Executed in 1984, Self-Portrait is an energetic, even frantic, vision of the artist himself. His friend and dealer Bruno Bischofberger recalled that this picture was created when Basquiat was his guest in Switzerland, and as such it is as much a reflection of a crucial period in the artist's life as it is a reflection or analysis of his character, the traditional domain of portraiture and self-portraiture.
In Self-Portrait, the energy and application of Basquiat himself are on clear display. The vigorous manner in which he has harnessed this vision adds to our awareness of the ever-present anger that fuels so much of Basquiat's work while also recalling the origins of his art on the streets of New York. For Basquiat deliberately avoided losing the immediacy of his early graffiti works, avoided losing the simple ferocity and vision that had led to his poetic and political slogans and pictures on the walls of the city when he was a part of the notorious SAMO. With its economy of means-- a few simple shapes and forms capturing the face and upper body of the artist-- Self-Portrait perfectly encapsulates the quality that, the previous year, Basquiat had explained he found in his best works: 'I like the ones where I don't paint as much as others, where it's just a direct idea' (Basquiat, quoted in H. Geldzahler, 'Art: from subways to Soho: Jean-Michel Basquiat', pp. 18-26, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Gemëlde und Arbeiten auf Papier, exh. cat., Vienna, 1999, p. 21).
This directness is reinforced by the white detailing in the face in Self-Portrait: as though he has been caught by X-Ray photography, parts of Basquiat's head-- his eyes, his teeth, his jaw-- have been applied in white. Thrust into contrast against the brown that he has used to depict his own skin, these jagged white lines add an electrical energy to the work, making it shimmer and glow with friction and tension and power. The full mouth of teeth in particular adds an unsettling atmosphere to the work. This is a tormented vision, rather than the smiling or concentrating face of an artist staring out at us, as in so many other painters' self-portraits. This is no Rembrandt or Reynolds, but instead a mask-like yet twisted image, the eyes burning orange.
There were many sources and targets for Basquiat's anger, but perhaps the most important was race. When discussing the subjects of his pictures, he claimed that they were about 'Royalty, heroes and the streets' (Basquiat, quoted in ibid., p. 23). In Self-Portrait, the artist himself is both an all-too-fragile entity and a hero in his own way. The expanse of brown oilstick against the predominantly white surface is itself an accusation against the artworld which constantly threatened to label him too much, to promote him not as a skilled artist but instead as a mascot of some sort. It deliberately and vocally sticks out, a sore thumb that people have to deal with. Basquiat's appreciation of his against-the-odds position in the rarefied artworld and the lurking racism that was all too often an undercurrent in early 1980s New York had been made all the more apparent the previous year when the graffiti artist Micheal Stewart had died of wounds inflicted during his arrest by the police. Basquiat and Stewart were both part of similar circles and shared friends-- Stewart was even in a relationship with Basquiat's former partner, Suzanne Mallouk at the time. Basquiat was already becoming increasingly paranoid, partly through his drug abuse, and after the incident had been heard to say, 'It could have been me! It could have been me!' (Basquiat, quoted in P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, New York, 1999, p. 213).
The subject of race had long played a role in Basquiat's art, but it was only on his exposure to the art world itself that he began to react to it more aggressively, all the more so after Stewart's death, when Basquiat began to realise that he too could have become a very real martyr to his own cause. Now, he began to bend the earlier influences Picasso, Twombly, Dubuffet to new ends, while also adopting deliberately African and Caribbean elements and stylisation. In this way, he began to find a new, fresh voice and with that the confidence to become more economical in his rendering of images, as is clear in Self-Portrait. The year before Self-Portrait was executed, he discussed this evolution in his work: 'Every line means something. And there are things I know now, things that have become important to me. I'm interested in painting the black person. He's the protagonist in most of my paintings... I realized I never saw any paintings with black people in them' (Basquiat, quoted in R. Knapo, The Basquiat File, at http://www.spikemagazine.com/0397basq.php). Basquiat reacted to this by placing black heroes, black martyrs and indeed himself at the centre of his art, righting the imbalance that had been perpetrated both in art and in society at large for far, far too long.
By 1984, Basquiat was already being fêted as a great young artist, a force to watch and it is a reflection of Bischofberger's appreciation of this fact that he suggested to Basquiat, Warhol and Clemente that they create a group of collaborations that year. While the reaction to these works, and to the subsequent Warhol/Basquiat collaborations, was somewhat mixed, it nonetheless demonstrates the importance that many artists of the day ascribed to the young painter. He was cutting-edge enough to be considered able to give Warhol back his own edge, and in fact the Pop Art veteran found that the enthusiasm and directness of his young protegé were rubbing off on him, prompting a new creativity and inspiration, rejuvenating him to some degree. Basquiat's success was likewise evident in the fact that 1984 saw his first one-man exhibition in New York, at the Mary Boone Gallery with which he had recently affiliated himself. Crucially, 1984 was also the year of the first museum exhibition dedicated to the artist, which travelled from Edinburgh to London and then Rotterdam.
The fact that the museums that hosted this show were all in Europe is a reflection of the wide range of admirers that Basquiat now had internationally, and it was into this market that Bischofberger tapped. It is therefore also a reflection of the importance of the Zurich-based dealer to the New York-based artist, who now found most of his income coming from his Swiss dealer. To consider Bischofberger a dealer is to underestimate and undervalue his importance both to Basquiat and to the art world in general. While many of the Basquiat pictures that have been seen on the market passed through his hands (it has even been suggested that most have), he retains his own formidable collection of the artist's works, as well as entire museums and museums-worth of art and artefacts.