‘The rough-hewn frames are still singled out as one of Basquiat’s original innovations’
‘... the crown sits securely on the head of Jean-Michel’s repertory so that it is of no importance where he got it bought it stole it; it is his. He won that crown’
With its raw urban poetry, vivid colour and painterly pyrotechnics, Multiflavors (1982) is an outstanding work dating from the year of Basquiat’s meteoric rise to fame. Against a background of royal blue shot through with broad swathes of dripping black paint, words and symbols are scrawled in white, yellow and red, with the artist’s signature crown gleaming like a beacon at the centre. Held in the same collection since 1990, and prominently exhibited during that time, the work belongs to a celebrated group of paintings characterised by exposed stretcher bars tied at the corners. With examples held in museum collections worldwide, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Broad Art Foundation, the Menil Collection and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, these canvases represent ‘one of his most important group of paintings’ (R. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, p. 279). Made with materials salvaged from the Lower East Side, the stretcher transforms the work into a near-sculptural presence: a reliquary of post-Punk New York. Flashes of raw, overturned edge seem to show that Basquiat painted on what would usually be the reverse side of the canvas. On the surface, the influences of Jean Dubuffet, Cy Twombly and Abstract Expressionism conspire with Basquiat’s graffiti origins, his Puerto Rican and Haitian heritage, tokens of consumer culture and esoteric hints of magic. The canvas is replete with billboard-style proclamations in English and Portuguese: ‘cheap food’, ‘15%’, ‘gold’, ‘pork’ and ‘hacked chicken with multiflavors’ – a dish from a Chinese restaurant menu. Arrows and lines give a sense of order or listing, yet their logic is purely visual: words are crossed out, rewritten and underlined. At the bottom, next to his own copyright claim, Basquiat signs the canvas ‘peso neto’ (‘net weight’): a signature phrase for an artist who – even at the height of his success – delighted in questioning the value and nature of art.
Working to a soundtrack of TV cartoons, advertisements and jazz, Basquiat famously claimed that he used words as if they were brushstrokes. On the canvas, they performed multiple functions – visual constructs, heavily-laden concepts, sonic fragments and diaristic traces. For the most part, they were intuitive, almost musical outpourings, drawn from the cacophony of sources that surrounded him. ‘Basquiat kept no standard records’, writes Phoebe Hoban. ‘His life was cash and carry. But there are records, hundreds of them. Drawings, paintings, and notebooks that reveal him like a Rorschach test. Basquiat lived his paintings; he slept on them, walked on them, ate on them. He scribbled the phone numbers of his friends on them, outstanding debts, take-out menus, names of people and places, lists from reference books, his idea of history’ (P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, London 1998, p. x). Whilst his streams of consciousness largely elude interpretation, certain themes began to crystallise in his works of this period. Thrust into the art world before the age of twentyone, Basquiat was particularly fascinated by words relating to systems of buying and selling, power, wealth, value and authenticity. These concepts frequently found their way onto canvas, most notably in copyright symbol carried over from his former graffiti moniker SAMO©. In the present work, the juxtaposition of basic comestibles (‘pork’, ‘wings’, ‘hacked chicken’ and ‘cheap food’) with indicators of money, weight and ‘gold’ points to the economic alchemy of art into money, and money into food – the stuff of life. Basquiat was conscious of the relationship between his work and the global currents into which it was absorbed, and these concerns find compelling expression in Multiflavors.
It was in 1982 that Basquiat transitioned from ‘a profusely talented and promising artist working on the street to a world-class painter, poised to become one of the most influential artists of his time’ (J. Deitch, ‘1981: The Studio of the Street’, in Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the Streets, exh. cat., Deitch Projects, New York, 2006, pp. 10-13). In 1981, the gallerist Annina Nosei had offered him studio space in the basement of her Prince Street gallery, where he swapped the city streets and walls for canvases. By January 1982, he had moved into a liberating loft space at 151 Crosby Street, where he would produce some of his finest works. March saw his landmark debut with Nosei: Jeffrey Deitch praised his ‘ability to merge his absorption of imagery from the streets, the newspapers and TV with the spiritualism of his Haitian heritage, injecting both into a marvellously intuitive understanding of the language of modern painting’ (J. Deitch, quoted in Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1999, p. 326). The success of the show led to an extraordinary string of major solo exhibitions worldwide: with Gagosian in Los Angeles, Bischofberger in Zurich and the Galerie Delta in Rotterdam, as well as Achille Bonito Oliva’s Transavanguardia show in Modena. That summer, his rapidly-advancing global reputation resulted in a prestigious invitation to Documenta VII in West Germany, where he was the youngest exhibited artist in a line-up of established veterans including Gerhard Richter and Joseph Beuys. Basquiat was dating Madonna and was a regular on the New York underground club scene. It was a period of great triumph and experimentation, whose euphoric twists and turns wrote themselves into every fibre of his canvases.
One of Basquiat’s most important innovations was the raw, exposed stretchers that became a hallmark of his 1982 works. Like architectural relics, their rough-hewn forms quiver with the Zeitgeist of 1980s New York – extensions of the abandoned doors, fridges and other found surfaces that had once been his canvases. Basquiat’s assistant Stephen Torton, a one-time club bouncer, was tasked with sourcing materials to build the stretchers. ‘It was such a relief to climb into Dumpsters and pull things out of them and make sculptures’, Torton recalls. ‘I would go out in the middle of the night and find the stuff. I was making things that looked like what the circus leaves behind’ (S. Torton, quoted in P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, London 1998, p. 172 and p. 106). The stretchers became an integral part of Basquiat’s practice, and were rapturously received by both critics and gallerists. ‘He’s finally figured out a way to make a stretcher … that is so consistent with the imagery’, wrote Rene Ricard. ‘… they do look like signs, but signs for a product modern civilisation has no use for’ (R. Ricard, quoted in P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, London 1998, p. 102). Richard Marshall enthused that ‘The effect was raw, askew, handmade – a primitive-looking object that recalled African shields, Polynesian navigation devices, Spanish devotional objects, and bones that have broken through the surface skin’ (R. Marshall, ‘Repelling Ghosts’, in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1992, p. 18).
As Basquiat took his place as king of the New York art world, the crown became his trademark symbol. His former girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk recalls that the symbol was inspired by the logo for King World Productions that appeared on screen at the end of The Little Rascals – a cartoon he watched religiously. Yet, for Basquiat, the crown held a deeper significance. The languages of royalty and heroism were handed down from the 1920s jazz scene – an important source of inspiration – where musicians would play outside clubs, competing to draw the biggest crowd. As a motif, the crown became a staple of the graffiti culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, used by fellow artists to denote admiration for their peers. ‘If you were a king, you would crown yourself’, recalls Basquiat’s friend Fred Braithwaite (‘Fab 5 Freddy’). ‘It was common as part of the street graffiti vocabulary to put a crown over your name – specifically if your tag was on a particular train the most. You were essentially designated king of that line’ (Fab 5 Freddy, quoted in J. Moore Saggese, Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art, Berkeley 2014, p. 55). Basquiat had an uneasy relationship with his own rising celebrity: despite his long-held desire for recognition and glory, he was aware of its fleeting nature and hidden dangers. Over the years, the crown would come to sit alongside dark reflections on his own mortality – ‘most young kings get their heads cut off’, he daubed on one of his canvases. For now, however, in the throes of youth, hedonism and fame, Basquiat asserts his sovereignty: the undisputed ruler of all he surveyed, presiding over a kingdom of ‘multiflavors’.