Flyboy in the Buttermilk
Contrary to popular legend, Basquiat was anything but an outsider artist, and indeed much of what was most distinctive in his work came from the recent avant-garde rather than from the streets. Among his most important influences was Cy Twombly, whose work on paper, still on view at the Whitney Museum, I addressed in my last column ["American Graffiti," March 21]. As Richard Marshall observed in the catalogue to the exhibition of Basquiat's work he organized for the Whitney in 1992, "From Cy Twombly, Basquiat took license and instruction on how to draw, scribble, write, collage, and paint simultaneously."
In a conversation for Interview with the late Henry Geldzahler, former curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum, Basquiat identified as his "favorite Twombly" the 1975 Apollo and the Artist, which features a big "Apollo" written across it. Apollo and the Artist is in the Whitney show, and it is interesting to compare it with Basquiat's CPRKR in the Brooklyn show. Where Twombly wrote "Apollo" in large letters in blue wax crayon across the top of his piece, Basquiat drew "CPRKR" in big, loose letters with black paint stick across the top of his. Twombly's piece has the feeling of an elegy, with a crude flower drawn at the base. Basquiat's is a memorial tablet for one of his greatest heroes, Charlie Parker. Beneath the name he drew a three-point crown, a frequent symbol in his work, flanked with two black smears. Below that he wrote STANHOPE HOTEL/APRIL SECOND/NINETEEN FIFTY
T HREE FIVE--an allusion to the hotel where Parker would die on March 12, 1955. (As Basquiat explained, "I cross out words so you will see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.") There is a simple cross under that, above the inscription CHARLES THE FIRST. And across the bottom several bold black swipes of paint, which almost certainly evoke Franz Kline, also "one of my favorites," he told Geldzahler.
I have no great interest in the idea of influence, which is, as Michael Baxandall wrote, the "curse of art criticism." I emphasize the way in which Basquiat broadly "took license and instruction" from Twombly (and Kline), less as an exercise in what Baxandall calls "inferential art criticism" than to modulate the temptation to situate his work in black vernacular culture. It was characteristic of Basquiat not merely to think of Parker in terms of Apollo--the god of music and poetry (Twombly wrote "poetry music" under Apollo's name)--but also in terms of history, calling him Charles the First. He uses that as the title of a companion work, made when he was 22. In the lower left corner of Charles the First and across two of its three panels he wrote MOST
Y OUNG KINGS Get THIER HEAD Cut OFF. In the upper part of the central panel, the cross appears beneath some dates, again alluding to Parker's death. But certain motifs (the crown, crudely drawn hands) and certain words (among others, HALOES, FEET, THOR, OPERA, CHEROKEE) are loosely inscribed, together with some numbers and the word COPYRIGHT and the symbol ©, over the three panels. Despite the scribbling, the scrawling, the smearing and the playful misspellings, the overall feeling of Charles the First is the certainty, authority, boldness and graphic confidence that, more than any particular set of images or symbols, mark Basquiat's art. And while I would not attempt to work out the iconography of the piece, it bears out Basquiat's claim that his subject was "royalty, heroism and the streets." It is a tribute to a hero, a king of jazz, in a constellation of symbols that evokes a schoolyard wall on which different hands have drawn or written different things.
Basquiat's heroes were black sports stars such as Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali, and jazz musicians like Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, though in terms of the number of works dedicated to him, Charles the First reigns supreme. These range from the stark Now's the Time--in the form of a black phonograph record, ninety-two and a half inches in diameter, with Parker's tune "Now's the Time" scribbled in white paint over "PRKR"--to works consisting largely of lists, like Discography, written in white against a black background, with the names of Parker's fellow bebop revolutionaries (Miles Davis, Max Roach and the others) as well as the names of pieces recorded on "NOV. 26, 1945." The use of lists is another Twomblyism. A wonderful example is Jawbone of an Ass, in which what may be a crude self-portrait as Rodin's Thinker occupies a space in the upper left corner and surveys a scroll of historical names, including Achilles, Sappho, Cleopatra, Anaxagoras, Aristophanes, Sophocles, Socrates, Alexander the Great, down to Harrison, Tyler, Transcendentalism and Perry--with, again, a crude drawing in the lower right corner of a black figure saying "Yup!" and hitting ("Bip") a white figure with "Grrr" in a thought balloon over his head. It is, in my view, less a cartoon of racial strife, or even of the black specter haunting the white imagination, than a symbol of history as a pageant of war, since the scroll lists so many ancient battles and famous heroes--Hannibal, Hamilcar, Scipio, Alexander the Great, Spartacus, Julius Caesar. These are not the kinds of names that turn up on burners.