‘… the struggle against the past
would be tomorrow
with x-ray eyes
through the stone walls
through the mountains of flesh
through the brain projections
through all the books of mathematics
—A.R. PENCK, POEM DEDICATED TO J-M. BASQUIAT, 1984
‘Andy [Warhol] collages photos, I collage my own hand’ —J-M. BASQUIAT
‘A poet, a scribbler, a scrawler was he … A bruja, a badass witchy-man with crayon sticks and xerox machines who had his tricks and poultices, his incantations and his shrines, his potions, haints, and elixirs, his free-verse block printing and his mojo handwriting on the walls’ —G. TATE
Towering above the viewer, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Alpha Particles stages an explosive collision of word, image and gesture, channelling fable, fantasy and physics into a psychedelic tableau. Within a fortress of rough-hewn crenulations, the artist improvises a symphony of signs, glyphs and pictograms: a dissonant chain of non-sequiturs, duplications, interruptions and deviations. In the top right-hand corner, a five-headed being evokes the multi-faced Panchamukhi Hanuman of Hindu folklore. A scientific diagram unfolds beneath a misspelt headline – ‘predatory white bass’ – along with a list of geographic territories. Aircraft spiral out of control beneath a blazing red ball of energy, whilst an elephant sits upright in a pool of yellow paint. Though Basquiat’s graffitist roots loom large in the work’s energetic scrawl, its sporadic silkscreened elements – along with the artist’s appropriation of copyright and trademark symbols – bear witness to the important influence of his friend and mentor Andy Warhol, with whom he would begin a landmark series of collaborations that year. Ranging from entire motifs to individual symbols and discrete blocks of colour, Basquiat’s silkscreened fragments reproduce his own drawings and gestures in dialogue with impulsive streaks of oil and crayon. Whereas ‘Andy collages photos’, Basquiat explained, ‘I collage my own hand’ (J-M. Basquiat, quoted in R. Farris Thompson, ‘Royalty, Heroism, and the Streets: The Art of Jean- Michel Basquiat’, in G. Lock and D. Murray (eds.), The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Culture, Oxford 2008, p. 266). Art historical inflections abound: the bold colour fields of Abstract Expressionism, the juxtaposed imagery of Robert Rauschenberg and the primal graphism of Pablo Picasso. Motifs recur from previous canvases: the hand-drawn elephant, in particular, appears in several major works from this year, including Melting Point of Ice (Broad Foundation, Santa Monica). In the present work, the depth of Basquiat’s frenzied tableau becomes apparent under UV lighting, revealing a plethora of additional scrawlings erased by swathes of white paint. A veritable palimpsest of imagery and technique, Alpha Particles offers a complex slice of the artist’s multi-lingual, multi-media universe.
1984 was an important year for Basquiat. Following his rapid rise to fame during the early part of the decade, the artist began to consolidate his success through a series of new endeavours and partnerships. His friendship with Warhol gave rise to one of twentieth century’s most fascinating series of artistic collaborations, uniting two generational figureheads of American painting. ‘It was like some crazy art-world marriage and they were the odd couple’, recalls Ronnie Cutrone. ‘… Jean- Michel gave Andy a rebellious image again’ (R. Cutrone, quoted in V. Bockris, Warhol: The Biography, Cambridge 2003, pp. 461-62). As well as acquiring a new studio in Hawaii and mounting his first solo museum exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, Basquiat also began a significant working relationship with New York dealer Mary Boone, who represented established figures such as Julian Schnabel and Eric Fischl. Recalling his debut exhibition at her gallery that May, Jeff Bretschneider describes how ‘Jean had moved into blue-chip status. Andy was standing in the entrance of the gallery, and he stood there the entire length of the show. It was a barometer to where Jean was in the art world … The opening was like a circus. It was like the Day of the Locusts, with people pushing up against this velvet rope that separated Jean-Michel from the thronging mass, and Jean-Michel was letting in whoever he thought was appropriate. Some woman offered Jean her baby, and he lifted it up with his arms above him, and looked at us with a big smile. I’ll never forget that’ (J. Bretschneider, quoted in P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, New York 1998, p. 236). As this anecdote attests, Basquiat’s fame had, by this stage, elevated him to almost messianic status – an attribution that would be strengthened by his untimely death just a few years later at the age of twenty-seven. ‘I’m not a real person. I’m a legend’, he once quipped (J-M. Basquiat, quoted at http://www.vanityfair.com/news/1988/11/jean-michel-basquiat [accessed 25 January 2017]).
The destructive power of the alpha particle – a helium-like structure ejected from the nucleus of a radioactive atom – offers a curiously poetic foil for Basquiat’s aesthetic. ‘His hand was swift and sure’, wrote Robert Storr. ‘The images that trailed behind it crackled and exploded like fireworks shot from the back of a speeding flatbed truck’ (R. Storr, ‘What Becomes a Legend Most?’ in Basquiat, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2010, p. xxxv). Working within the gritty milieu of post- Punk New York, Basquiat’s art was nourished by the perpetual flux of his surroundings: the steady stream of cartoons that blared from his television, the conflicting strains of music that pounded through the streets, the degenerate layers of posters that peeled from the walls, and the textbooks and novels that flickered through his brain. As a child he devoured images ranging from Gray’s Anatomy to Picasso’s Guernica; his earliest memory was of being hit by a car. Immediacy and instability lay at the heart of his visual language, from his earliest sweeps of the spray can to the large-scale paintings that consolidated his international reputation in 1982. By the time of the present work, Basquiat’s earlier streams of consciousness had settled into tighter pictorial constructs, filtered through contrasting media to create dense, multi-dimensional planes. The flood of images and data – though still as haphazard as ever – now operated in dialogue with an expanded repertoire of image-making techniques: collage, photocopying and, as in Alpha Particles, silkscreen. By reproducing his own hand in the medium through which Warhol had immortalised Elvis, Marilyn and Coca-Cola, Basquiat went one step further towards cementing his own mythic status.