'I had some money: I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. I was awful to people.' (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)
Bebop. Improvisation. Layering a multitude of styles one above another solely according to inspiration. Intuitive free-flowing form pouring like a torrent out of the mind of the genius with all the spontaneous vital energy of the moment, articulated through all the patterns of colour, syncopated rhythm and intensity that this virtuoso can muster. This is the art form that Jean Michel Basquiat most admired and which he both exulted and emulated in paint in the year 1982.
More than just being the music that Basquiat listened to, Bebop is the rhythm that he lived by. The essence of hip and of the art of Jazz, Bebop is also much more. It is also the poetry of the great Romantics, the Symbolists and in particular the Beats. It is not only Charlie Parker blowing his horn hot and cool in an improvised session with Dizzy Gillespie but also Jack Kerouac sitting alone by the roadside making his typewriter sing out a whole new rhythm of words in protest at America and in praise of its 'mad ones'. All those who are 'mad to live, mad to talk and mad to be saved.' All those who are 'desirous of everything at the same time... who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!" It is William Blake and Samuel Coleridge. And it is Jackson Pollock pouring his gnarled and uncomfortable soul out of a paint tin in a wood shed in the post hangover dawn of a Long Island summer. Bebop is William Burroughs stumbling through the backstreets, nerve-wracked and defiant, in his body-aching search for 'junk'. It is Heroin dreams of Tangier and New Orleans - the teenage Arthur Rimbaud's rational derangement of the senses and every story of the lost black genius of the Mississippi Delta from Robert Johnson to Jimi Hendrix that you've ever heard. 'Hammering Hank' Aaron, 'Sugar Ray' Robinson, and Cassius Clay 'floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee', this art is both a rite of passage and the birth of cool. A baptism of fire and a plunge into the abyss, it is a mixture of Lester Young's 'Leap' and Slim Gaillard's 'Palm Springs Jump'. A combination of joyous spiritual exultation and deep downtown despair, it is that unique blend of what Basquiat himself described as 'royalty, heroism and the streets'.
Painted in 1982, Palm Springs Jump is one of the great exuberant paintings exalting this spirit of improvised adventure and achievement that Basquiat made in a surge of drug and music-fuelled creativity during the heady days when he had just broken through to star status. Marking his ascension to the big time, these paintings, widely regarded as among Basquiat's best, both celebrate and define an entire pantheon of characters - saints, kings, heroes and villains radiating, rising and falling at the edge of Basquiat's consciousness. Here, personal heroes like Hank Aaron and Joe Louis adorned with crowns and haloes rage terrifyingly in a mixture of triumph or anger amidst a downtown barrage of colourful pictorial flotsam scrawled, splashed and drawn from disparate sources. Applied with all the frenetic energy and hyperactive imagination of a kid surging on a sugar rush in front of Saturday morning cartoons, comic-book figures mix and fuse on Basquiat's canvases with words and images taken from a wide range of sources that all lay immediately to hand in his chaotic crash-pad of a studio. Here passages from Leonardo's notebooks meet consumer product labels and song lyrics. Trademarks and diagrams from Gray's Anatomy become enlightened by repetitive phrases passing through the artist's head and the authoritarian but also strangely surreal sign- language of the city's streets. Drawing on the assemblage and borrowing nature of artistic heroes like Picasso and Rauschenberg, Basquiat, who Reni Ricard, memorably defined at this time as an orphan child of Jean Dubuffet and Cy Twombly, forged a gumbo-like fusion of pictorial style that spoke of the vitality of experience with a raw and spontaneous energy of painterly expression.
With its two electrified and screaming figures crowned with haloes, Palm Springs Jump is a work that compositionally echoes several other important paintings from this dynamic period, most notably the Untitled painting known as Baptism. The theme of baptism as a ritualistic act of purification, a rite of passage and birthing experience that seems to mark the inauguration of the hero or saint figure in many of Basquiat's works from this period. Standing with arms raised in a pose that simultaneously signals both triumph and rage, the ambiguity of whether these figures are rising or falling is left open and in retrospect seems to echo the free-floating sensation Basquiat himself felt at this time when the vertigo of his meteoric rise to fame first began to exacerbate his inner demons of insecurity and paranoia.
Electrifying and immediate, like everything in Basquiat's work, the fiercely memorable demonic heroes or saintly villains of these 1982 paintings are transcendent and extraordinary figures seemingly trapped in the simultaneous agony and ecstasy of the moment. Appropriately enough, the 'jump' of Palm Springs Jump seems to be part baptismal plunge, part leap of faith and part dance-step. The painting takes its title, from the fast-paced jazz dance-hit of 1942 'Palm Springs Jump' performed by Bullee 'Slim' Gaillard and the Flat Foot Floogie Boys.
Slim Gaillard, jazz musician and creator of his own improvised jive language 'named 'Vout' or 'Vout Oreenee' was a legendary figure who in Beatnik circles in particular was lauded and remembered not just for his music and close association with the fathers of Bebop Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie, but primarily for a memorable and oft-quoted passage in Jack Kerouac's Beatnik bible On the Road.
'One night' Kerouac wrote, 'we suddenly went mad together again; we went to see Slim Gaillard in a little Frisco nightclub. Slim Gaillard is a tall, thin Negro with big sad eyes who's always saying 'Right-orooni' and 'How 'bout a little bourbon-arooni.' In Frisco great eager crowds of young semi-intellectuals sat at his feet and listened to him on the piano, guitar and bongo drums. When he gets warmed up he takes off his undershirt and really goes. He does and says anything that comes into his head. He'll sing 'Cement Mixer, Put-ti Put-ti' and suddenly slow down the beat and brood over his bongos with fingertips barely tapping the skin as everybody leans forward breathlessly to hear; you think he'll do this for a minute or so, but he goes right on, for as long as an hour, making an imperceptible little noise with the tips of his fingernails, smaller and smaller all the time till you can't hear it any more and sounds of traffic come in the open door. Then he slowly gets up and takes the mike and says, very slowly, 'Great-orooni ... fine-ovauti ... hello-orooni ... bourbon-orooni ... all-orooni ... how are the boys in the front row making out with their girls-orooni ... orooni ... vauti ... oroonirooni ...' He keeps this up for fifteen minutes, his voice getting softer and softer till you can't hear. His great sad eyes scan the audience.
Dean stands in the back, saying, 'God! Yes!' -- and clasping his hands in prayer and sweating. 'Sal, Slim knows time, he knows time.' Slim sits down at the piano and hits two notes, two C's, then two more, then one, then two, and suddenly the big burly bass-player wakes up from a reverie and realizes Slim is playing 'C-Jam Blues' and he slugs in his big forefinger on the string and the big booming beat begins and everybody starts rocking and Slim looks just as sad as ever, and they blow jazz for half an hour, and then Slim goes mad and grabs the bongos and plays tremendous rapid Cubana beats and yells crazy things in Spanish, in Arabic, in Peruvian dialect, in Egyptian, in every language he knows, and he knows innumerable languages. Finally the set is over; each set takes two hours. Slim Gaillard goes and stands against a post, looking sadly over everybody's head as people come to talk to him. A bourbon is slipped into his hand. 'Bourbon-orooni -- thank-you-ovauti ...' Nobody knows where Slim Gaillard is. Dean once had a dream that he was having a baby and his belly was all bloated up blue as he lay on the grass of a California hospital. Under a tree, with a group of colored men, sat Slim Gaillard. Dean turned despairing eyes of a mother to him. Slim said, 'There you go-orooni.' Now Dean approached him, he approached his God; he thought Slim was God; he shuffled and bowed in front of him and asked him to join us. 'Right-orooni,' says Slim; he'll join anybody but won't guarantee to be there with you in spirit. Dean got a table, bought drinks, and sat stiffly in front of Slim. Slim dreamed over his head. Every time Slim said, 'Orooni,' Dean said 'Yes!' I sat there with these two madmen. Nothing happened. To Slim Gaillard the whole world was just one big orooni.'
The Beats took their name from the drug-infused term 'beat' meaning both exhausted and exalted that Kerouac had first heard from a street-hustler in Times Square. Kerouac added a spiritual dimension to this term 'beat' bestowing on it the also saintly connotation of 'beatific' and meaning also 'hip' in the sense of being 'on the beat'. Like Basquiat, Sal Paradise (Kerouac's alter ego in On the Road) is a fanatical devotee of Bebop and all the freedom, fusion and invention that it stands for. Part of the 'New York Beat'- the original title of Glenn O'Brien's movie Downtown 8 in which Basquiat (as SAMO) starred - Basquiat's paintings are a pictorial expression of Beat attitude brought up to date in the distinctly urban arena of rundown street-life in early 1980s NewYork. An admirer of Kerouac and Burroughs, with whom he later spent much time, Basquiat's great 1982 paintings are spontaneous and fluid creations that attempt to give colourful pictorial form to this timeless and richly romantic all-inclusive view of life. Palm Springs Jump is no exception. Using raw adolescent vigour and a painterly confidence that belies his youth, it is a spontaneous, joyous and almost primal celebration of a great leap into life with all its glory and terror. Strong, vivid, rich and enduring it is a powerful and youthful affirmation of the great 'orooni'.