Iconic and exuberant, Made in Japan I is a powerful work from Jean-Michel Basquiat's early oeuvre. Executed with bold painterly gestures and graphic virtuosity on a striking black background, the work encapsulates the unique fusion of stylistic vocabularies that defines the artist's vibrant urban aesthetic. Inspired by visual sources ranging from anatomical textbooks to cartoons to street art and commercial advertising, Basquiat's career shot to meteoric levels in 1982, the date of the present work. This was a breakthrough period for the twenty-two-year-old African American artist, whose extraordinary succession of six solo shows that year propelled him to unprecedented global stardom in a predominantly white-dominated industry. Reveling in the creative freedom afforded by his newly-acquired studio in SoHo, Basquiat produced some of his most impressive works during this climactic period, including LNAPRK (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), Agony of the Feet (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem) and Six Crimee (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles). The present work takes its place within this trailblazing output as a self-assured portrait, combining the artist's raw graffiti-esque impulses with his signatory stylization of the human skull, and indicating his lineage in twentieth-century masters such as Pablo Picasso and Jean Dubuffet. The work's enigmatic title--Made in Japan I--also signals Basquiat's increasing interest in the consumerist world engaged by Pop Art, later ratified in the artist's era-defining collaborations with Andy Warhol. In its gritty poeticism, the work is situated at the height of what has become universally recognized as one of the world's most stratospheric artistic careers, tragically cut short just six years later.
Starting his career as a street artist in downtown Manhattan during the late 1970s, by 1982 Basquiat had secured an international reputation among dealers, critics and fellow artists, thus cementing his transition from an itinerant high school rebel to a leading figure of the contemporary art scene. Following his debut success in the 1981 group exhibition New York/New Wave at PS1, the artist was granted his first one-man show at Annina Nosei's New York gallery in March 1982. After receiving rave reviews, further solo exhibitions followed in Los Angeles, Zurich, Rome and Rotterdam, as well as a prestigious invitation to Documenta 7 in West Germany, where Basquiat was the youngest exhibited artist within a line-up that included established contemporary masters such as Cy Twombly, Gerhard Richter and Joseph Beuys. Basquiat had moved out of Nosei's basement studio into a liberating seven-story loft space at 151 Crosby Street, driving his work to new and ambitious heights. Reflecting upon the remarkable developments of 1982, Basquiat recalled "I had some money: I made the best paintings ever," (J-M. Basquiat, quoted in C. McGuigan, "New Art New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist," in The New York Times Magazine, February 10, 1985, p. 74). Yet amidst his growing fame and new-found financial independence, Basquiat retained close ties with the urban milieu of his earlier youth. Exhibiting his work at the Fun Gallery--an under-funded space in the East Village that supported the work of graffiti artists--Basquiat continued to express solidarity with his former comrades.
As well as absorbing the established precedents of art history, Basquiat was highly attuned to the constant stream of contemporary stimuli that surrounded him. An avid watcher of children's cartoons, as well as a keen rap musician and jazz enthusiast, his works are often underpinned by a sense of almost electrified reification. The present work, with its over-exposed palette and rapid lines pulsating like live wires, brings to mind an X-ray photograph or a digitally-enhanced image. Indeed, the almost fibrous red and white lines that surround the top and side of the skull create a compelling illusion that the head is electronically wired-in to some external device - a music player, perhaps. As Diego Cortez has written about a similar work, Head of a Madman, "[Basquiat] constructs an intensity of line which reads like a polygraph report, a brain-to-hand 'shake.' The figure is electronic-primitive-comic," (D. Cortez, quoted in R. D. Marshall and J-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, vol. 1, Paris, 2000, p. 160). Articulated through an almost notational painterly scrawl, the skull-like head in Made in Japan I reflects the buzzing feedback loop invoked by Cortez, vibrating with a rhythmic intensity that compels the viewer. Evocative of the drug-fueled, heady haze that gripped 1980s New York, the work has a psychedelic quality that runs in playful counterpoint against its rich art-historical heritage.
Like many of his greatest works, Made in Japan I is indelibly inscribed with the traces of Basquiat's formative years on the streets of New York, executed with the same expressive gestural freedom that defined his poetic graffiti tags as a teenager. Unlike some of Basquiat's more frenetic paintings, littered with lists of words and multiple symbols, Made in Japan I has a motivic simplicity and formal poise that bears witness to the artist's unique sense of design. This had been an important element in Basquiat's earlier street-based endeavours, exemplified not only in his creation of a strong visual identity for his graffiti ("SAMO", short for "same old..."), but also in the hand-made t-shirts, sweat-shirts and postcards that had constituted his initial source of income. Looking back on Basquiat's street years, his friend Fab 5 Freddy recollects "...he had just had his first show, painting on clothes, at Patricia Field's gallery. He was making these sweat-shirts with the words 'MAN-MADE' painted on them," (F. Braithwaite, interviewed by I. Sischy, in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 1996, unpaged). The title of the present work - Made in Japan I - may be seen to evoke this same world of textile production, magnified onto a global scale and signaling the artist's growing interest in commercialized processes; indeed, it was during this year--1982--that Basquiat was invited to visit Warhol's so-called "Factory" for the first time. With its strong sense of graphic awareness and lyrically inscribed slogan "EROKHEHL," the present work deftly combines allusion to product design and manufacture with the artist's mesmerizing painterly hand.
Made in Japan I illustrates Basquiat's growing maturity as an artist, bringing together multiple visual lexicons in the manner for which his work is celebrated. With its almost primitivistic facial features and quasi-sculptural contours, the work presents a skeletal rendering of the human head - one of the artist's most distinctive recurring subjects, and a particular source of fascination for him during the crucial years of 1981-1982. As a child, Basquiat was entranced by the copy of Grey's Anatomy given to him by his mother, and his obsession with the structure of the human form was to become a key driving force behind much of his work. Other sources devoured by Basquiat included Paul Richer's Artistic Anatomy, a 1966 volume entitled Leonardo da Vinci and Burchard Brentjes' book African Rock Art, thus exposing the artist to a diverse array of anatomical representation - from ethnic cave painting to the Renaissance and beyond. This wide-ranging referential compass was complemented by Basquiat's own efforts in the early 1980s to explore the work of artists he admired. In the present work, the quasi-Cubist arrangement of eyes, nose and mouth, as well as the almost tribal sense of patterning, recalls the work of Picasso, an artist to whom Basquiat is widely considered to be the contemporary heir. The influence of Jean Dubuffet's Art Brut is also evident in the work's raw execution and its palpable sense of primal energy. Cy Twombly - another artist for whom graffiti has provided an essential source of inspiration - was equally admired by Basquiat for his exquisite handling of line, evinced by the quivering schismatic linearity of the present work. As the critic Ren Ricard wrote in his now-famous appraisal, "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 so is the brut of the young Dubuffet," (R. Ricard, "The Radiant Child," in Artforum, December 1981, p. 35).
Reflecting the multifaceted strands of Basquiat's developing artistic language, Made in Japan I is truly cosmopolitan in its outlook. As the artist took his place on the global stage, his stylistic vocabulary continued to ricochet around a vast arena of influences--from the historical to the contemporary, from the urban to the academic, from the artistically-motivated to the scientifically-inspired. Yet despite its skillful navigation of multiple visual registers, the present work retains an indestructible sense of individuality. As Marc Mayer has written, "[Basquiat] papers over all other voices but his own, hallucinating total control of his proprietary information as if he were the author of all he transcribed, every diagram, every formula, every cartoon character... without making any allowances for the real-life look of the world outside his authorized universe," (M. Mayer, "Basquiat in History," in Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, 2005, p. 48). It is this powerful sense of identity that continues to uphold the enduring visual quality of Basquiat's works.