Bursting with a litany of words, symbols and signifiers in a cacophony of rainbow colours, Jean-Michel Basquiat's Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown) is a masterpiece by the artist. Both painting and urban poem, it was undertaken at the very height of Basquiat's practice, marrying the energy of his haiku street graffiti, Cy Twombly's stream of consciousness applied to the written and painted word with the expressive gestures of the American Abstract Expressionist generation. Exhibited in the artist's second solo show at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles in 1983 alongside Hollywood Africans (1983), now held in the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, New York, the present work can be considered as a direct pendant to this important painting. Included in the artist's major retrospective exhibitions at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel and the Musée de la Ville de Paris Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown), was originally owned by Kamran Diba, the architect of the renowned Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art considered to be one of the greatest museum collections of contemporary art in the world. Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown) was undertaken at the very height of Basquiat's artistic prowess. In 1982, Basquiat had exhibited at Documenta VII in Kassel, and in 1983 he was included in the Whitney Biennial, becoming the youngest artist to have represented America in a major international exhibition of contemporary art at the tender age of 22. Despite his youth and the originality of his art, critics unanimously recognized the maturity and talent demonstrated in his work. Basquiat said about this period, 'I had some money. I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs' (J.M. Basquiat, quoted in C. McGuigan, 'New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist', in The New York Times Magazine, 10 February 1985, p. 29).
In Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown) as in Hollywood Africans, we see Basquiat return to the same potent compositional frame. Executed on the same scale the two counterparts share an expressive application of paint, Hollywood Africans drenched in black like the tarmac of New York City, overlayed with intense cadmium yellow, Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown) in black on white with brilliant colour, like the bright lights on Broadway or the strobe illuminations of the downtown New Wave scene. Both share Basquiat's explosive display of enigmatic symbols and verbal erasure. Rendered in pyrotechnics of colour: shrieking violet, emerald green, fire engine red, orange and white, Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown)captures the frenetic pace of the artist's peripatetic existence. Across the surface of the canvas, Basquiat has spelt out words including Esso, Asbestos, Rome, 400 Yen and Priceless Art; the artist joking with characteristic mock irony about the value of his painted composition given the burgeoning demand for his work, his new found fame and fortune. As the title suggests, this work becomes a physical manifestation of Basquiat's thought process, committing images and ideas to canvas with a sense of urgency and immediacy. Simple phrases are interspersed with complex motifs taken from the artist's daily life. Dominating the top right portion of the canvas is Basquiat's riff on the ubiquitous Comic Code stamp, a self-regulatory seal of approval used to denote moral upstanding that appeared on all comic books from the 1950s until its use fell into decline in the mid-1980s. In Basquiat's version the Comics Magazine Association of America logo is replaced with his own monogram, his signature crown, an attempt perhaps both to mock the older convention and to assert his own status by placing his self-endorsed, seal of approval on this particular work. Other more enigmatic symbols include a hand with an outstretched index finger, his interpretation of an African mask that dominates the center of the composition, and the mysterious shield-like emblem that appears in the top left-hand corner.
Basquiat's breathless vocabulary is ushered onto the canvas with a force that combines both urgency and political perceptiveness. Ranging from historically dubious figures such as Papa Doc, the 1960s Haitian despot, to Hooverville; the name for shanty-towns built by the homeless people during the Great Depression, Basquait's choice of words show an empathy with the social underclass as they struggle to make their voices heard in society as a whole. In many ways Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown) can be seen as a work that documents Basquiat's meteoric arrival on the art scene. As one of the few African Americans in a predominantly white art-world (the only other black faces he might have seen in the art world would have been the museum security guards of the work's title), he may have found it difficult to adjust to his rising fame. In Hollywood Africans (1983), we see Basquiat engaging a similar theme, playfully adding himself to a coterie of African-American Hollywood stars and reflecting upon his new-found stardom. It was during this important period that Basquiat begun to gain a reputation as one of the most exciting and innovative artists in New York, having been propelled from a street artist to artistic wunderkind in less than two years. The sense of speed and intensity of this ascension is deftly contained within the composition of Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown) and the boldly hieroglyphic features, enigmatically rendered vocabulary, and painterly drips could be seen, in part, as an expression of the artist's stream of consciousness as well as a metaphor for his sudden rise to fame.
With its wild agglomeration of elements and artfully combined colour palette, Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown) eschews the icy serial production of Pop art in favour of a new type of Expressionism, evoking the intuitive scrawls of Cy Twombly and the raw energy of Dubuffet's Art Brut. As Rene Ricard once famously asserted, 'if Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption, it would be Jean- Michel' (R. Ricard, quoted in 'Radiant Child' Artforum, December 1981, p. 43). In Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown) we see sentences simultaneously drawn, scored through, obscured and rewritten. Cy Twombly was clearly an influence in this respect. A close reading of Twombly's 1970 Untitled (Study for Treatise on the Veil) or The Italians (1961), would have perhaps provided Basquiat with a precedent for such verbal erasure. The difference however, is that whilst Twombly cancels to cancel, Basquiat cancels to reveal. As the artist himself explained, 'I cross out words so you will see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them' (J.M. Basquiat, interview with R. Farris Thompson, quoted in 'Royalty, Heroism and the Streets: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat', R. Marshall (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York 1992, pp. 28-43).