‘Basquiat’s great strength is 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 marvelously intuitive understanding of the language of modern painting’ (J. Deitch, quoted in M. Franklin Sirmans, ‘Chronology’, in R. Marshall (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 239).
A monumental work extending over two metres in length, Infantry, 1983, was painted at a climactic moment in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career, marked by the artist’s celebrated inclusion in the Whitney Biennial that year. Created at a time when the artist was invigorated by the buzz of celebrity, Infantry is the product of a television and music-fuelled creativity. Executed in the artist’s characteristic scrawl, Basquiat fills the canvas with a cacophony of catastrophic action. Surrounded by stars and dizzied curlicue scribbles, a stunned figure sits spread-eagled, his smarting head crowned with a comical goose-egg bump. Suggestive of impending disaster, a cannon ball careens toward him in a comedic farce. Basquiat’s use of comic book imagery sets this work more acutely in a dialogue with the high and low culture of his Pop Artists predecessors, as seen in the onomatopoeic cartoon starbursts that spell out ‘BANG’, ‘BLAM’ and ‘BOOM’. Intermingled with these, Basquiat has borrowed short phrases of German, perhaps a reference to his newly formed relationship to Galerie Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich, that evade definition among the hectic frenzy of his sources. Nonetheless, the repetition of ‘Wo Bin Ich?’, which translates to ‘Where Am I?’ cries out from the canvas to the viewer.
This success followed his participation in the prestigious Documenta VII exhibition in West Germany the year before, where at aged 22, he exhibited works alongside such venerated artists as Joseph Beuys, Cy Twombly and Gerhard Richter. His arrival on the art scene was meteoric, and by 1983 he was being courted by international dealers such as Annina Nosei and Larry Gagosian in America, and Bruno Bischofberger in Switzerland, where the present work was first sold. Having secured his own independent studio in which to work, the seven-story loft at 151 Crosby Street in SoHo afforded the artist creative space to prepare large-scale works in 1983 such as Hollywood Africans, Whitney Museum of Modern Art, New York, Horn Players, The Broad Art Foundation and Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown). Acquired circa 1985, the present work has remained in the same collection for nearly 30 years.
Energized by this success, Basquiat began to produce some of the most vital paintings of his entire oeuvre. Working frenetically in his new studio against a steady stream of jazz music and cartoon programmes, Basquiat painted impulsively, pouring out his creativity in a rapid and cathartic stream of pent up emotion. Working quickly in oil stick and acrylic, he combined drawing and painting to create a fresh medium he called ‘extra large’. He coupled this method’s naivety with simple, direct references to the cartoons and slapstick comedies he loved. Basquiat admired the ability of cartoons and comic books to reflect deeper issues within society such as racism, discrimination, and erroneous representations of good and evil while remaining an accessible symbol from everyday life. As such, he freely incorporated the social challenges of the 20th century into his paintings.
The coarsely rendered figure on the right recalls the popular cartoon characters that populated Basquiat’s canvases of this era. Indeed, his earliest artistic ambition had been to become a cartoonist, but he deliberately unlearned the technical perfection of his schoolboy drawings to develop an instinctive style unparalleled in its urgency. From an early age, Basquiat had learned to lose himself happily in drawing, filling colouring book after colouring 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 flowed seamlessly and endlessly from his hand. The resulting paintings appear like a stream-of-consciousness exploding onto the 80s street culture. Fusing the adroitness of drawing and the richness of painting, there is an immediacy to Infantry, a spontaneous projection of the television shows, song lyrics and everyday imagery which incessantly passed through his high octane world.
Infantry not only reflects an era shaped by the mass media, but also a savvy understanding of the history and nuances of art. Basquiat’s reference to cartoon and comic book characters continued to push the high/low tradition of Pop Artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Where Lichtenstein laboured over the design of his compositions - seeking to recompose imagery sources from comic books - Basquiat’s facility with his medium allowed him to fluidly pour out his compositions, impulsively filling the picture plane with the imagery he adopted. Drawing on the improvisational nature of jazz, the sampling techniques of early New York hip-hop and the fierce energy of graffiti, Basquiat developed a distinct visual language uniquely his own.