Flyboy in the Buttermilk

Flyboy in the Buttermilk

Basquiat in Brooklyn.


I can safely say that Jean scoffed at the term graffiti when applied to himself.   –Rene Ricard

The creative period of New York graffiti art lasted for about a decade, beginning with the appearance all over Upper West Side walls and sidewalks of "TAKI 183" in 1971 and culminating, around 1980, in the realization of spectacular works by individual masters that covered the sides of subway cars. The artists called themselves "writers," and their primary works were alphanumeric signatures, or "tags," executed in fonts of singular originality, occasionally illuminated with vernacular images poached from comics or from recent art history. I suppose the closest analogy would be the creation of intricate capital letters by Celtic scribes in such works as the Book of Kells. Seldom has a movement gone so far so fast. The illustrations in a book like The Faith of Graffiti, published in 1974, show tags that have evolved well beyond TAKI 183, but scarcely prepare one for the baroque splendor of those in Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant's 1984 edited collection Subway Art, most of which were executed around 1980. Subway Art ends with an inscribed rap epitaph by the writer Lee Quinones in relatively straightforward lettering: "There was once a time when the Lexington was a beautiful line/When children of the ghetto expressed with art, not with crime…."

The centrality of the signature is easily grasped, since the primary goal of graffiti was "getting fame," and the subway car–or "burner"–offered a billboard-size surface with the added advantage of mobility. Glory consisted in the abrupt emergence of one's freshly painted tag from a tunnel's darkness onto a viaduct, like the one across 125th Street. The primary audience consisted of other writers, who knew one's identity, appreciated the dangers involved in "getting up" and admired the artistry and originality of one's achievement. In a recent letter, Tony Silver–who made a wonderful documentary with Chalfant, Style Wars–wrote, "I liked the idea that the transgressive writers with no consciousness of the art world had taken over public space as vandals with their tags and burners, and discovered they could be artists, creating their own canon."

When I asked Silver why Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was something of a graffitero in the early 1980s, was not included among the writers in his film, he said that he could not fit him in. Despite the fact that Basquiat worked as a street artist for a time and even had a tag–SAMO–he viewed himself, from the outset, as a fine artist, and the unprecedented art world of the 1980s rightly accepted him on his own terms, though the outlaw aura of graffiti probably abetted his meteoric ascent. By 1984 some of the writers were trying to cross over into the gallery scene, but it proved impossible to sustain the energy that had made them underground stars. Basquiat, however, flourished in the downtown art world. In May of that same year, he had his first one-person show at Mary Boone, one of the hottest galleries of that moment, and was included in "An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture," with which the Museum of Modern Art inaugurated its 1984 reopening. He had re-created on canvas the visceral excitement other writers achieved only in the rail yards of the MTA.

Though writing was an important feature of Basquiat's art, he is closer to Cy Twombly than to CRASH or DAZE, who showed at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1984. Graffiti, even at its most inspired, really belongs to the visual culture of the early 1980s, whereas Basquiat's work, for all its graffiti gestures, belongs with the art of that decade. And while he sought fame as eagerly as the uptown writers, he was after the kind of recognition that the establishment alone confers, not the ephemeral celebration of co-conspirators in an underground network. Moreover, fame was not the substance of his art, as it was in the art of the writers. Like artists in any period, he was concerned with what Hegel would call the highest needs of the spirit. Basquiat's painting was close to the best the art world had to offer in his day, and his achievement only grows more impressive with time, as is evident in the powerful retrospective of his work at the Brooklyn Museum, a short walk from where he grew up. The show is up through June 5, after which it goes to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (July 17-October 10) and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (November 18-February 12, 2006).

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 THREE 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 YOUNG 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.

"If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption," Rene Ricard quipped, "it would be Jean-Michel." What this omits is the place of blackness in Basquiat's art, as well as in his life, and in the complex relationship between the two. Basquiat himself did not shy away from the subject of race. In a 1985 profile for The New York Times Magazine published under the title "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist," Basquiat said that he included so many people of color in his paintings because "I didn't see many paintings with black people in them." His father, Gérard Basquiat, an accountant, was Haitian, and his mother, Matilde, who had an interest in fashion design, was Puerto Rican. The family lived a middle-class life in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where, for a time, Jean-Michel attended St. Ann's, a private Catholic school with a progressive curriculum. His early interest in drawing was encouraged at home. When he was recovering from an accident, Matilde gave him a copy of Gray's Anatomy, which became the source for the anatomical drawings that were so much a part of his artistic vocabulary. Thanks to Matilde, who often took him to the Metropolitan Museum and the Brooklyn Museum, he had an unusually rich museum background. "The art," he said, "came from her."

Yet he never traveled in an exclusively black world, and his introduction to art does not seem to have come through black painters like Jacob Lawrence or Romare Bearden. His downtown milieu was chiefly white, and though he resented the scarcity of blacks and the art world's subtle undercurrents of racism (one painting on display is entitled Obnoxious Liberals), he seems to have flourished in the scene–the galleries, the clubs, the parties. He had a band called Gray, which played at the Mudd Club and CBGB, he was a great dancer and he had many white girlfriends, including Madonna. Lizzie Himmel's photograph of him for the cover of The New York Times Magazine shows him barefoot, in a paint-stained Armani suit and necktie, peering out with sulky curiosity. There is a black figure in the painting next to him, somewhat fetal in shape, with two long rows of many white teeth. In the eyes of New York's mostly white art world, Basquiat was exotically handsome, a black bohemian prince.

The downtown art world of the 1980s had undergone a dramatic reconfiguration by the time Basquiat arrived on the scene. Painting, which had been marginalized in the 1970s, had enjoyed a resurgence as part of a world movement then known as Neo-Expressionism. Neo- Expressionist paintings were brushy, urgent, figurative and, not least, very large. Since the immense demand for the Abstract Expressionist canvases of the New York School was raising prices to unprecedented heights, the very size of the paintings of Julian Schnabel, David Salle and others enhanced their value to collectors. Artists who painted big canvases began to live suitably big, opulent lives. Basquiat's brilliantly splashy work merged perfectly with the new ethos, and the fact that he painted in designer suits, rather than the working-class bluejeans and flannel shirts of an earlier generation, embodied the shift in self-perception. Basquiat became typical of the spoiled American artist that Tama Janowitz wrote about in Slaves of New York. His pals were Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and especially Andy Warhol, who became his mentor. There is a wonderful double portrait of himself with Warhol, Dos Cabezas–another painting from 1982, perhaps his best year. The two artists are shown side by side, but in different spaces. Warhol cuts a meditative profile in his white wig, looking out through one green eye. Basquiat shows himself like a golliwog, with wild black hair. Interestingly, there is no lettering.

Whether because of Basquiat's race or the uncertainty of his association with graffiti, the official art establishment was leery of him. Relatively few of his works are in public collections. Critics in the 1980s generated rarified theories to deal with Salle's disjunctive canvases, which were believed to express something about the fractured reality of the external world. Or they speculated that Julian Schnabel's fragmented, sharded compositions expressed something deep about the mind and the world's disorder. Basquiat ended up being critically ghettoized, discussed in ethnic rather than philosophical terms. To some extent this is still true today. I had not, I must confess, especially gone out of my way to see his work until after his death in 1988, when I finally went down to see a show assembled by his first dealer, Anina Nosei. It then struck me that nobody had really looked at the work. Basquiat's gift, I realized, was like Pollock's–brilliant, daring, impulsive. None of the hot artists of his moment in the 1980s could touch him. He alone transcended the fevered period he epitomized.

He did not survive his decade. He made a lot of money, which he spent lavishly on drugs. He had a terrible heroin addiction. One of his last works, on brown canvas, is called Riding With Death. A brown and black equestrian figure sits astride a horse skeleton. There are crosses in the eyeholes of the horse's skull. "Horse," of course, is slang for heroin, which transports the rider out of the world, with his arms spread out in a gesture of helplessness. Basquiat was 27 when he died.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy