In 2018, a groundbreaking Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, affirmed the artist’s status as a titan of the twentieth century. Included in the exhibition was In This Case (1983). Shown as part of a holy trinity of Basquiat’s “head” paintings, it joined two of his most iconic creations: Untitled (1981), from the collection of The Broad, Los Angeles, and Untitled (1982), which had sold in 2017 for more than $110 million, reaching what remains the highest price ever attained by an American artist at auction. With its blazing color, pyrotechnic vigor and explosive anatomical vision of the head executed on monumental scale, In This Case takes its place alongside these works as a talismanic masterpiece of Basquiat’s oeuvre.
Three Heads dating from 1981, 1982, and 1983 open the exhibition. The first two are similar: one is outlined, cloisonné style, and the second more boisterously so, but with its face and brain standing out from the background. The third merges explosively into a red background. All three are wildly out of proportion—the size of an entire human body—with the artist at once thinking and working inside them, reacting to his initial strokes and fields of color, and intimating the activation of cognitive zones a according to an instinctive phrenology.
What situates these canvases among his most arresting is the violence they bring to their upending of the vanitas. Listed Untitled, the first two are sometimes dubbed Skull, while the third is titled In This Case; these cranial anatomies are not memento mori, but amplified memories played very, very loud. So loud that their presence is indisputable.”
We come to one of Basquiat’s strongest works, a climactic portrait of the black face that haunts painting after painting. Every creative touch—the green teeth, the yellow eye, the navy-blue skin—is exactly right. Two brisk swaths of color, one light blue, the other bone white, surrender their street bred brutalism and become part of the composition. The blue area rains tracks across the central face. The white swath bears markings that may constitute a homage to Cy Twombly.”
Prior to its exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, In This Case was shown in The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show at the Triennale de Milano in 2006, and starred in a major 2013 survey at New York’s Gagosian Gallery. As Robert Farris Thompson observed then, the painting reveals itself as “one of Basquiat’s strongest works, a climactic portrait of the black face that haunts painting after painting … Every creative touch—the green teeth, the yellow eye, the navy-blue skin—is exactly right” (R. Farris Thompson, “In Search of the Essence of Meaning: Translating Basquiat’s Art”, in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat. Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2013, p. 16). As the punning title implies, the head is a “case”, a container; the “case” may also allude to the death of Michael Stewart, an African-American graffiti artist killed by New York police officers in September 1983. Inside its fractured, calligraphic, ruby-red framework, we see a blooming blue splash worthy of Cy Twombly, cog-like mechanisms, oilstick scrawls of white and yellow, and, at the center, an astonishing polychrome eye set, jewel-like, in a slick of midnight blue. Windows of raw canvas frame teeth and bone in luminous cross-section. From Renaissance anatomies to the primal gestures of Abstract Expressionism, Picasso’s Cubism and the vigor of contemporary street art, a chorus of impulses collide in this broken, brutal death’s-head of creative power. It meets our gaze with furious intensity.
Basquiat’s repeated use of anatomical imagery —skeletons, musculature, and internal organs —coincides with an ever more widespread tendency in his work to turn things inside out.”
While he was in hospital following a childhood car accident, Basquiat’s mother had given him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy. It helped him to understand his body as it healed, and later became a key touchstone for his art. Many of his figures reveal their bones, muscles and internal workings, as if dissected or seen through an X-ray.This gaze finds its most piercing expression in the image of the head: a charged, multivalent form in which Basquiat combined elements of portraiture, scientific drawing and the symbolic skulls of the vanitas still-life tradition. The Broad Museum’s Untitled of 1981 represents one of his earliest significant treatments of the motif, and prefigures In This Case’s kaleidoscopic force. The curator Fred Hoffman—who worked closely with the artist between 1982 and 1984—observes that Basquiat took an unusually long time to finish this painting, setting it aside for several months before returning to work. “One can only speculate about the reasons for this hesitation,” Hoffman writes, “but several individuals close to the artist—including myself and Annina Nosei, the artist’s dealer at the time—suspect that this young, unseasoned artist hesitated to complete the work because he was caught off guard, possibly even frightened, by the power and energy emanating from this unexpected image” (F. Hoffman, “The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works”, Basquiat, exh. cat. Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, p. 13).
This “power and energy” only mounted as Basquiat completed his trio of heads over the following two years. In In This Case,the impact reaches fever pitch. Graphic rays, sparks and bolts of color erupt from the confines of the skull, igniting the canvas with light and heat; seismic swathes of scarlet flood the picture plane. It is a shattering existential outburst. “What situates these canvases among his most arresting”, wrote Olivier Michelon of the trilogy, “is the violence they bring to their upending of the vanitas. Listed Untitled, the first two are sometimes dubbed Skull, while the third is titled In This Case; these cranial anatomies are not memento mori, but amplified memories played very, very loud. So loud that their presence is indisputable” (O. Michelon, “Time is Now”, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat. Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, 2018, p. 205).
In 1983, at just twenty-two years old, Basquiat was an international star. He had held solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, Zurich, Rome and Rotterdam, and in October 1982 had become the youngest artist to show at Documenta VII in Kassel, among a line-up of contemporary masters including Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly. New York, however, remained the center of his life and art. The city was a furnace of visual and aural information where everything was available, and where the influences of Haitian voodoo and TV advertisements, Picasso and subway graffiti, the Old Masters and Andy Warhol alike could meet on equal footing. From downtown billboards to the treasures of the Metropolitan Museum, Basquiat poured images, ideas and words into his works, cataloguing and juxtaposing what he saw and heard. His shamanic approach captured the city’s energy at a time when the worlds of art, fashion, music, poetry and performance frequently overlapped. Basquiat himself performed in a noise band, dated Madonna, deejayed at nightclubs and, in the winter of 1983, collaborated on canvases with Warhol. He was at the beating heart of a thrilling cultural moment, and its joyous dynamism can be felt throughout his frenetic, richly polyvocal paintings.
GELDZAHLER: Is there anger in your work now?
BASQUIAT: It’s about 80 percent anger.”
As his fame climbed ever higher, however, Basquiat remained acutely aware of his precarity as a young black man in the United States. His artworks frequently addressed the societal violence and injustice which he felt personally, and which continue to haunt America to this day. The curator Dieter Buchhart has suggested that In This Case is a tribute to Michael Stewart, a young graffiti artist killed by police officers following his arrest at a subway station in September 1983. Basquiat and Stewart moved in the same circles; Stewart was dating Basquiat’s ex-girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk at the time of his death. Basquiat would tell friends that it could have been him. “One thing that affected Jean-Michel greatly was the Michael Stewart story”, remembered Keith Haring in 1988. “… Suzanne was now going out with Michael Stewart, who was a skinny black kid. He was an artist. He looked much like Jean-Michel” (K. Haring, quoted in D. McClinton, “Defacement: the tragic story of Basquiat’s most personal painting”, The Guardian, June 28, 2019). Stewart’s death sent shockwaves through New York’s creative scene. Mallouk organized a fundraiser for his family’s legal costs, while Madonna held a benefit at the Manhattan nightclub Danceteria. Other artists including David Hammons, George Condo and Keith Haring made works in response to the tragedy, while Basquiat memorialized Stewart in one of his most explicitly political works, Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) (1983), which he executed on Haring’s wall. The title of In This Case takes on further significance in this context, perhaps alluding to the ongoing homicide inquiry. In 1985, the six officers involved would be acquitted by an all-white jury.
He was not the greatest black artist of his time, he was the greatest artist—period. Andy knew it. I knew it. Miles Davis knew it. John Lurie and Arto Lindsay and Diego Cortez knew it. Jean knew it and was correctly humble in his kingly manner. It was so obvious.”
In many of his major paintings, Basquiat portrayed his heroes. Black athletes—boxers such as Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis, and the baseball player Hank Aaron—joined jazz musicians including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington in a pantheon of personal worship, with their names repeated mantra-like across his canvases. They were men of incendiary talent, risen to positions of greatness despite the racism of American society. In his pictures, Basquiat blurred their identities with his own. He adorned them with haloes and crowns to celebrate their glory, calling on the angels, saints, messiahs and kings of art history. Yet these towering images were laced with vulnerability. Whether through rapacious promoters, personal demons or the bigotry of the industries in which they worked, Basquiat knew that many of his idols had been destroyed or burnt out by their fame: pressures he himself felt all too keenly. If many of his early self-portraits seem bedeviled by death, as the scholar bell hooks observes, even his hero-pictures are bruised and broken. “It is much too simplistic a reading”, she writes, “to see works like Jack Johnson (1982), Untitled (Sugar Ray Robinson) (1982), and the like, as solely celebrating black culture. Appearing always in these paintings as half-formed or somehow mutilated, the black male body becomes, iconographically, a sign of lack and absence … these figures have been worked down to the bone” (b. hooks, “Altars of Sacrifice, Re-membering Basquiat”, Art in America, June 1993). In This Case exhibits this same fragility. Like a mask cracking under pressure, it reveals an image in overdrive, a body on the verge of breakdown.
The work of Jean-Michel Basquiat opens up opportunities to experience paintings and drawings in a new dimension. The overwhelming collection of references that we find on these surfaces—across geographies, chronologies, and histories—forces us to move differently as art historians.”
While shadowed by mortality, In This Case buzzes with the vitality of Basquiat’s own nervous system. His physical instincts zip feverishly across the canvas. “[Basquiat] constructs an intensity of line which reads like a polygraph report, a brain-to-hand ‘shake’”, writes Diego Cortez (D. Cortez, quoted in R. D. Marshall and J-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, vol. 1, Paris, 2000, p. 160). These synaptic convulsions are played out in the volatile eloquence of Basquiat’s brushwork, which moves seamlessly between abstraction and figuration, the past and the present, the streets and the studio. “If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption it would be Jean-Michel”, Rene Ricard wrote in 1981. “The elegance of Twombly is there from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet” (R. Ricard, “The Radiant Child”, Artforum, Volume XX, No. 4, December 1981, p. 43). Both Twombly’s lyrical scrawl and Dubuffet’s vivid, primitivist figuration resound in In This Case. The work equally plays with the overlaid Cubist perspectives of Picasso—whom Basquiat both admired and sought to challenge, finding irony in his own “discovery” of African art through a European artist—and the exuberant, gestural paintwork of Abstract Expressionists such as de Kooning, Pollock and Rauschenberg. If Basquiat’s line is emotional, it is also critical, with a sharp eye on his own place among the masters.
If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption it would be Jean-Michel. The elegance of Twombly is there [and] from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet.”
Self-representation, if not self-portraiture per se, was central to Basquiat’s practice. Whether depicting himself directly or not, he stamped his work with an unambiguous black presence. The early work We Have Decided the Bullet Must Have Been Going Very Fast (1979-80) features the artist’s blood literally spilled on the page, and in 1981, with more than a hint of voodoo magic, he made a sculpture by adorning a painted football helmet with clippings of his hair. As a memorial to Michael Stewart and a statement of Basquiat’s own existence, In This Case is an image of beauty as well as pain. Occupying a space historically reserved for whiteness, it asserts a radical incursion into Western art, not unlike the ghostly “body prints” of David Hammons, or, in a more painterly vein, the black subjects of Kerry James Marshall. Like Basquiat, these artists move beyond the white gaze to depict African-American experience in all its variety, nuance and splendor. “The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings,” Basquiat told the journalist Cathleen McGuigan in 1985. “I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them” (J-M. Basquiat, quoted in C. McGuigan, “New Art, New Money”, New York Times,February 10, 1985).
Beyond his anatomy books and his autopsies of art history, Basquiat’s attention to the head’s internal workings can be viewed as part of a broader interest in looking beneath the surfaces of the exterior world. In In This Case, he conjures a living, self-conscious picture of his own mind and his layered, multi-channeled cognition of reality at large: his treatment of the head is conceptual as well as pictorial, gazing both inward and outward. The painting’s brilliant complexity speaks to the process of an artist who sampled, organized and synthesized data from a dizzying array of sensory dimensions—movies, music, books, paintings, New York street life, his own memories—onto a single plane. Its cranial anatomy provides a structure on which Basquiat builds and improvises, like a jazz soloist riffing on an underlying theme. The mechanical elements make the head into a cyborg-like hybrid of man and machine, echoing the cogs, wheels and reels of recording equipment. Basquiat’s audiovisual intelligence whirs into life. The eye, the window to the soul, stares out from the picture’s fiery core.
Raw and gentle, savage and caring, rough and sophisticated, naive and precocious, simple and intricate, material and spiritual. These juxtapositions and seeming negations all seem to co-exist in the artist, the body of work he has left behind, and in this masterpiece. A vibrant red is the dominant colour that frames most of the other elements. A single multicoloured eye looks out at the viewer with a white dial underneath through which we can see the unpainted canvas, a stripe of which is also visible on the right and which might indicate hair. It is rare for the composition to be so unitary, consisting of only one head, so large relative to the canvas, and yet consist of so many beautifully worked details. The image can be read as both a head and a skull.”