Important Art by Jean-Michel Basquiat
Basquiat began painting graffiti in the late 1970s, often socializing and working alongside other artists of the subculture in the Bronx and Harlem. Graffiti artists often focused on figurative images (cartoonish pictures of animals, people and objects), as well as simple 'tags' - logos or names designed to be a trademark or calling card, which was where Basquiat also began. But Basquiat's graffiti quickly developed in a more abstract direction, with the "SAMO" tag origins quite mysterious and loaded with symbolism.
This particular black spray paint tag on a wall is emblematic of the SAMO works that Basquiat and his collaborator Al Diaz made between 1976 and 1980. Quickly applied to public spaces in the street and subway, the SAMO pieces conveyed short, sharp, and frequently anti-materialist messages to passersby. Usually seen as a sign of trespassing and vandalism, graffiti in the hands of Diaz and Basquiat became a tool of artistic "branding", and represents an important stage in the development of Basquiat's work.
The concept of SAMO, or "Same Old Shit", was developed during Basquiat's involvement with a drama project in New York, where he conceived a character that was devoted to selling a fake religion. Diaz and Basquiat applied the implicit critique embodied by this snake-oil-salesman figure to the commercial and corporate enterprises that they saw hawking goods in public spaces across their city. They initially began to spray paint the slogans that made up the works across subway trains as a way of "letting off steam" but, as Diaz remembers, they rapidly realized that it fulfilled an important role when they compared the work to more conventional graffiti tags. As Diaz says, "SAMO was like a refresher course because there was a statement being made".
After years of collaboration, Diaz and Basquiat chose to signify the end of their joint venture with the three-word announcement "SAMO IS DEAD". Carried out episodically in various cites as a piece of ephemeral graffiti art, the phrase surfaced repeatedly on gritty buildings, particularly those throughout Lower Manhattan, where Basquiat and his collaborators carried out much of their artistic activity.
An example of Basquiat's early canvas-based work, Untitled (Skull) features a patchwork skull that seems almost a pictorial equivalent of the monster from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - a constructed and sutured sum of incongruent parts. Suspended before a background that suggests aspects of the New York City subway system, the skull is at once a contemporary graffitist's riff on a long Western tradition of self-portraiture, and the "signature piece" of a streetwise bohemian. The expression on the skull-like face is downcast, with the rough stitches suggesting an unhappy combination of constituent parts. The colors used, which mix and swirl together, suggest bruising or wounds to the face, combining with the jagged lines to imply violence or its aftermath.
Basquiat's recent past as a curbside peddler, homeless person, and nightclub personality at the time that he created this piece are all equally stamped into the troubled three-quarter profile. Together these characteristics suggest that the piece becomes a world-weary icon of the displaced Puerto-Rican and Haitian immigrant Basquiat seemed to think himself doomed to remain, even while successfully navigating the newly gentrified streets of 1980s SoHo and the art market that took an interest in them.
Like a page pulled cleanly from a daily artist's journal, this untitled canvas features an array of Basquiat's personal iconography and recurring symbols set against a black background and smeared patches of bright paint. A white skull juts from the center of the ebony composition, vividly recalling the revered painter's tradition of the memento mori - a reminder of the ephemeral nature of all life and the body's eventual, merciless degeneration. The bone to the right of the canvas could also be read as a phallus, suggesting the representation of Black male sexuality as threatening or primitive (particularly when positioned next to the arrow in the painting). Scales appear directly below the skull, perhaps representing the scales of justice and therefore implying the inequality in treatment of Black men by the police and justice system that is perpetuated to this day.
Boldy appropriating images commonly associated with rural African art - a skull, a bone, an arrow - Basquiat modernizes them with his Neo-Expressionist style of thickly applied paint, rapidly rendered subjects, and scrawled linear characters, all of which float loosely across the pictorial field, as though hallucinatory. Basquiat demonstrates in one concise "study" how he is able to carry on an ancient practice of painting "still life" all the while suggesting that the artist's work was relatively effortless, if not completely improvisatory, as in the performance of a jazz musician. Nevertheless, the density of the imagery and its loaded symbolism reveal Basquiat's skill and his ability in composition.