"What (Jean-Michel) internally wanted was the affection of his father and to reconcile with him. Everything was set up for that love he didn't get. Everything. It was expected by him, a reconciliation in the end. But it never happened. And I think his father was death-scared of it" (S. Pharoah, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, Phoebe Hoban, New York 1998, p.282).
Painted in 1982, Pater is a work that lies at the heart of Jean-Michel Basquiat's creativity. When asked in an interview by Henry Geldzahler to identify the subject matter of his art, Basquiat replied succinctly, "Royalty, Heroism, the Streets". The figure of the black hero was central to this vision and became an obsession of the artist's that played a key role in the development of his art. From musicians like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Jimmy Hendrix, to sportsmen like Hank Aaron, Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammed Ali; the figure of the black hero as both saint and demon, avenger and victim became like a crucifix to Basquiat, a peg onto which he could hang his own personal fears and aspirations.
As has often been pointed out, these black heroes could also be seen as substitute father-figures which Jean-Michel idolized and sought to emulate as alternative role-models to his own father. With his mother absent for much of his childhood in various mental institutions, Basquiat had desperately needed his father's approval. Having grown distant from his father, Basquiat's adolescence was marked by his increasing absence from the family home and an equally increasing number of disciplinary actions from his concerned father. After disappearing for several months to live on the streets around Washington Square Park Jean-Michel is said to have beseechingly and prophetically announced to his father, "Papa I will be very famous one day". This often-noted insatiable desire of Jean-Michel's to become a star was another way of seeking his father's approval. Transplanting his own anxieties onto that of the violent and decadent age in which the artist lived, Basquiat's view of the world became one of New York as a Medieval fairytale. Ambiguous heroes and villains, demons and saints, gods and monsters that all reflect his own sense of unease populate his canvases. They later become drenched in a deluge of meaningless of distant and analytical language and information. Seeing through the supposed sophistication and modernity of 1980s New York and translating it with the purity and directness of a child, there is a refreshing but also violent honesty about Basquiat's work that reminded the critic Jeffrey Deitch at the time of "Lou Reed singing about heroin to nice clean-cut college kids".
"Everything I do is about 80 violence" Basquiat once declared, and Pater is a dramatic and iconic portrait in which Basquiat forcefully and consciously seems to attempt to exorcise one of his preoccupations. Scrawled in vibrant color against a dramatic abstract background, Pater with its Latin title refers to a generalized, archetypal image of a father as both hero and villain. This is a totemic father, both God-the-father of Christian teaching and a personalised vision. Like a fetish-figure from some - as yet - undiscovered tribe, the image Basquiat presents is one a forceful aggressive presence that like his black hero portraits seems to be both violator and victim, the oppressor and the oppressed, both a winner and a loser. This duality is emphasized by the scrawled halo above the figure's head and the gratified "cock and balls" slapped between his legs. It is a conscious and deliberate ambiguity common to Basquiat's art.
Crowning the figure with a halo and at the same time "slapping him up" with a humorous and crude caricature of genitalia generates a simultaneous viewpoint that represents both extremes of feeling that Basquiat must have had towards his own father. The technique used is the visual language of the streets - the crude cartoon- like graffiti of the bathroom wall. In contrast to this the rest of the figure is painted in Basquiat's own unique style - a direct and expressionistic way of painting that seems to hover between the raw vigor of childhood and the imitative stylizing of adolescence. In art as in the fields of music and sport, Basquiat too had his heroes, though these could not, of course have been black - Basquiat himself was to be the first "black" artist to really make it; a mantel that even at this early stage of his career he was finding hard to shoulder. Foremost among Basquiat's artistic heroes were, Franz Kline, Jean Dubuffet, Cy Twombly and of course, the most "heroic" of all twentieth century artists, Pablo Picasso. Indeed Richard Marshall has directly compared Pater to Picasso's work in his laudatory essay for the exhibition catalogue of Basquiat's retrospective at the Whitney in 1993. Comparing it to Homme assis a late work by Picasso from 1971 that Basquiat would have been able to see at the Pace Gallery in 1981, Marshall believes that "Picasso's work gave Basquiat the authority and art historical precedent to pursue his own brash and aggressive portraits such as Pater." (Richard Marshall; "Repelling Ghosts", cited in Jean Michel Basquiat exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1993, p.16.)
As Pater illustrates, Basquiat's raw style responds directly to his inner vision, a vision that was determined by the artist's own intense anxieties about his life and his position within the world. Capturing in a raw, vibrant and expressionistic splattering of paint a sense of the complex array of violent emotions he felt towards his own father he has conjured a powerful and persuasive image of a male idol. An idol that with its impressive posture and tortured features is both powerful and pathetic, both a totem and a taboo.
Jean Dubuffet, Bertela© bouquet fleuri, portrait de parade, July-August, 1947 c 2003 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Pablo Picasso, Homme assis, 1971 c 2003 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Jean-Michel Basquiat with his father Gerard Basquiat c 2003 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1982, photograph by Marion Busch c 2003 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris