‘This is the moment his career really takes off — everything is exploding’: Dieter Buchhart on Jean-Michel Basquiat

Few art historians have as much insight into the life and work of Basquiat as Vienna-born curator Dieter Buchhart. Here he shares his thoughts on an untitled self-portrait offered in London on 28 June

The art historian Dieter Buchhart is a leading expert on Jean-Michel Basquiat, having curated several stand-out exhibitions of his work — notably at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel and the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris. He has also written and edited several books on the artist, among them a 2010 monograph and Crossing Lines, published to accompany an exhibition of Basquiat and Keith Haring at NGV International in Melbourne.

According to Buchhart, it was Basquiat’s ‘incredible drive’, constant experimentation and powerful charisma that attracted so much attention during his brief career, qualities that continue to make him relevant to youth culture today. ‘His codes are like keys to yesterday, today and tomorrow,’ he says.

On 28 June, in the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale, Christie’s is offering a self-portrait painted at a pivotal moment in Basquiat’s life. Here we talk to Buchhart about the Brooklyn-based artist who took influences from jazz, no wave and the burgeoning hip-hop scene to create paintings with a raw, untrammelled energy.

This painting is untitled — what made you decide it was a self-portrait?

Dieter Buchhart: Between 1981 and 1982, Basquiat painted a series of heads. Then later, in 1983, he made some silhouette self-portraits. What you notice about these works is the effort he has put into constructing the face. In many of Basquiat’s paintings, the faces can be quite anonymous. He was much more interested in anatomy, the skull beneath the flesh.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Untitled (Self Portrait), 1982. Oilstick and ink on paper. 29⅞ x 22 in (75.9 x 55.9 cm). Sold for £7,961,000 on 28 June 2022 at Christie’s in London

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Untitled (Self Portrait), 1982. Oilstick and ink on paper. 29⅞ x 22 in (75.9 x 55.9 cm). Sold for £7,961,000 on 28 June 2022 at Christie’s in London

However, his self-portraits are different. He works and reworks them, which has happened here. He has also included dreadlocks, which feature in other self-portraits around the same time.

It was painted in 1982. Was that an important year for Basquiat?

DB: This is the moment his career really takes off in the United States and internationally — everything is exploding. His work is shown at Documenta 7 in Kassel, Larry Gagosian has a sell-out exhibition of his drawings in Los Angeles, and he signs to Bruno Bischofberger, who represented Andy Warhol.

‘His self-portraits raise many questions about identity and racism, and how black people are represented in the media’

He moves out of the basement of the Annina Nosei Gallery to a proper studio and apartment in Crosby Street, and becomes friends with Andy Warhol. Things are really happening, and he’s only 22.

So it was a time of extraordinary change. Do you think he struggled with his identity? As you say, he was only 22.

DB: I think his self-portraits raise many questions about identity and racism, and how black people are represented in the media. He was very conscious of stereotyping. His faces often look like masks, and that is a question in itself. In the West, masks are worn to protect or conceal your face, whereas in certain West African traditions, masks are worn to show your identity. So there is this interesting tension.

He often put symbols in his paintings, such as a crown to represent strength and power. Are there symbols in this work?

DB: There are these intense white spikes that look like flames radiating from the head, which could be a crown. Obviously the dreadlocks are important, particularly when you are thinking about Haitian young men — which was part of Basquiat’s heritage.

What I love about this painting are the lines that create a drip down his neck. Notice how the eyes, nose and mouth have been crossed out. He is referring to seeing and not seeing, silence and speaking, being there and not being there. Those symbols move across his paintings and his drawings.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Untitled (Self Portrait), 1982 (detail). Oilstick and ink on paper. 29⅞ x 22 in (75.9 x 55.9 cm). Sold for £7,961,000 on 28 June 2022 at Christie’s in London

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Untitled (Self Portrait), 1982 (detail). Oilstick and ink on paper. 29⅞ x 22 in (75.9 x 55.9 cm). Sold for £7,961,000 on 28 June 2022 at Christie’s in London

Why do you consider this a painting rather than a drawing?

DB: The use of ink is unusual and only features in a few masterpieces. The face is fully executed. He often left white spaces in his drawings, but this picture is very complete and very painterly and has a lot of colour. He has reworked it several times, and the white oilstick has been applied last.

Some people say you can date a Basquiat painting by the type of sneaker footprint he left on the canvas. Is that true?

DB: That makes total sense, absolutely! But seriously, there is a real inner logic to Basquiat’s work. You can always characterise a group of his paintings when you see them together — you can tell when they were made.

‘He was extremely knowledgeable about art. His historical references include the Venus of Willendorf, Titian and Duchamp. He took inspiration from Picasso, Dubuffet and Klein’

People think of him as this club-scene personality, but he worked hard. He created something like 1,000 paintings and 2,000 drawings in his short life. He once said his paintings were laborious — and you can see that. He’s worked and reworked them, continuously layering colour, figures and words on top of each other.

Basquiat was on his way to being a millionaire by the age of 21, but he didn’t even have a bank account. Is it fair to say he had quite a conflicted view of capitalism?

DB: He was conflicted. If you compare him to Warhol, who played with economics, value and glamour as a way of critiquing the system, Basquiat is doing a similar thing but using the symbols of the street.

He used a lot of urban slang in his paintings, such as ‘tar’, ‘salt’, ‘pepper’, ‘asbestos’, which were all part of street language at the time. The word ‘asbestos’ is interesting: in urban street slang it means something strong, durable and brave. The asbestos crisis happened in 1982, so Basquiat is playing with that — he was a master at using different meanings as a way of politicising his work.

Aside from his relationship with Warhol, Basquiat is often described as an outrider — someone who was not really connected to the art world. Is that true, or a myth?

DB: It is a myth. He was extremely knowledgeable about art. His historical references are very wide and varied and include the Venus of Willendorf, Titian and Duchamp. He took inspiration from Picasso, Dubuffet and Yves Klein, and of course Rauschenberg and Twombly, but he is also looking at African art and Egyptian hieroglyphics.

At the same time, there is this big exchange of art and ideas going on in New York. He’s hanging out with Michael Holman, with whom he forms the band Gray. He swaps work with Francesco Clemente and Keith Haring, who is a close friend.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Michael Holman, Shannon Dawson and Wayne Clifford from the band Test Pattern (later to become Gray), at Hurrah in New York, 1980. Photo Nicholas Taylor

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Michael Holman, Shannon Dawson and Wayne Clifford from the band Test Pattern (later to become Gray), at Hurrah in New York, 1980. Photo: Nicholas Taylor

There are also other artists you wouldn’t immediately think of — people like Ouattara Watts, who Basquiat invited to New York and was planning to travel to the Ivory Coast with before he died. There is definitely more research to be done on his influences, because they go way beyond the conventional art-historical narratives.

‘Music was a powerful source of inspiration, and his tastes ranged from Charlie Parker to Fela Kuti to Donna Summer’

How does he fit into the history of black art in America?

DB: In terms of how connected he was to the wider African-American art movements happening at that time, not so much. He was a New Yorker, from Brooklyn, and part of the very cool crowd that emerged with hip hop in the 1980s, where all these interchanges were happening between art, music and graffiti. But I don’t think he was particularly tapped into what was happening in Washington or Chicago, for example.

Was collaboration important to him?

DB: Absolutely, he was always looking for collaborators. He met [graffiti artist] A-One in 1982 and invited him to add graffiti to a beautiful standing figure he was working on. Before that, he created postcards with Jennifer Stein and Michael Holman, and worked with the street poet Al Díaz under the alias SAMO©. And of course he had his band, Gray, which was inspired by John Cage.

Music was a powerful source of inspiration, and his tastes ranged from Charlie Parker to Fela Kuti to Donna Summer. He also collaborated with musicians like Fab 5 Freddy and DJ High Priest.

How has he influenced art today?

DB: He has been a huge influence, particularly in the way he viewed art from a global perspective. That seems obvious now, but it really wasn’t in 1980. He made work about colonialism and the slave trade and the black identity.

Then there are his contemporaries, artists such as Julian Schnabel and Clemente — and Georg Baselitz, who wrote about seeing Basquiat’s paintings at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in the late 1980s and the impact they had on him.

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I’ve met young artists all over the world who consider him a visionary. You can see his influence in the work of Oscar Murillo and Alexandre Diop, in the way they combine drawing, painting and text.

Ultimately, though, it is the fearlessness with which he tackled subjects such as police brutality and racism — those paintings still have a huge resonance today.