Structured like a devotional triptych, Four Big (1982) is a vivid large-scale work created by Jean-Michel Basquiat at the peak of his career. Three joined panels of canvas – a central section in bright yellow flanked by two in white – tower two metres high. Calligraphic, gestural strokes of blue, orange, red and emerald green shock through the colour scheme, creating a bold compositional scaffold upon which the artist deploys an array of fragmentary words, images and icons in his inimitable free-associative style. Bringing together echoes of religion, royalty, ancient history, anatomical drawing, music and the daily news, Basquiat conjures a polyvocal fabric of information. Centring around his famous crown icon, the work has the edge of self-portraiture common to Basquiat’s works, which probe the problems and glories of his status as a celebrated young artist. More broadly, its rich clamour of figures, symbols and text is a brilliant reflection of the intensity of 1980s New York, and the mutable, hybrid nature of contemporary culture at large.
At the centre of Four Big is Basquiat’s unmistakable crown, scrawled in black on blazing yellow. This cipher for the artist himself – made a monarch through his art – is joined by a crucifix planted in a sacred heart, bespeaking mortality and martyrdom. Another 1982 work is ominously inscribed ‘Most young kings get their heads cut off’: for Basquiat, fame and death went hand in hand. Below these glyphs are the scattered letters of the word ‘ASBESTOS.’ This substance – referenced in several Basquiat works from this period that criticise capitalist greed, including Obnoxious Liberals (1982, Broad Art Foundation) – was in the headlines that year after Johns-Manville Corporation, facing a wave of asbestos injury litigation, became the largest ever company to file for bankruptcy. Below this hint of chemical danger, Basquiat has layered two collaged sheets of paper scribbled with further words, diagrammatic forms and a Sasquatch-like figure on a blue ground.
In the right-hand panel, stretching almost the full height of the canvas, a tall, haloed body with glowing eyes reveals his insides as if X-rayed. Like the crown, the saintly halo (or is it a crown of thorns?) often appears in oblique self-portraits by Basquiat. The exposed organs are born of a childhood fascination with Gray’s Anatomy, which he read obsessively while hospitalised after a car accident. In the left-hand panel, the words ‘ROMAN YOUTH DROWND FOUR BIG’ are written in blue above a second figure. Basquiat was well-read in ancient history, and the image of a ‘Roman youth drowned’ was likely suggested by the story of Antinous, a beautiful consort of the Emperor Hadrian who drowned in the Nile in mysterious circumstances. The nude, full-frontal figure Basquiat has drawn below may be inspired by one of the many Roman marble statues of the youth. The ambiguous phrase ‘FOUR BIG’, meanwhile, might touch on any number of ideas, from the ‘Four Big Things’ that symbolised material success in the economy of Mao-era China – a sewing machine, a bicycle, a wristwatch, and a radio – to the ‘Big Four’, a marching rhythm invented by the early jazz musician Buddy Bolden. Such uncertainty and cross-pollination delighted Basquiat, an artist for whom concealment was as important as revelation.
There is no single key to decode a work like Four Big, which synthesises myriad, shifting channels of visual and verbal material. A useful way to picture Basquiat’s practice at large, however, might be the X-rayed figure standing to the right. Beyond any purely graphic fascination with Gray’s Anatomy – as well as with a book of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci – Basquiat’s interest in the body’s internal workings could stand as a leitmotif for his art, which sees through the surface of things and exposes the soul of contemporary American life through its layered, kaleidoscopic stagings of word and image. As Jeffrey Hoffeld observes, ‘Basquiat’s repeated use of anatomical imagery – skeletons, musculature, and internal organs – coincides with an ever more widespread tendency in his work to turn things inside out. Inner thoughts are made public in graffiti-like litanies of words and other bursts of expression; distinctions between private spaces and public places are dissolved; past and present are interwoven, and levels of reality are multiplied and scrambled; the imagined realms of paradise, hell and purgatory become indistinguishable’ (J. Hoffeld, ‘Basquiat and the inner self’, in Jean Michel Basquiat, Gemälde und Arbeiten auf Papier (Paintings and works on paper), exh. cat. Museum Würth, Künzelsau 2001, p. 27).
The fluency of Four Big – from its rhythmic, carefully deployed colours to its restrained, evocative text and commanding human figures – shows an artist working at the height of his powers. 1982 was a triumphant year for Basquiat. Aged just twenty-one, he had completed his transition from street graffitist to king of the New York art scene. He moved out of his dealer Annina Nosei’s basement studio to work in a liberating seven-storey loft space on Crosby Street, and cemented his position in the international art world with solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, Zürich, Rome and Rotterdam. These were followed by an invitation to Documenta 7, where he was the youngest artist within a line-up of contemporary masters including Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly. In Four Big, Basquiat displays the new-found confidence and self-assurance that came with this wave of success. With crown and crucifix, he declares himself a superstar, even a messiah. At the same time, he tangles those symbols up with the toxic ‘ASBESTOS’; we are reminded that the cross is a symbol of sacrifice. His hint at the story of Antinous, a young man cut down in his prime, lends the work a further shadow of prophetic unease. Yet part of the joy of Basquiat’s work, of course, is its ability to hold multiple ideas in play at once. He riffs on pictorial structure like a jazz soloist, and each of the signs he so deftly deploys can be read in myriad ways, interacting with the elements around them to form new complexes of potential meaning, story and myth. Four Big is not a semiotic puzzle to be solved, but an ever-changing visual arena made electric with the life of the mind. ‘For Basquiat,’ as Richard D. Marshall has written, ‘mortality and immortality were one because he remains eternal through his paintings’ (R. D. Marshall, ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat and his subjects’, in Jean-Michel Basquiat, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris 1996, p. 42).