By Katharine Burton

Two powerful, disturbing, haunting figures from a key year in the artist's meteoric arc.








'Damn you, Jean-Michel! Why did you die? Didn't you know that the hardest thing to shake is the banality of people? You can break their correctness and mend their incorrectness, but no transgression or excessiveness will win against the paralytic commonplace...' said gallery owner Annina Nosei in 1996, quoted in Jean-Michel Basquiat (Galerie Enrico Navarra).

'Untamed', 'primitive', 'naïve' and 'wild' were among the labels applied to Basquiat and his art during his brief life. But these lazy and, yes, banal adjectives do not begin to convey his explosive artistic talent, his compulsive ability to make work which has an enduring emotive power matched by few artists of his generation. It was this ability to create stark, complex, profoundly disturbing imagery that prompted New York dealer Annina Nosei to offer him a solo show in 1982. It was a year he later acknowledged as one of the most productive in his career: 'I had some money; I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. I was awful to people.'

Basquiat had already gained notoriety and a kind of cult status among artists and the discerning public as the 'public poet', SAMO, inscribing walls and windows in uptown and downtown New York with his brief ironic aphorisms, incitements to passers-by to step off the treadmill of life, to reject the banality of the status quo. In 1982 he began to experience the thrill of wider recognition and financial success. However, his promotion in the press and the voracious demands of an art market hungry for new blood soon soured. An image quickly emerged among art pundits of the artist as a kind of strange primitive creature, uncontrollable but capable of grand, if naïve, statements in his art. The sophistication of his aesthetic, which had evolved from his SAMO days, was largely ignored.

In fact, Basquiat's work is littered with the legacy of some of the giants of modern art: he shares his consciously childlike lines with Dubuffet; his concept of simultaneously drawing, scribbling, writing, collaging and painting with Twombly; his authority and art-historical precedent to follow his own brash style of portraiture with Picasso; and his interest in imagery from earlier cultures and mythological references with Pollock.

Elements of these sources are clearly evident in Basquiat's eerily potent 'Untitled' (known as 'The Saint'), painted during his famous stint in the basement studio of Nosei's gallery in SoHo, and in 'Untitled' from the same year. Both works are also crowded with the artist's recurring obsessions with mortality, autobiography, black history and popular culture.

The halo in 'The Saint' (which in later works became interchangeable with a crown of thorns) is, like the crown in 'Untitled', a direct allusion to the status of the artist as a star: someone who is the center of attention but also someone in a conspicuous and therefore vulnerable position, of whom excessive demands are constantly made. The crown is a trademark Basquiat had previously used with his SAMO signature, but here it has evolved into a more poignant symbol of the fame he so keenly sought, tinged with a potential for tragedy that in his case was sadly fulfilled. Here, the anonymous king is a kind of allegorical self-portrait. But the inclusion of the halo or crown in these works is not without irony: his spectacularly rapid rise to fame as a 'king' in the art world and beyond could never rid him of the prejudice he continued to suffer in the street for having black skin.

Central to Basquiat's art is the human figure, in particular the black man. There is always an element of self-portraiture in this, but it often refers, specifically or generally, to one of the many black heroes that history has overlooked with whom Basquiat strongly identified: his idol Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Malcolm X, Jesse Owens, Nat 'King' Cole, Muhammed Ali.

In 'The Saint', the ghoulish, almost cartoon-esque figure seems more spectre than saint, looming large over the spectator with arms raised—it is hard to say whether in surrender or in anger—with the letters 'Aa' echoing a human sound of fear or surprise. As in other early works, the figure is starkly frontal and flat, with no sense of three-dimensionality. Neither is the whiting-out of the black background incidental. Although formally reminiscent of gestural expressionism, its racial resonance is clear: the figure emerges from a black hole, all that remains from the brutal erasing of history.

The expressionistic jumble of painterly form dominated by the ghostly image of a crowned face that is 'Untitled' and the spectral figure of 'The Saint', flanked by a large cross and repeated images of totem-like birds, like guardians of the grave, are closely related in their conception. Both powerfully recall the artist's ever-present awareness of the proximity of death and his dread of being forgotten.


Katharine Burton is a Specialist in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Department, Christie's London.

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