Conjured from a mélange of acrylic, silkscreen and paper collage on canvas, Sabado por la Noche (Saturday Night) (1984) is a vibrant and multi-layered work that represents an important period in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career. Basquiat had moved into a loft space owned by Andy Warhol in August 1983, and the two artists made their first collaborative works in silkscreen and paint shortly afterwards; as he continued his dialogue with Warhol over the following two years, Basquiat’s own work took on a greater material richness and thematic complexity. Crowning his ascent to global fame, 1984 also saw Basquiat’s first solo museum show, which debuted at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, before travelling to London’s Institute of Contemporary Art. The present work brings together text, icons and human figures amid a brilliant colour-field of magenta, yellow and emerald green. Its composition is dominated by two human heads that relate it closely to several major works from the same year: Gold Griot (Broad Art Foundation), Grillo (Fondation Louis Vuitton), and Flexible (which Basquiat posed with in his iconic New York Times Magazine photoshoot of 1985) all display similar ‘griot’ characters. Echoing the role of Basquiat himself, whose art is both literally and figuratively polyvocal, in West Africa a griot is a storyteller or poet who plays a central role in his community’s oral tradition. Basquiat’s griots, their features limned here in electric white and green on black, show the influence of idols – many bearing the same distinctive elliptical eyes – illustrated in Robert Farris Thompson’s book Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy (1983); this pair particularly resemble a page showing two figures carved for the Yoruba Church in 1960s Harlem. Also embedded in the layers of paint and oilstick are sheets of paper scrawled with Fibonacci and S-shaped spirals, as well as esoteric symbols echoing the Afro-Cuban ideograms of life, death and rebirth found in the same book. A third mask-like head, submerged in pink to the lower left, dreams forth a procession of female forms amid an aura of red, green and gold – the colours of the Pan-African flag. While these details reflect Basquiat’s increasing interest in African spiritualism and history, other elements have a more contemporary Pop flavour, such as a grinning, cartoonish wolf, and a silkscreened comic-strip boxing scene (‘BIP!’), which also appears in another key 1984 work, Melting Points of Ice (Broad Art Foundation). In Sabado por la Noche, Basquiat, a multi-channelled synthesiser of texts, images and the world around him, brings a bounty of ideas into luminous conversation.
As Jordana Moore Saggese has observed, ‘Basquiat’s work currently exists in a liminal space of art history: he has a half-Haitian, half-Puerto Rican ancestry and is equally interested in black history and modern painting’ (J. M. Saggese, Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art, Berkeley, CA, 2014, pp. 40-41). The present work’s Spanish title tells part of the story. Having grown up in a multilingual household, Basquiat was fluent in Spanish and often riffed on the language in his works. The griots, meanwhile, awash in gestural swathes of Abstract Expressionist colour, are a vivid instance of different artistic idioms coming together: ‘black history’ meeting ‘modern painting.’ It is notable that while he did see some of his art-historical material in person – he often visited the Metropolitan Museum, for example – Basquiat drew heavily on printed and textual sources. Beyond his well-known childhood fascination with Gray’s Anatomy and a volume of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, books remained a wellspring of stimulation throughout his mature practice. He was likely introduced to Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit by his friend Shenge Ka Pharaoh, who became an assistant in 1984. Basquiat was so enamoured with the book that he asked Thompson to contribute a catalogue essay for a 1985 solo show in New York; the scholar readily accepted. Drawing a musical or vocal equivalence between Basquiat’s work and the magic of a voodoo shaman, he identified the artist as displaying a ‘Creole’ sensibility, and enthused that ‘He transforms paint into incantation … He chants paint. He chants body. He chants them in splendid repetitions’ (R. F. Thompson, Jean-Michel Basquiat: 2 March – 23 March 1985, exh. cat. Mary Boone / Michael Werner Gallery, New York 1985, n.p.).
As with many of the faces that fill Basquiat’s most celebrated works, it is tempting to search for elements of self-image in Sabado por la Noche’s griots. Otherworldly and glowing, their intense white lineation hints at skeleton and muscle beneath the skin, offering an all-too-easy reading of the young artist – who would die aged just twenty-seven in 1988 – haunted by spectres. More complex than mere vanitas death-masks, however, these heads are better viewed as part of a pictorial investigation into the disjunctions, links, boundaries and echoes between outer appearances and what might be concealed within. 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). If Basquiat did see himself in the griot’s guise, he was perhaps performing an anatomy of himself as a painter-troubadour, spinning ambiguous and many-layered stories from his internal and external worlds.
Discussing his use of African imagery, Basquiat said ‘I’ve never been to Africa. I’m an artist who has been influenced by his New York environment. But I have a cultural memory. I don’t need to look for it; it exists. It’s over there, in Africa. That doesn’t mean that I have to go live there. Our cultural memory follows us everywhere, wherever you live’ (J-M. Basquiat, quoted in D. Davvetas, ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat’, New Art International, October-November 1988, p. lxiii). Indeed, works like Sabado por la Noche are less immediately about the artist’s personal identity than they are reflective of the mutable, hybrid nature of contemporary culture at large. New York was the centre of Basquiat’s life and art: a whirlwind of visual and aural information where everything was available, and where the influences of voodoo and TV advertisements, Picasso and subway graffiti, da Vinci and Warhol could meet on equal footing. His works were vessels into which he poured images and words, cataloguing and juxtaposing what he saw to craft rich visual lyrics like a griot of the Lower East Side. The diversity of media in Sabado por la Noche – drawn, painted, collaged, silkscreened – matches its range of ideas. Basquiat’s mastery lies in his quickfire and seemingly effortless process of selection and composition: for all its density and multiplicity, the canvas is neither overwhelmed or unbalanced. He deploys colour and form with an instinctive grace. Bravado brushwork, mysterious glyphs and powerful human figures sing in harmony. As Demosthenes Davvetas has written, Basquiat’s work ‘is less like a mirror than like an eye and a voice: as eye, it observes and interprets life, collecting selected items and organising them within itself; thus organised, it becomes voice, a clear utterance expressing what has been seen’ (D. Davvetas, ‘Lines, Chapters and Verses: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat,’ in E. Navarra (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, 3rd ed., Paris 2000, p. 59).