Reflecting both a search for identity and an increasing sense of personal fragmentation and dislocation, Glenn, painted in 1984, belongs to a period of intense creativity in which Basquiat, nearing the height of his fame, began to draw on an ever wider and more varied use of source material. Depicting a monstrous, feverish, ecstatic, black, mask-like head radiating with energy and emotion against a kindergarten wall-like background of pasted and colored-in photocopy drawings, the painting is one of Basquiat's most striking expressions of the vitality and power of the inner being.
Raw, instinctive and spontaneous, Basquiat's deliberately adolescent style of draftsmanship is given full range in this painting. The artist's father Gerard Basquiat recalled that "Jean Michel painted all his life". From an early age Basquiat had learned to happily lose himself in the activity of drawing, filling coloring book after coloring book and making copies of his favorite subjects and cartoon characters. By the time he was twenty and filmed in the movie New York Beat, drawing had clearly become a necessary and fundamental part of his being. As various scenes in this film demonstrate, words, images, phrases of all kinds seem to have flown seamlessly and endlessly from his hand as he covered, almost absent-mindedly every available surface around him. Through the medium of the artist, Basquiat's work implies, the world in all its fascinating detail, is re-ordered and redefined. At the same time, we live at the mercy of an age overloaded with imagery and information that perpetually bombards the soul and seeks to define us. Much of Basquiat's work is concerned with the question of artistic and personal identity and how it operates in the face of this.
When Basquiat was seven years old he was hit by a car while playing in the street and injured so badly internally that his spleen had to be removed. As a way of helping her son to recover and to come to terms with the inner workings of his body, Basquiat's mother bought the young Jean Michel a copy of Gray's Anatomy. This book, with its diagrams, reproductions and encyclopedic lists of names and descriptions evidently formed a deep impression on the young artist who later named his band Gray after the book and often incorporated pages from this road-map of the human body into his art. The background of Glenn is no exception and contains numerous copies of diagrams of human organs from Gray's Anatomy amongst its collage-like assemblage of seemingly disparate and unconnected imagery. Many of Basquiat's figures, both self-portraits, and heroes also display and reveal their inner organs in a way that seems to speak of a fragmentation of their inner being. A frequent motif in this respect is the kind of tormented mask-like black head of the kind that dominates this painting and is repeated in numerous photocopied drawings in the background. This skull-like head, normally empty-eyed and open-mouthed and screaming, as here, is used by Basquiat as a kind of totem or icon for the tormented individual soul. It forms the faces of many of his lone black heroes, and also serves, when adorned with a trademark crown or spiked dreadlocks, as a self-portrait. In Glenn, adorned with see-through jaw, checkerboard teeth and two-tone piano accordion-like keyboard radiating inside his skull, this mask-like head seems to both devor and spew the surrounding as if it were sound or music coursing both through him.
Combining visual and written information in a disjunctive but perpetual onslaught that fuses colored diagrams with seemingly meaningless lists and random images, Basquiat reveals the joint influence on him of Twombly and Leonardo. It was both the enigma and intellectual complexity of Leonardo's codexes that had inspired Twombly to attempt to visually approximate the disjointed path of the human thought process with the kind of surface scratches and scrawls of imagery and writing that permeate his paintings. Basquiat, who seems to have come to Leonardo's codexes through his love of Twombly's work adopted a similar use of fusing imagery and writing as a way of conveying a sense of the mental hurly-burly of modern urban living. Juxtaposed with his portraits of lone individuals, such imagery seems to both articulate and reinforce the heroism and loneliness of his protagonists.
The increasing breadth and range of Basquiat's influences and sources at this time in his career is perhaps reflective of the artist's own growing identity crisis and his increasing sense of living a dislocated and fragmented existence. His work, with its street references, "cut-up" collaged elements, lists and coded language can in many ways be seen as a visual equivalent of William Burroughs' later literary style. Breaking down the world into a vast and wild image-packed anatomy of bodily organs, lists and diagrams that surround the intense and vital image of a lone totemic black-faced archetype, Glenn is a work that screams with both the agony and ecstasy that underlay Basquiat's unique and dramatic life.
Mask of tezcatlipoca, Aztec era British Museum, London