A Study in Gray Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

by P. Poullalié, France

Servier International
Medical Publishing Division
50 rue Carnot
92284 Suresnes Cedex

That thorn in my head nagging, my fists closed”

These paintings shout and yell, stamp, rant, and rave; they cry revolt, howl in rage and anger; they are the artworks of a young rebel determined to become famous at any price, the pictures of a penniless artist outraged by an opulent society of selfish individualists, an artist bent upon becoming the first and greatest black painter in the history of Western art, the works of a black man in a society prone to violent outbursts that reopen old wounds of a country split by racial segregation. Perhaps then it comes as no surprise that the creator of these works, Jean- Michel Basquiat, when asked in a 1983 interview “Is there anger in your work now?” replied “It’s about 80% anger.”

Born on 22 December 1960 in New York City, Jean-Michel Basquiat from an early age showed a taste and aptitude for drawing, which he did on sheets of paper his Haitian father Gérard Basquiat brought home from the office where he worked as an accountant. Jean-Michel’s Puerto Rican mother spoke to him in Spanish, words of which he later wrote on some of his paintings, had a deep interest in fashion and the arts, and regularly took him to museums—The Brooklyn Museum, The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art—after which they would draw together.

“I’d say my mother gave me all the primary things. The art came from her”

“His mother got him started and she pushed him,” Jean-Michel’s father later recalled. “She was actually a very good artist.” She also gave her son an inspired gift. In May 1968, an automobile struck seven-year-old Jean-Michel as he played in the street and put him in King’s County Hospital for a month, where he was treated for a broken arm and internal injuries, and had his spleen removed. To help him over the physical trauma and psychological shock, Jean-Michel’s mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, which would turn out to be a wellspring of creativity throughout his artistic career.

Many years later, when speaking of his beginnings as an artist, Basquiat said: “I was a really lousy artist as a kid. Too abstract expressionist; or I’d draw a big ram’s head, really messy. I’d never win painting contests. I remember losing to a guy who did a perfect Spiderman.” Soon after the accident, Jean-Michel’s life took another turn for the worse when his parents separated. He went to live in Brooklyn with his father and two sisters, and the close ties between him and his mother weakened as she moved away and later was institutionalized when her mental health faltered.

« Papa, I will be very, very famous one day”

The final chapter in Basquiat’s stormy childhood—running away from home, dropping out of school—played out in 1976 when he was admitted to an alternative high school in the Manhattan public school system, the City-as-School, which admitted gifted but troubled children for whom more traditional educational methods had failed. There, Basquiat befriended Al Diaz, a graffitist, and together they created SAMO.

Sans titre. 1987, acrylic and oil paintstick on canvas,188×239 cm.
Private collection. © The estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/Adagp, Paris 2017.
Cliché : Adagp images.

Basquiat and Diaz painted poetic aphorisms on the walls of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, signing them SAMO, for ‘same old shit.’ These strange and obscure pronouncements attracted the attention of an art world interested in the emergence of a new form of artistic expression, graffiti. Basquiat and Diaz worked on the SAMO project as “a way of letting off steam.” In December 1978, The Village Voice ran a piece on these cryptic sayings, but not long afterwards Basquiat and Diaz fell out and announced on walls the end of their collaboration with the words ‘SAMO is dead.’

From “I thought I was going to be a bum the rest of my life” to “I wanted to be a star, not a gallery mascot”

Basquiat was always trying something new, experimenting, using his varied talents and every means at his disposal: writing, music, and, from 1980, painting when his work was first publicly shown, at a group exhibition organized by artists on the Lower East Side. In its write-up of the exhibition, Art in America referred to just one artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Consumed by ambition, brimming with energy, driven by an unwavering determination to succeed, Basquiat gave his first solo exhibition, presented under the name SAMO, in Modena, Italy, in 1981, a year in which offers to exhibit, alone or with others, proliferated. The following year Basquiat was invited to contribute to the international exhibition Document a 7 at Kassel in Germany, where at twenty-one he was the youngest of one hundred and seventy-six artists. In 1983 Basquiat became the youngest artist ever to exhibit at the Whitney Biennal of the Whitney Museum of American Art. This was also the year when, having met Warhol briefly on several occasions, Basquiat finally began a friendship with the older artist, one that doubtless helped keep Warhol in the eye of the media and on the art circuit, reviving interest in him and his work. At the same time, Basquiat was realizing his teenage dreams, while benefiting from the visibility and media exposure of the aging star. In her book Widow Basquiat, Jennifer Clement notes that Basquiat appreciated people who carved out for themselves a position in the art world, quoting his girlfriend (or “widow” as she was nicknamed by art critic René Ricard even before Basquiat’s death) Suzanne Mallouk: “Jean was very conscious and fascinated with people who understood how to do this. He had great respect for people who could improve their lot in life.” Warhol was assuredly one of them.

In February 1985, the New York Times Magazine put Jean- Michel Basquiat on its cover to illustrate an article entitled New Art, New Money: the Marketing of an American Artist. Basquiat had achieved one of his aims: recognition by an internationally renowned newspaper as the first black American artist in the history of art. Nearly seventeen years after the magazine pictured Warhol on its cover with the title The Return of Andy Warhol, Basquiat had emulated his model and idol, and in a way had taken his place.

Scratch, sample, and mix: painting in music

Another of Basquiat’s passions was music, which he discovered and played with his maternal grandparents. In 1979, he co-founded a band, later renamed Gray, in reference to Gray’s Anatomy, the book that had left a lasting impression on him as a child. Basquiat played clarinet and synthesizers in the band, which produced “noise music,” a blend of punk, jazz, and synth pop. These musical experiences shaped his artistic development at a time when computers were first being used to create sounds or melodic sequences, when sound mixing and disk jockeys supplanted musical instruments and conventional composition. Basquiat found a way to infuse his artwork with visual counterparts of these soundscapes and tunes sampled by doubling or stringing together recordings. In many of his paintings, Basquiat evoked the often eventful lives of black baseball players and fighters like Mohammed Ali, Joe Frazier, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Joe Louis, and of the jazz musicians Dizzie Gillespie, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Nat King Cole, as in his 1983 work Lye. The names of these musicians are inscribed on many of Basquiat’s canvasses, as if on memorial stones. Basquiat’s favorite style of jazz was bebop, with its use of upbeat rhythms, complex chord progressions, virtuosity, and improvisation, and Charlie Parker’s 1945 composition and recording Now’s the Time inspired him to make his 1985 work of the same title. Later he would recall: “Since I was seventeen I thought I might be a star. I’d think about all my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix… I had a romantic feeling about how these people became famous.”

Self-Portrait as a Heel. 1982, acrylic and oil paintstick on canvas, 127×101.5 cm. Private collection.
© The estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/Adagp, Paris 2017 – Cliché: Galerie Enrico Navarra/Adagp images.

Left page: Natchez. 1985, acrylic, oil, paper and wood mounted
on wooden pannel, 216x154x10 cm. Private collection.
© The estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/Adagp, Paris 2017. Cliché: Galerie Enrico
Navarra/Adagp images.

Basquiat was also a participant in the emerging movements of hip hop and rap, and produced and drew the sleeve for Beat Bop, a 1983 hip hop single by Rammellzee vs K-Rob, and did the artwork for the sleeve of a 1984 album by a punk/ ska band from San Francisco: The Offs – First Record.

To transpose scratching, sampling, and mixing from music to painting, Basquiat used photocopies, which had become accessible to one and all with the proliferation of corner stores offering a cheap black and white and color photocopying service. He photocopied the plates of Gray’s Anatomy, drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, and his own creations, and covered his canvasses with them before painting over, masking, scratching, tearing them, just like a DJ blends sources of sound, accelerating, stopping suddenly, superimposing, slowing and releasing the vinyl album on the turntable, producing sound effects like grating, crackling, rasping, and scraping.

Drawing inspiration from Charlie Parker, who superimposed recordings of the same theme using different instruments, Basquiat overlaid hatchings, crossings out, scratches, marks, strokes and signs, writings and fragments of phrases or sentences, of rambling texts, repeated, elided, and drawings, colored shapes, duplicated paintings photocopied or redrawn, posted, stuck, thickened on canvas like a rhythmic litany both visual and musical.

Speaking of this palimpsestic manner of working, in a 1983 interview with Henry Geldzahler, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and early collector of his works, Basquiat explained that “Most of the pictures have one or two paintings under them. I’m worried that in the future, parts might fall off and some of the heads underneath might show through.” To which Geldzahler replied “They might not fall off, but paint changes in time. Many Renaissance paintings have what’s called ‘pentimenti,’ changes where the ‘ghost’ head underneath which was five degrees off will appear.” Basquiat’s response was: “I have a painting where somebody’s holding a chicken, and underneath the chicken is somebody’s head.”

“If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption, it would be Jean-Michel” (The Radiant Child, René Ricard)

While the influence of Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet in his work is unmistakable, Basquiat soon developed his own style using admixtures and samplings and mixes in an attempt first to portray the world in which he lived—New York City in the 1980s—with paintings like Moon Cadillac, Aaron I, and Prayer, and then to relate his own life in various self-portraits, such as Self-Portrait and Self-Portrait as a Heel, both produced in 1982.

Basquiat also depicted his understanding or interpretation of art history and of the place, or more exactly the absence, of the black man in this history, in works like Black Tar and Feathers and Slave Auction (both 1982) and El Gran Espectaculo (History of Black People) (1983).

Cassius Clay. 1982, acrylic and oil paintstick on canvas,122×101.5 cm. Private collection.
© The estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/Adagp, Paris 2017. Cliché: Galerie Enrico Navarra/Adagp images.

Jean Dubuffet. Mêle moments, acrylique
sur papier entoilé (avec 68 pièces rapportées
collées), 249×360 cm. 22 septembre 1976.
Glimcher Family Collection.
© Fondation Dubuffet/ADAGP, Paris.

Basquiat and his assistants roamed the streets of New York City gathering fences and wooden panels, furniture, all kinds of scrap, which he used in his manic drive to express himself. “If I’m away from painting for a week,” said Basquiat, “I get bored.” His friends had good reason to be wary of this boredom, as more than once it impelled him to cover their apartment walls and furniture, anything in fact that he could lay his hands on, with drawings and paintings. Basquiat melded words and images, colors, shapes, symbols and diagrams into innovative creations, finding and developing a novel artistic response to the works of Twombly, whom he particularly admired and who was one of the first painters to mix letters and drawings, paintings and words. “My favorite Twombly,” said Basquiat, “is ‘Apollo and the Artist,’ with the big ‘Apollo’ written across it.”

Basquiat’s work has something paradoxical about it, like an unshakable reconciliation between painting and writing: highly pictorial, figurative, with impastos, trickles, sprays of color, along with words, phrases, textual fragments, and codes used by hobos as depicted in Henry Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols. Basquiat described his obsession with words: “There are about 30 words around you all the time, like ‘thread’ or ‘exit’.” In his pictorial work, he sought to blend drawing and writing, painting and literature, a task doomed to failure. He also dreamt of being a writer, having begun with the famous sentences signed SAMO on the walls of New York City. A dream that he never relinquished, because in April 1988 he confided to friends that he was thinking of giving up painting in order to write.

Cy Twombly. Apollo and the Artist, 1975, Collage: (drawing paper,
cardboard, staples), oil paint, wax crayon, charcoal, pencil,
142×127.5 cm. Private Collection. © Cy Twombly Foundation.

Willem De Kooning (1904-1997), Woman I, 1950-1952, oil on
canvas, 192.7×147.3 cm. New York, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
© 2017. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.

Mater. 1982, acrylic and oil paintstick on canvas, 183×213.5 cm. Private collection.
© The estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/Adagp, Paris 2017. Cliché: Galerie Enrico Navarra/Adagp images.

Willem de Kooning was another wellspring of inspiration, as noted by reviewer Jeffrey Deitch who described Basquiat’s contribution to The Times Square Show as “A knockout combination of de Kooning and subway spray paint scribbles.” Grimacing faces and women’s bodies in Basquiat’s work irresistibly point to the influence of de Kooning’s famous series of paintings of women, and Basquiat said “Occasionally, when I get mad at a woman, I’ll do some great, awful painting about her.”

Drawings from Gray’s Anatomy and gravure illustrations and color plates from a 1966 book on Leonardo da Vinci published by Reynal & Company teem in Basquiat’s paintings and drawings, making manifest an obsession. From 1986 until his early death two years later, Basquiat worked by gluing photocopies to canvas before reworking them, repeating, kneading, mixing, or scratching his favorite motifs. The anatomical plates from Gray’s Anatomy were a leitmotiv of his artwork. An obsession with the human body, its muscles, bones, and fluids, had been omnipresent in his works almost from the start.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits. 1982, acrylic, oil paintstick and paper collage on canvas, 213.5×198 cm. Private collection.
© The estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/Adagp, Paris 2017. Cliché: Galerie Enrico Navarra/Adagp images.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Two Allegories of Envy, pen
and brown ink, with some light red chalk (JBS 17).
By Permission of the Governing Body of Christ Church.

Riding with Death. 1988, acrylic and oil paintstick on canvas,
248.9×289.6 cm. Private collection. © The estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/
Adagp, Paris 2017. Cliché: Galerie Enrico Navarra/Adagp images.

Basquiat used these plates plus their legends, with their mixture of drawings, colors, and words, in the form of quotes, deformations, or interpretations. Wielding the painter’s brush like a scalpel, he created grimacing, screaming skulls, dancing skeletons that loom frighteningly out of the canvas. Like an anatomist, Basquiat named the organs or bones as he drew or painted them, using learned or Latin names, gleaned ideas and knowledge from Gray’s book: the fear and fascination of disease, suffering, and death, in a cathartic struggle to ward off torment and descent into the Hades of the wayward drug user that he was fast becoming: “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’s 1983 work In Italian bears the inscriptions “TEETH TEETH TEETH,” “SANGRE” (blood), “DIAGRAM OF THE HEART PUMPING BLOOD,” and “CROWN OF THORNS.” Also emblematic of this anatomical fascination are two series of silk-screen prints. First, in 1982, Basquiat made Anatomy, a portfolio of eighteen silkscreens on paper published by the Annina Nosei Gallery, and in 1982/1983, in Los Angeles, he produced for the art dealer Fred Hoffmann five editions of prints: three Untitled sets along with Back of the Neck and the 8-foot-tall Tuxedo. Hoffmann gave him a book of Leonardo da Vinci drawings, which thereafter echoed through his art.

With the plates taken from Gray’s Anatomy, Basquiat blended and mixed anatomical studies, his famous grotesque heads, but also da Vinci’s drawings of the motion of water. The most conspicuous evidence of da Vinci’s influence is Basquiat’s celebrated 1982 painting Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits. The particular and mysterious manner in which da Vinci melds words and drawings, texts and shapes, could not fail to fascinate Basquiat, to chime with his childhood discovery of the illustrations in Gray’s Anatomy. A sort of circle was thus joined, from childhood to art, from art to childhood: “I like kids’ work more than work by real artists any day.” Like the Renaissance master, Basquiat strove to see through bodies, to explore his own, to see it like a cut-away diagram, snipping, tearing, shredding.

Anatomy (1 of the 18 parts), 1982, Screenprint, Edition of 18,
86×65.5 cm.
© The estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/Adagp, Paris 2017. Cliché: Galerie Enrico
Navarra/Adagp images.

El gran spectaculo (History of black people). 1983, acrylic and
oil paintstick on canvas, 172.5×358 cm. Private collection.
© The estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/Adagp, Paris 2017. Cliché: Galerie Enrico
Navarra/Adagp images.

Paint it black/paint in black

The two series of silkscreens after Gray’s Anatomy, as well as some paintings and drawings on a black background, raise the question of the inversion from black to white, white to black. Drawings are usually traced in black on white, like the organs and bones in Gray’s Anatomy, but does not Basquiat, by inverting shades, by drawing white bones on a black background, visually and through wordplay, show that everyone, regardless of skin color, has the same bones and organs, experiences the same suffering and fear, the same anguish, trapped as we are within a body, the body first and foremost of our humanity? Like an X-ray of the human being.

This intimate obsession that courses through Basquiat’s career, curtailed after just eight years by a heroin overdose, evolved into existential suffering and angst. Quoted by Jennifer Clement in Widow Basquiat, Suzanne Mallouk put it this way: “What most people don’t understand about Jean-Michel is that his crazy behavior had nothing to do with being an enfant terrible. Everything he did was an attack on racism and I loved him for this.” Yet paradoxically Basquiat asserted: “I am not a black artist, I am an artist,” contradictory though this may seem in view of his fight and stance as a black man in a society that was struggling to free itself from a proslavery and racist past. Basquiat pitted himself against the great masters, vied with da Vinci, with Manet, whose Olympia is attended by a black servant, and revisited the history of art to place within it the figure of the black man, with himself as the first great black painter in the history of Western art. “I wanted to be a star, not a gallery mascot.” And a star he was, and is—thirty seven exhibitions in the United States, Japan, and Europe, good sales, an oeuvre of over one thousand paintings and two thousand drawings.

“The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings. I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them.”

In his famous article The Radiant Child, which boosted Basquiat’s fame, René Ricard put it thus: “To Whites every Black holds a potential knife behind the back, and to every Black the White is concealing a whip. We were born into this dialogue and to deny it is fatuous. Our responsibility is to overcome the sins and fears of our ancestors and drop the whip, drop the knife.” Basquiat’s 1983 work El Gran Espectaculo (History of Black People) casts the rule over these ancestral fears and sins, the African American story, intertwining the destiny of the African tribes, from the time of ancient Egypt till his own, in a parallel drawn between Memphis on the Nile and Memphis Tennessee. In April 1988, Basquiat took his friend and colleague the Ivorian painter Ouattara Watts on the Mississippi, that link between the blacks of Africa and those of America. Among many great works Basquiat devoted explicitly to such themes are Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta (1983), Slave Auction (1982), and Toussaint L’Overture [sic] versus Savonarola (1983; Toussaint L’Ouverture was the leader of the Haitian Revolution against colonial France; Savonarola, an Italian Dominican friar in Renaissance Italy, may have symbolized for Basquiat the Christian fundamentalism of the so-called Moral Majority in 1980s America). Basquiat’s creative process led to a body of work that amounts to a vast, rich, and complex fresco conjuring up the history of the United States and of black Americans within it, in a jumble of images and words, sounds, cries, the hooting of horns, automobiles, planes winging around, darting from canvas to canvas, in a juxtaposition of the jumble of information that assails the ultramodern city dweller as he crisscrosses the metropolis on his way to work or play. The life of modern man floundering, lost, disoriented by this Babel at the heart of the concrete jungle, the sound and fury of televisions, loudspeakers, jingles, and wallpaper music, the visual clutter of neon signs and posters and billboards.

“I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life”

Death, omnipresent in Basquiat’s work, culminates in one of his last canvasses (1988), Riding with Death, which is often seen as a premonition of his tragic end. Its figures are a revival of an allegorical drawing by da Vinci, remixed with depictions of the human body from African rock art. Increasingly present in his late works, Basquiat took these figures from frican Rock Art by Burchard Brentjes. This was Basquiat’s last attempt to enter the firmament of the world of art by melding Western painting and African, to measure himself against Leonardo da Vinci, to forge a link with African rock art and thereby with his forebears. ■

Further reading
Burchard B, Clarkson N. African Rock Art. New York NY: Potter; 1970.
Deitch J. Report from Times Square. Art in America. 1980;68:58-63.
Musée d’Art moderne de Paris. Basquiat. Paris, France: Paris-Musées; 2010.
Hoffman F, Jones K, Mayer M, Sirmans F. Basquiat, edited by Mayer M. Paris, France: Flammarion; 2005.
Chalumeau JL. Basquiat. Paris, France: Cercle d’Art; 2003.
Emmerling L. Basquiat. Cologne, Germany: Taschen; 2003.
Gates HL, Sirmans F, Stackhouse C. Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, edited by Buchhart D and Laughlin Bloom T. New York, NY: Skira Rizzoli; 2015.
Geldzahler H. From Subways to Soho: Jean-Michel Basquiat (interview). Interview. 1983 (January);13.
Hoffman F; Acquavella Galleries. Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing: Work from the Schorr Family Collection. USA: Rizzoli; 2014.
Chiappini R. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Milan, Italy: Skira; 2005.
Vierny D, Navarra E, Blisthène B. Jean-Michel Basquiat – Oeuvres sur papier. Paris, France: Fondation Dina Vierny-Musée Maillol, Réunion des Musées Nationaux; 1997.
Millet B, Valabrègue F, Piguet P, Guidieri R. Jean-Michel Basquiat, une retrospective. France: Réunion des Musées Nationaux; 1992.
Dreyfuss H. Symbol Sourcebook: an Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons; 1972.
Jean-Michel Basquiat. The Notebooks, edited by Warsh L. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 2015.
Hoban P. Samo is Dead: The Fall of Jean-Michel Basquiat. New York Magazine. 1988;21(38):36-44.
Dreyfuss H. Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons; 1984.
Ricard R. The Radiant Child. New York, NY: Artforum; 1981.
Clement J. Widow Basquiat. Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Canongate Books Ltd; 2000.