 1945, he replaced Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet in Parker’s quintet, and in 1947 he led the ensemble in the recording that Basquiat celebrates here. As O’Brien so eloquently put it, Basquiat “knew about Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Charlie Parker the same way he knew about Picasso and Duchamp and Pollock” (G. O’Brien, quoted in J. Saggese, Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art, Oakland, 2014, p. 82).
For an artist who loved bebop and beat poetry, especially the writings of Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, Basquiat relished the wordplay in Discography Two. The simplicity and elegance of the words themselves takes on a mellifluous quality as the viewer reads through the setlist, especially the sonorous “Sippin’ at Bells,” as it echoes four times into the black ether of the background. As Robert Farris Thompson has pointed out, “…the artist doesn’t just repeat the titles of numbers played [...] Here and there he stutters and repeats the words like a preacher possessed by the spirit” (R. F. Thompson, “In Search of the Essence of Meaning: Translating Basquiat’s Art,” in L. Gagosian (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2015, p. 19). Indeed, if Basquiat is the preacher, then jazz is his religion, and he treats the subject with a gravitas not yet seen in his work at this time. The ambitious new scale of this series and the elegance of its restrained palette marked a breakthrough. In works such as Tuxedo, Discography I, Discography Two and Now’s the Time, Basquiat demonstrates a maturity and sophistication that illustrates this new phase of his career. “The power of jazz is indicated by the scale of the work,” Thompson goes on to explain. “The painting hangs on the wall at virtual human size” (ibid., p. 19).
Unsurprisingly, Basquiat’s love affair with music dovetailed nicely with his penchant for poetry. He had been drawn to this art form from his early days as a student, and later worked under the pseudonym SAMO, using the city as his canvas, writing graffiti-style poems in spray paint on buildings all over Manhattan. As the New York art critic Carlo McCormick reminds us, “The word was the currency then, passed and pressed in the city. It rode trains, crawled the walls like aerosol ivy, jostled in school yards and rhymed on street corners; it was at once the very terms of honesty and the theater of beautiful impossibility” (C. McCormick, “Basquiat, the Word,” in D. Buchhart, ed., Basquiat: Words are All We Have, exh. cat., Nahmad Contemporary, New York, 2016, p. 96). As Basquiat’s career progressed, the use of words in his paintings steadily increased, reaching their zenith in the epic 1987 painting Pegasus—a monumental, stream-of-consciousness style canvas brimming with obscure words and phrases.
Discography One and Two were most likely painted in the period following Basquiat’s stay in California during the latter half of 1982 and the first half of 1983. During this time, he executed a series of works that featured white text overlaid on black backgrounds, and these share visual parallels with Tuxedo, the silkscreen-on-canvas work produced with the art dealer and Basquiat scholar Fred Hoffman, and together they demonstrate the new seriousness with which Basquiat considered his art. “Discography (One) and Discography (Two) introduced a new form of history painting,” Hoffman has recently written in his monograph on Basquiat’s work. “[They] function as both documentation and tributes to some of jazz’s musical giants. Basquiat saw both recording sessions as historic, and his now reductive pictorial esthetic became his means of insightfully recognizing their place in history” (F. Hoffman, The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 2017, p. 188).
Having severed ties with Annina Nosei the previous year, Basquiat forged new relationships and traveled widely in 1983. In March, Basquiat opened his second show at Larry Gagosian’s L.A. gallery, and later that month he flew to New York for the opening of the Whitney Biennial, where—at the age of just twenty-two—he became the exhibition’s youngest participant. Later that August, Basquiat traveled to Zürich where the dealer Bruno Bischofberger organized the artist’s second solo exhibition there. Bischofberger acted as a father figure of sorts for the young Basquiat, and had introduced him to Andy Warhol the previous year. After a whirlwind year, Basquiat returned to the United States in December, where he painted a series of important paintings on wood panel, such as Flexible and Gold Griot (both of which were shown with Basquiat’s newest dealer, Mary Boone, shortly thereafter).
As one of the few African American artists working in the predominately white art world, Basquiat was keenly aware of the pressures wrought by his situation, and it seems fitting that he would turn to musicians like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, who similarly struggled against the pervasive racism of 1940s and 50s America, for help in navigating such difficult waters. As many critics have pointed out, even Basquiat’s working method paralleled jazz, with its emphasis on improvisation, spontaneity and repeating themes that echo across his work. Indeed, recent scholarship has questioned the extent to which Basquiat’s identity as a maverick black artist pervaded his work. It is perhaps telling that, of all the famous musicians Basquiat writes down in Discography Two, the only ones he crossed out were white males (the notorious producer Teddy Reig and the recording engineer Harry Smith). Fred Hoffman even suggests, in his recent monograph on the artist, that Basquiat’s “reversal” technique, of using white oilstick on black canvas, in works such as this might be considered as a symbolic acknowledgement of racism. This might be Basquiat’s way of “reversing the norm,” Hoffman suggests—a way to turn racism on its head. He writes: “Much like a sorcerer seeks to turn lead into gold, the young artist...sought to radically transform the content and meaning of image and text. By reversing the information conveyed in these drawings, Basquiat demonstrated to both himself and the world that he possessed the capacity, through one simple act, to turn a world dominated by white into one where black dominates” (F. Hoffman, ibid., p. 95).