Progression of Art
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.
Graffiti - Location unknown (New York City)
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.
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas - The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat
Untitled (Black Skull)
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.
Acrylic, oil stick, and spray paint on canvas - The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat
Flexible features two of Basquiat's most famous motifs: the griot and the venerable crown. An emaciated black figure stares out from the canvas towards the viewer, its arms creating a closed circuit in what may be a reference to spiritualized energy, a concept which appears in several works featuring the griot. The work also reflects Basquiat's development as an artist and is a synthesis of his influences, with the diagrammatic rendering of the figure's lungs and abdomen reminiscent of the young Basquiat's fascination with anatomical sketches from Gray's Anatomy.
Whilst its lack of distinguishing characteristics might imply an "Everyman", the specifically African ethnicity of the figure provides a clear reference to Basquiat's own identity and background. In its color palette and the particular rendering of the human figure through thin limbs and a large head, the influence of the shapes and forms of traditional West African art is apparent. Art historian and Basquiat collaborator Fred Hoffman writes that the image represents a tribal king, one whose "posture, with arms raised and interlocked above his head, conveys confidence and authority, attributes of his heroism. He seems to be crowning himself.
Given that the griot is traditionally a kind of wandering philosopher, street performer, and social commentator, it is possible that Basquiat saw himself taking up this role within the New York art world, which nurtured his artistic success but also swiftly exploited it for material profit. The image is painted on wooden slats, which Basquiat asked his assistants to remove from a fence that protected the boundary of his Los Angeles studio. By removing this barrier, Basquiat made the property open, and able to be traversed across freely, perhaps reflecting his empathy and personal experience of the limits of public space as a homeless person in New York.
Acrylic and oil paint stick on wood - Private Collection
Untitled (History of the Black People)
At the center of this painting, Basquiat depicts a yellow Egyptian boat being guided down the Nile River by the god Osiris. Two Nubian masks appear in the left of the image, under the word "NUBA", whilst graffiti-esque tags are scrawled over a silhouetted blackdog, reads "a dog guarding the pharaoh". Other text in the image includes "Memphis [Thebes] Tennessee" "sickle" (repeated several times in the central panel, and directly referencing slave trade), "Hemlock" (in the bottom right corner), "esclave slave esclave") superimposed over a silhouetted black human figure, as well as the Spanish phrases "El gran espectaculo" (along the top of the image), and "mujer" (next to a crudely drawn figure with circular breasts).
In this expansive early work, also referred to as The Nile, Basquiat reconstructs the epic history of his own ancestors' arrival on the American continent. This includes references to Egypt and the rest of Africa, as well as more local centers of African-American music in the Southern United States. Rife with visual and textual references to African history, the painting tackles a heady subject within Basquiat's trademark aesthetic. Art historian Andrea Frohne suggests that the painting "reclaims Egypt as African", attempting to undo the revisionist positioning of Ptolemaic Egypt as a precursor to Western Civilisation and instead emphasizing its African identity. This corresponds to attempts within the African-American community to reconnect with a specifically African heritage and history in the 1980s, which may have influenced Basquiat's development of the piece. Curator Dieter Buchhart asserts that "Basquiat was drawing and painting the Black experience in which any person from the African Diaspora could see themselves reflected and drawing attention to both their collective successes and struggles. Basquiat’s African-American men are usually not only ready to struggle but also intent on resistance."
Many of Basquiat's late-period works feature similar multi-panel paintings, in the tradition of Renaissance religious triptychs, and canvases with exposed stretcher bars. Often the surfaces of these pieces are virtually consumed by the density of the writing, collage, and varied imagery.
Acrylic paint and oil paint stick on panel - The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat
Arm and Hammer II
In this collaborative painting, Basquiat paints over Andy Warhol's trademark reproduction of a corporate logo, in this case for the Arm and Hammer brand of baking soda. Adjusting one of the two reproductions of the logo that appear in the painting to show a Black saxophonist instead of the flexing white arm, Basquiat frames the image with text which reads "Liberty 1955". The insertion of an image of Black creativity within an advertising logo may be an assertion of agency and reclamation of public space by Basquiat. It is also a visual reference to jazz, an African-American musical form that reached new heights of popularity in the 1950s, and an implicit acknowledgement of the repression of Black people that existed despite the music's success and incorporation into American identity.
Moreover, the insertion of an image of Black creativity within an advertising logo may be an assertion of agency and reclamation of public space by Basquiat. Typical of their collaboration, Arm and Hammer II demonstrates how Basquiat and Warhol would pass a work between them, like a game of chance happening, free association, and mutual inspiration. Warhol's characteristic employment of corporate logos and advertising copy as shorthand signs for the materialistic modern psyche is frequently overlaid by Basquiat's attempt to deface them in his freehand style, as though he were vainly raising his own fist at a largely invisible, insidious and monolithic monster in the form of corporate America.
Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas - Gallery Bruno Bischofberger AG
Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper)
Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper) is a collaboration between Basquiat and Andy Warhol, commissioned by Alexandre Iolas, the international art gallerist and collector. Basquiat painted each of ten white punching bags with an image of Jesus, as well as the word “Judge” repeated several times on each bag. The piece was originally intended to be displayed in Milan directly across the street from Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. Opposite the Renaissance masterpiece, Ten Punching Bags was to function, somewhat playfully, as a "call to arms" for contemporary art against all forms of ideological oppression.
Christian readings of the piece were generally (and perhaps surprisingly) very positive, the representation of Jesus as a punching bag corresponding to the concept that he took on the sins of human beings, receiving the punches that they might be free. Reverend Harold T. Lewis wrote that Basquiat's contribution to the work tied the role of Jesus to poverty, suggesting that the iconography both religious and secular added by Basquiat creates a situation where "Jesus the Judge himself is judged by the squalor of urban poverty".
Basquiat and Warhol suggested that this piece was among their favorite collaborations, as it represented an effective blend of their respective styles. Both artists made important contributions to the design. Warhol's influence is made clear by the careful color composition and physical installation, which is reminiscent of several of his iconic brand works. Basquiat's expressive renderings of Jesus and signature crown motifs disrupt the clean lines and organized placement however, much like graffiti disrupts the order of corporatized public space.
Acrylic and oil stick on punching bags - The Andy Warhol Museum
Riding with Death
Riding with Death is one of Basquiat's final paintings, and one which can easily be read as representing his inner turmoil and increasing conviction that the racist, classist, and corrupt nature of America in the 1980s was visible everywhere, including in the art world. Painted in the weeks before his death, the bleakness and sadness of the image and its title is only enhanced by the knowledge that the artist's life would come to an end far too soon shortly after its completion.
Less cluttered and visually dense than many of his earlier paintings, Riding with Death features a textured brown field onto which Basquiat has depicted an African figure riding a skeleton. The skeleton crawls on all fours towards the left-hand side of the image, whilst the rider, rendered in less detail than the bones on which they sit, writhes or flails its arms. The skull faces the viewer, its cartoonish proportions and broad expression suggesting the gestural graffiti that remained a core stylistic influence on Basquiat's painting. The simplicity of the background and the subject matter are also reminiscent of pre-historic cave art, as well as later African tribal art. The head of the African figure is indistinct, its features obscured by black scribbles apart from a single eye in its forehead.
The central figures, although simply framed, are loaded with symbolism. The pair suggest a nihilism or journey towards death that is made more poignant by Basquiat's dependence upon heroin and other drugs at the time of its painting. Although the African figure is riding the skeleton and could therefore be read as being in a position of dominance, the assertive positioning of the skeleton suggests instead that it is in control, perhaps dragging the rider to the far side of the frame. Coupled with the distinction in color between the two (a white skeleton and Black rider), this couple could be read as a metaphor for the repression and destruction of African societies by colonial powers, as well as the inequalities that existed within 1980s America for people of color. This work is an excellent example of the complex meanings Basquiat was able to communicate and suggest through a complex visual language regularly referred to by critics as "primitive" or "naïve". As this poignant image shows, Basquiat's work was in fact highly sophisticated and far more technically accomplished than is often credited.
Acrylic and crayon on canvas - Private Collection