‘He beat Picasso on a technical knockout. He took the crown by the horny horns’ (G. O’Brien, ‘Willie Mays © vs. Picasso’ in E. Navarra (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, 3rd ed., Paris 2000, p. 61).
Evocative at once of tombstone, baseball card and religious idol, Untitled (1981) is an electrifying creation. The work brilliantly captures Jean-Michel Basquiat’s streetwise synthesis of black heroism, royalty and urban aesthetics: executed on a found wooden panel with its grain still exposed, a rich palimpsest of symbols and icons appears in multiple layers of acrylic, oilstick and paper collage. A scrawled black face outlined in red and yellow takes centre stage, topped with one of Basquiat’s signature golden crowns; other crowns, partly hidden beneath screes of black and white paint, repeat up the right-hand corner of the composition. Beneath the central figure is a grid reminiscent of a baseball game’s scoreboard, which Basquiat has numbered 1 through 9 in his typical fondness for lists, above two schematically drawn baseballs. Overlapping the grid, the name ‘Aaron’ is written in diminishing blue script, identifying the work as one of Basquiat’s many tributes to the baseball star Hank Aaron. Amongst Basquiat’s pantheon of black heroes, which included other baseball players, boxers such as Joe Louis and jazz artists like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, Aaron stands out as one of the most frequent cast members: his name is also echoed in the streams of iterated ‘A’s that appear throughout Basquiat’s early oeuvre. In elevating African-American athletes and musicians to royal or saintly status with his crown, Basquiat also frequently applies these associations to himself, conjuring a compound identity of majestic black personas. While Basquiat’s vibrant rehearsals of his heroes’ identities enabled him to celebrate them as champions, conquerors and kings, they also let him evoke the complexities of racial history in the United States: intricate, intertwined strata of personal and cultural pasts are embedded in the pictograms, hieroglyphs and physical layers of his art. Richard D. Marshall explains Hank Aaron’s particular significance in this sense. ‘Aaron spent most of his career in obscurity and had to struggle with the racial indignities prevalent in the United States … Although he was the “most valuable player” on his semi-professional team, he still suffered insults and abuse from the biased baseball fans of the South. Jackie Robinson, another of Basquiat’s favourites, had previously broken the colour barrier for blacks by being signed into the Major Leagues, which allowed Aaron to be signed by the Atlanta Braves baseball team in 1952. Prior to that, Hank Aaron had played baseball for a segregated, black professional team, the Indianapolis Clowns. It is certain that the inherent racism revealed by referring to an all-black team as “Clowns,” and the fact that the city of Indianapolis and the Atlanta Braves were both named after another population of subjugated and enslaved peoples, the American Indians, was not overlooked by Basquiat. It is interesting to note that Basquiat had included Aaron in his battalion of black heroes a year before Aaron was formally inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982’ (R. D. Marshall, ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat and his Subjects,’ in E. Navarra (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, 3rd ed., Paris 2000, pp. 30-32). Untitled, then, stands as a multivalent talisman: a vibrant artefact of Hank Aaron’s life as much as of Basquiat’s practice, and resounding with his own vital importance to African-American culture.
JOHNNY DEPP’S ESSAY ON BASQUIAT
On a turbulent flight out of Vienna, en route to Paris, I was asked to write a couple of pages about the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The passengers on this bumpy journey – Enrico Navarra, Sebastian Moreu, and myself were in the throes of what happened to be an enormous Austrian pork hock... at least we hoped it was. We’d acquired the beast at a small, run down, carnival-like market on the edge of Vienna. Our feast was primitive and ferocious. Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that it had been at least 24 hours since any solid had slithered down my gullet and my appetite was ravenous. And now, here we were, bearing down on this greasy pig meat and all too grateful for it, even as the plane dipped and jilted us around like kewpee dolls. The brain has been fed well that day, having just seen a collection of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s works and then on to another museum for a quick peak at a huge Warhol exhibition. All this information, in the matter of a few hours, is enough stimulation to drive any man to the nearest carnival-like market and throw down all of his coin for as much pork as humanly possible. So we did just that...
Between bites, Enrico brought up the idea of me writing something for the new and updated big book of Basquiat paintings he was about to re-publish. He said that if I wrote the piece, I should, at all costs, try to avoid writing about Basquiat’s life. Everyone, it seems, has a tendency to write more about the man than the work itself. This seemed fair enough, especially since I didn’t know the guy and had never met him, so the only thing that I really have is my opinion and my take on the legacy of what he left behind... in art. That, and of course, we seemed to share the same affinity for pork products. However, it is almost impossible to speak about his works without it becoming a crude dissection of the man. On any canvas or drawing, he spilled himself... maybe even without wanting to. His thoughts, his feelings – however fleeting, unfinished or incomplete are captured in that moment when he connected with his target. Early drawings show that he even literally shed his own blood onto the paper as proof of his commitment to the piece, his art... an acceptance of his destiny. A blood fusion, like a voodoo ritual, making the man and his art inseparable, an unholy bond merging the two into one.
If we really get down to brass tacks here, we can begin by saying that Basquiat is not for everyone. Much like pork is not for everyone. You either get it, or you don’t. One either loves with a passion, or despises with a vengeance. I’ve never heard of anyone saying, ‘Well, he’s okay, I guess...’ No, to my knowledge, that doesn’t happen with Basquiat. This is a very difficult result to achieve in any art form. The capability of not merely floating nicely in the middle, like a medium-tempered, semi-well-intentioned, virtually-invisible neighbor, whose passivity grates on one’s very being, but rather, the ability to speed like a bullet into the brains and bodies of the many jaded, and therefore ruined, intellectual art-hag and simpleton alike. That is the objective. It is a game of hit or miss. And when this motherfucker hits, he hits hard, on many levels.
There are some of his works that kill me and some that do absolutely nothing for me. But once you are touched by him, you are burned into either a kind of emotional stillness, or you may find yourself on the verge of doubling over into a painful belly laugh. Because as much honesty and history and life experience that he spewed into his drawings, paintings, objects, writings, whatever ... he had a killer sense of humor. Even in some of his most poignant works, his devilish sense of the absurd came through like gangbusters, completely unfiltered. As did his heartfelt disappointments in the human race, and his hopes for it. The signature imagery that comes to mind: the crown, the halo of thorns, portraits stripped of flesh, vital organs pumping blood- blue veined or devoid of any life, his childhood heroes Hank Aaron and Charlie Parker, etc., sainted for all eternity, the homage to his ancestry, endless references to his childhood ... he splayed himself open like a can of sardines for all of us to pick at, as he, in fact, devoured us.
He was never truly able to hide his feelings or influence in the work. He openly acknowledged Cy Twombly, Picasso, the word juxtaposition of William Burroughs and Brian Gyson, Andy Warhol, Leonardo da Vinci, Be Bop Jazz, T.V. programs and cartoons. He sometimes even used the drawings of his friends’ children as inspirations. His deep understanding and profound confusion with the American culture that he practically drowned himself in, was also an infinite reservoir from which he could draw upon for his chaotic assaults.
Looking at these works, one cannot escape without feeling the almost perverse sense of care taken to raw detail with what seems an acute distracted concentration. However crude the image may be or how fast it appears to have been executed – every line, mark, scratch, drip, footprint, fingerprint, word, letter, rip and imperfection is there because he allowed it to be there.
His paintings and drawings come alive for me every time I look at them, and if Jean-Michel Basquiat had stuck around for a bit longer, I like to think that he might have eventually moved into animation, for a time at least, combining his music, his language and drawings into an arena seemingly more palatable to the rank and file, but one that would have opened the floodgates for his messages to attack the masses. Something akin to Lenny Bruce’s ‘Thank You Mask Man’, an ingenious weapon that enabled him to scatter his divine tirades out into the world without the hammer of censorship slamming him hard.
Had Jean-Michel Basquiat lived through the fatal times that eventually took him away from this world, there’s no telling what he would’ve been able to do. The possibilities are endless.
Nothing can replace the warmth and immediacy of Basquiat’s poetry, or the absolute questions and truths that he delivered. The beautiful and disturbing music of his paintings, the cacophony of his silence that attacks our senses, will live far beyond our breath. Basquiat was, and is music ... primitive and ferocious.
Published in E. Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, pp. 16-17.