Executed in 1986, the epic scale and profound title of Negro-Period instantly place it in the pantheon of great Basquiat paintings musing on the history of the black struggle, such as El Gran Espectaculo (History of Black People) from 1983. With its intricate construction and dense surface application with a variety of media, Basquiat has here combined the methodical evolution of his painterly construction with the intensity and chaos of his creative whirlwind to create an object which combines historical narrative with the burning fires of its expression. Two of the painting's three panels are dominated by Basquiat's intensely tangled, stream-of-consciousness drawings, which have been layered into a dysfunctional storyboard of multiple origins and meanings. The chaos of these red-framed vignettes is poetically juxtaposed with a crudely painted lone black figure against a pale, vacant background. Such totemic icons are a recurrent feature of Basquiat's work, facing the world as both personal embodiments and public crusades against the marginalization of black males in society. From the start of his tragically brief career, Basquiat had always placed issues of black identity at the centre of his art. He often invoked African-American musicians, sportsmen and political figures in his work, drawing from a personal pantheon of twentieth century icons such as Malcolm X, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Hank Aaron, and Sugar Ray Robinson. Functioning as role models, these public personas provided the artist with the grand lineage of black heroism that he desperately sought both in his life and in his art. But as Negro Period illustrates, Basquiat did not restrict himself to painting black stars, he also often celebrated the anonymous black man in viscerally immediate 'primitive' figures and floating heads. Like his poignant tribute to a boxing legend in St. Joe Louis Surrounded by Snakes (1982) or the politically charged Irony of the Negro Policeman (1981), these figures also serve as projections of the artist's fears, anxieties, and rage.
The collaged surface had appealed to Basquiat as early as 1978, when he sold punk-inspired postcards on Manhattan's streets to get by. Here, the highly textural and richly layered surface of wood, paint, bottle caps and xeroxes reveals an impulse towards a multimedia construction that is reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg's early 'Combines'. Both artists created dense surfaces of disparate items, conveying the scavenged detritus of contemporary urban life. The recycling of previously executed drawings in the form of the xeroxes also point to another major influence in Basquiat's life and career: his friend and mentor, Andy Warhol. The pair spent many months collaborating on paintings in Warhol's 'factory' in 1984-5 and had often socialized together. It is therefore likely Basquiat was familiar with Warhol's recently executed Retrospective paintings that re-appropriated his own already appropriated imagery, transforming it into a reinvention of his creative legacy. Yet, while Basquiat had certainly searched for a paternal figure in Warhol, their aesthetic could not be more dissimilar. Negro Period expertly combines graffiti, collage, spontaneous painterly expression and personally symbology into a work of raw vitality.
The title of this painting seems to be a knowing aside to Picasso's liberal quotation of African sculpture in the Spaniard's own 'Negro Period', as well as a statement about Basquiat's uniquely elevated status in the art world. Barely twenty-six years old when he created this work, Basquiat had already become an art star whose inimitable street inflected style was hotly demanded in the era's bull market. Since arriving on New York's downtown scene in the late 1970s as graffiti artist and poet SAMO, he had risen to the apex of the art world by his early twenties. A 1985 issue of the New York Times Magazine bearing Basquiat's image with the slogan 'New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist,' testifies to the celebrity he achieved. Yet along with the critical raves that catapulted him to fame came the inevitable detractors and market pressures that fame forced him to navigate.
Basquiat was especially concerned about being co-opted as an art world mascot after being shouldered with the mantle of being the first black artist to ever enter the major leagues of celebrity. He had to contend, like so many of his 'heroes' with life alone in a white man's world. This basic fact must have seemed to grow more acute to the young artist as his fame grew. His close friend Keith Haring recognised that his assimilation into this realm was an uneasy one; 'From being so critical of the art scene Jean-Michel was all of a sudden becoming the thing he criticized' (K. Haring, quoted in A. Haden-Guest, True Colors, New York 1996, p. 131). Flush with money from his ever-increasing sales, Basquiat turned to drugs and profligacy to cope, famously handing out $100 bills to beggars and painting in Armani suits.
This triptych seems to convey something of Basquiat's splintered sense of self at this time. The figure on right fulfils the role of the lonely outsider, while the cacophonic layering of text, scrawls and drawn imagery to the left speaks of the psychological and sociological obstacles he encountered. These collaged elements feature anatomical drawings seemingly culled from medical textbooks (among his prized possessions was a copy of Gray's Anatomy that his mother gave him when he was seven years old) punctuated by black heads and animals, including a giraffe, an elephant, crocodile and monkey. These symbols seem to present a pseudo-scientific analysis of race, intertwining Basquiat's own personal history with the broader story of the African diaspora. Indeed, Basquiat would seek to acquaint himself with his African roots on a trip to the Ivory Coast in the same year Negro Period was painted.
The painting's diverse and ultimately elusive imagery is pervaded with the sense that the artist was talking to himself, exorcising demons, and trying to explain the way of things whilst simultaneously underscoring his fight against racial inequality. Having noted that museums and galleries left an entire segment of the population unrepresented, Basquiat addressed this glaring lacuna by declaring that "The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings" (J.-M. Basquiat, quoted in C. McGuigan, 'New Art, New Money,' The New York Times Magazine, 10 February 1985). In this way, Negro Period encapsulates the artist's desire to elevate the status of the African American male, making a painting that is both about black people and for black people.