‘I’m not a real person. I’m a legend’
‘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’
Pulsing with visceral urban energy and raw painterly bravura, Red Skull is an electrifying masterwork from the height of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s meteoric career. Executed in 1982 – the year that catapulted the artist to stardom – it is a powerful expression of his most important motif, set ablaze in primal, technicolour glory. Distinguished by its extraordinary chromatic range – a pyrotechnic force-field of red, blue, lilac, pink, green, yellow and gold – the work is one of around five major known skull paintings executed during this pivotal year. Part anatomical icon, part contemporary vanitas, part self-projection, the floating cranium represents a vital touchstone within Basquiat’s visual lexicon. As he ascended to near-mythic status throughout the 1980s, hailed as both deity and king, the looming skeletal effigy offered a poignant and prophetic memento mori. Here, the artist entrenches it within a clamouring chorus of signs, glyphs and marks: thick rivers of colour, scrubbed swathes of pigment, glimmers of metallic paint and intuitive graphic scrawl. A row of apartment buildings in the upper right-hand corner pays tribute to the housing projects of his native Brooklyn – a bittersweet nod to home as he took his place on the world’s stage. A rudimentary grid invokes both a gaping rib cage and the thrumming infrastructure of the city streets where he made his name. Partially-visible cryptograms hover like ancient inscriptions, their inscrutable poetry concealed beneath chalk-like passages of colour. Tiny flecks of white paint populate the lower left-hand corner, flickering like sparks of electricity. With almost shamanistic force, Basquiat turns his diverse artistic heritage inside out before the viewer, dissecting the layers of noise and rhythm that resounded in his head. The primitivism of Pablo Picasso, the impulsive gestures of graffiti, the freedom of Abstract Expressionism and the rhythms of improvised jazz collide with influences drawn from ancient tribal culture and anatomical textbooks. At once deeply personal and universal in its scope, the work lays bare the alchemy of the artist’s interior world, slipping seamlessly between abstraction and figuration, the past and the present, the streets and the studio. A chaotic stream of consciousness pours forth from the burning cavern of the skull, distilling the dynamism of Basquiat’s breakthrough period into a heroic, heraldic and haunting image.
PAINTING THE SKULL: LESSONS IN ANATOMY
As a child, Basquiat was entranced by a copy of Gray’s Anatomy given to him by his mother. Whilst recuperating in hospital after being hit by a car, the young artist – already a keen draughtsman – pored over the diagrams printed upon its pages. As the scars of his near-death experience began to heal, Basquiat devoured every detail of the human form – its skeletal architecture, its musculature, its entrails and networks of vessels. It was the beginning of a lifelong obsession that, over time, would come to find its most piercing expression in the skull. The iconic Untitled of 1981 – held in The Broad Museum, Santa Monica – represents one of its earliest significant manifestations, and may be seen to prefigure the present work’s disembodied structure. As other sources came into play – among them Paul Richer’s Artistic Anatomy, a 1966 volume on Leonardo da Vinci and Burchard Brentjes’ African Rock Art – Basquiat transformed his cranial subject into a hybrid self-image. Combining the linear precision of Renaissance scientific drawing with the primordial gestures of cave painting, the distortions of Cubist heads and the energy of contemporary street art, the skull became a furnace into which Basquiat poured the contents of his visual imagination, melting together centuries of stylistic influence. In the present work, it functions as a cipher for the workings of his own nervous system. ‘[Basquiat] constructs an intensity of line which reads like a polygraph report, a brain-to-hand “shake”’, writes Diego Cortez (D. Cortez, quoted in R. D. Marshall and J-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, vol. 1, Paris 2000, p. 160). Spinning freely from the cavities of the skull, these neuronal convulsions are played out with pyrotechnic force upon the surrounding canvas.
Throughout the early 1980s, as Basquiat sped towards international acclaim, the skull took its place among a number of figural forms through which the artist channelled his new identity. Alongside the crowned kings and athletic champions that populated his works of the period, it retained a singular potency. At the age of seventeen, Basquiat had prophesised his own rise to fame, and by 1981 he was already presenting himself as a martyr to his cause. Whilst the skull is frequently interpreted as a harbinger of his own demise – culminating in his morbid swansong Riding with Death (1988) – its vivid dialogue with art history offers an alternative reading. Extending the legacy of his forefather Picasso, Basquiat confronts human anatomy through the lens of its historic representations. In his youth the artist had spent many hours in New York’s museums – particularly the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art – standing face to face with ancient tribal masks and aboriginal sculptures. Like Picasso before him, Basquiat transforms the human head into a living relic: an art-historical reservoir, infused with traces of its own pictorial past. Whilst Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol had both appropriated the skull in the manner of Old Master vanitas compositions, Basquiat’s skull is less a spectral reminder of death than a symbol of endurance: of life beyond the fleeting plaudits of celebrity. For an artist who previously operated under a pseudonym, pounding the streets as a faceless graffitist, it offered the perfect foil. ‘For Basquiat, mortality and immortality were one because he remains eternal through his paintings’, writes Richard D. Marshall (R. D. Marshall, ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat and his subjects’, in Jean-Michel Basquiat, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris, 1996, p. 42). Through the skull, Basquiat ascends to everlasting legend, as mythic and sacred as those objects he admired in museum vitrines. In contrast to the boxers and royals who held court in his paintings of this period, here it is the heroes of art – past and present – who emerge triumphant.
1982: A BREAKTHROUGH YEAR
Under the mentorship of Annina Nosei – whose gallery first sold the present work – it was during this heady period 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). Nosei had encountered his work in Cortez’s New York/New Wave exhibition at P.S.1 in February 1981. Following the success of his debut solo show at the Galleria d’Arte Emilio Mazzoli that May, she invited him to take part in her group exhibition Public Address in New York. Noting that he had no studio space of his own, Nosei offered him the basement of her Prince Street gallery, where he set to work with renewed energy. As the year drew to a close, the critic Rene Ricard published his essay ‘The Radiant Child’ in Artforum: the first extensive examination of Basquiat’s work, and a much-quoted assessment of his early oeuvre. ‘If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption it would be Jean-Michel’, he wrote. ‘The elegance of Twombly is there [and] from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet’ (R. Ricard, ‘The Radiant Child’, Artforum, Volume XX, No. 4, December 1981, p. 43). In Red Skull, the lyricism of the Bolsena paintings combines with the frantic cosmopolitan rhythms of Paris Circus; the graphic intensity of Leda and the Swan meets the unschooled impulses of art brut. Not yet twenty years old, Basquiat had already positioned himself among the masters.
Thus, the stage was set for the birth of one of the twentieth century’s greatest urban legends. In January 1982, Basquiat moved from the gallery basement into a liberating loft space at 151 Crosby Street, where he would produce some of his finest works. March saw his debut solo show with Nosei: a landmark exhibition that received rapturous critical acclaim. Lisa Liebmann spoke of ‘the unmistakable eloquence of his touch’, whilst 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’ (L. Liebmann and 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. It was a period of great triumph, whose euphoric twists and turns wrote themselves into every fibre of his canvases.
STREAMS OF CONSCIOUSNESS: PAINT, NOISE, COLOUR, RHYTHM
‘What drew Basquiat almost obsessively to the depiction of the human head’, writes Fred Hoffman, ‘was his fascination with the face as a passageway from exterior physical presence into the hidden realities of man’s psychological and mental realms’ (F. Hoffman, ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing’, in Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing: Works from the Schorr Family Collection, exh. cat., Acquavella Galleries, New York, 2014, p. 74). In Red Skull, Basquiat’s scarlet cranium acts as an extension of his own nerve-centre. Whereas other skulls from the period had housed sprawling networks of symbols, here the chaotic pulsations of his psyche explode outwards into the surrounding picture plane. Working to a steady stream of children’s cartoons and the music of his jazz idols – Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis – Basquiat imbued his skeletal forms with a sense of electric reification. The present work, with its over-exposed palette and rapid lines pulsating like live wires, brings to mind an X-ray photograph or a grainy fragment of animation. Indeed, the quivering mass of white strokes that surrounds the top of the skull creates the illusion that the head is electronically wired-in to some external device – a boom box, perhaps, or a TV set. The gridded rib cage evokes not only the layout of the city’s streets, but also a circuit board quivering with charged particles. By contrast, the obfuscated poetry of letters and symbols may be seen to reflect Basquiat’s fascination with Henry Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook, which decoded the so-called ‘hobo signs’ that littered New York’s subways, walls and doors. Effaced and overwritten, they bring to mind the peeling posters and partially-erased graffiti that formed the very fabric of the Lower East Side. In Red Skull, Basquiat excavates these stimuli, turning them inside out upon the canvas in vivid, synesthetic counterpoint.
Basquiat’s desire to give form to invisible sensory states has been variously discussed in terms of his relationship with Abstract Expressionism. As early as 1980, reporting on the notorious Times Square Show, Jeffrey Deitch had identified in the young artist ‘a knockout combination of de Kooning and subway spray-paint scribble’ (J. Deitch, quoted in Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1999, p. 324). Two years later, reviewing his solo show in Los Angeles, William Wilson observed that ‘The traditional substructure of Basquiat’s art is Abstract Expressionism. He piles up rich palimpsests of paint over black grounds or snazzy oranges that are structures with architectonic solidity’ (W. Wilson, quoted in Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1999, p. 326). Famously naming Franz Kline as one of his favourite artists, Basquiat was deeply inspired by the work of his recent forebears. Though born of a distinctly urban sensibility, Red Skull’s virtuosic brushwork and virile palette bear witness to this influence. Operating in dialogue with the underlying trace of the grid, thick beams of green, yellow and lilac collide with blocked fields of blue and red, executed in rapid, impulsive streaks. ‘Basquiat deployed his colour architecturally’, writes Marc Mayer, ‘at times like so much tinted mortar to bind a composition, at other times like opaque plaster to embody it’ (M. Mayer, ‘Basquiat in History’, in Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, p. 46). In places, the texture is piled high with layered hues; in others, it hovers like translucent mist or smeared aerosol residue. Like de Kooning’s Women, whose forms emerge from tangles of abstract marks, Basquiat’s skeletal apparition is woven into the dense jungle of its surroundings, plugged into its multi-coloured currents as if by a mass of invisible cables. The paint becomes a kind of haptic notation, alive with the chromatic freedom of improvised music.
If the present work is to be understood as raw stream of consciousness, it is perhaps little wonder that the skull lies at its centre. Hovering amidst a sea of surging physical activity, it becomes a cipher for the knotted relationship between Basquiat’s interior and exterior realms: between history and contemporary reality, between fame and destruction. As the artist’s world expanded at an unprecedented rate, the noise of his surroundings grew ever louder: the clamour of fame, the fear of unknown horizons, the rush of fresh influences and the frenzied activity of the studio. A new and terrifying polyphony shook the cavities of his skull, seeping its way into every inch of the canvas. As Jeffrey Hoffeld has written, ‘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). With its flaming crimson glow both opulent and infernal, Red Skull is a powerful affirmation of this statement.