Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of the most prolific artists to come out of the neo-expressionist era that was the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Basquiat was born December 22, 1960, to Gerard Basquiat and Matilda Andrades, a Haitian-American man and a Puerto Rican woman. Despite his relatively brief career, cut short by a heroin overdose in 1988, Basquiat was able to attain celebrity and fame through his forward thinking and revolutionary artwork. Living to only 27 Basquiat was able put out an incredible amount of work, with over 100 drawings and paintings, some selling for up to 3.3 Million dollars. His work was erratic and emotional, often exploring themes of racial identity, often incorporating slang and his own poetry, as well as frequent pop culture references into his work. These works included anyone from: Sugar Ray Johnson to Ramallazee (a rap artist Basquiat was close friends with). Basquiat, through his art, explored the black American experience from a deeply personal perspective, redefining what it meant to be black in the 20th century through images of prolific black athletes and from scenes from his own life.
One example of Basquiat’s incredible to ability to critique his environment and society is communicated best through Untitled (Gun) 1981. This painting, like much of his work, is very raw, crude but what shines through is the very clear statement that he is trying to make. The statement in this piece of art is the dehumanization of black lives. This is very clear from the difference in the way the two figures are drawn. This is a piece of art that pushes a question: Why is it necessary for one person to be so developed at such a stark contrast to the other?
The drawing itself is the outline of a man holding a gun to a very vague outline of someone with their hands up against (what appears to be) an off-white, slightly dirty canvas. The most striking thing about the painting is the man holding a gun. This man, though only roughly outlined, was engaging because every line in his silhouette uses a new color: for the hat a light brown, for the face a strong red, for the shoulder line a dark green, leading up to the sleeve of the hand holding a gun. The gun itself is interesting because it is the only thing in the work that is solidly colored all the way through; everything else is communicated through simple lines. The second man in the painting is even more roughly drawn than the first. We see a very basic outline of a man with his hands up. This man is only outlined in one color, black. However, as opposed to the first subject there is no definition of a face or clothing or even hands. Instead of the different colors of the first gure, there is barely an outline of a face. What is pictured however is a basic rectangle with a crude pair of feet, a square head without a neck, and two rectangular appendages extending upward from what looks like the figure’s shoulders.
Basquiat’s decision to create such a transparent portrayal of the two subjects is where the statement is. Basquiat created this disparity to show the difference in the way that situation is portrayed. The man holding the gun is a white man pointing it at a black person with his hands up. The fact that there are so many dimensions and details added to the white man is evidence of portrayal of white men versus the portrayal of the victim, portrayed with little to none development at all. Basquiat is commenting on the way the media portrays a developed view of each white aggressor, a stark contrast to the black victim, who is often is often cast aside and dehumanized. A message that in the context of movements today like #Blacklivesmatter and the recent cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, it is a message that still rings true for many Americans today.
Another example of Basquiat’s poignant perspective on culture in the 80’s is his painting Hollywood Africans (1983). Hollywood Africans is bright, emotional look at black identity. It is a piece of art that incorporates themes of race, history, stereotypes and popular culture from a perspective unique to Basquiat himself. Hollywood Africans is a great example of Basquiat’s unique sense of aesthetic; The painting, done on canvas is bright yellow for two-thirds of the top half of the painting. To the lower left corner of the painting the yellow brakes as if Basquiat suddenly stopped painting, large brushstrokes of yellow fading into the black of the paint underneath, implying he had painted the whole canvas black before even beginning to see the final product. The black paint in a stark contrast to the yellow is spotty and less consistent in color; Often leaving spots of the original canvas showing, maybe slightly shaded with the black as if the paint was beginning to dry on the brush. In the black space, there is a crown hovering above “200 yen.11” drawn on in a pinkish red color. Directly to the right, there is a “G” in a slightly darker shade of red. Even further to the right of the “G” is a whole line over one word (also in white) “Gangsterism”. At the lower right corner, instead of fading into a black the paint is a baby blue, the yellow, just at the midpoint of the painting seems to pour down further than the black. In some places, Basquiat went as far as to paint a thin layer of the yellow over the blue after the blue paint had dried but thin enough that the blue was visible underneath the yellow.
The first thing noticed when looking at the painting is the faces painted slightly to the right of the center of the painting, one of them being his own, the other two being Toxic and Rammellzee a painter and a rap artist, respectively. Each face is drawn with blue paint on top of the yellow, without shading them in. However what Basquiat does shade a small part of each face with a brown pastel, never shading a large enough percentage to garner attention at first glance. Throughout the body of the painting, there are phrases and numbers scrawled almost haphazardly. Some were allusions to his own life: like the numbers “12 22 and 60” other alluded to larger external influences in Basquiat’s life with words like “Tobacco” scrawled in white against a large blue box above the Rammellzee’s head.
The painting all together becomes an introspective look at his own place in society, an honest look at race in juxtaposition to his growing celebrity. We see that connection made through his use of historians symbolism, his use of words like “tobacco” and “sugar cane” make very clear connections to southern cash crops, crops that were once supported by the toil of his ancestors, alluding to a time where slavery was rampant. Then he puts that statement next to drawings of himself and three of his friends. In doing this he draws attention to his own place in society in the context of race. He then draws in the aspect of celebrity by writing “Hollywood negros” several times across the painting. In doing this he has now taken his own ideas of race and American history and put them in the context of “Hollywood.” He is speaking to the preconceived notions and judgments that he feels as he navigates the new world of Hollywood. He sees the preconceived notions of blackness reflected in a world so absent of those ideas, save his two friends. The Whitney museum of Modern art suggested that words like “Sugar Cane,” “Tobacco,” “Gangsterism,” and “What is Bwana?” did not refer to Basquiat’s identity, but instead alluded to “the limited roles available to black actors in old Hollywood movies.” This implies that Basquiat is not speaking for himself but instead critiquing his surroundings, critiquing Hollywood and speaking up for black people as they appear in Hollywood.
Basquiat often chose famous black athletes as muses for his work, reinforcing the idea of black celebrity this time in the context of greatness. He often chose black boxers and baseball players in a time where black athletes were still looked down upon and faced a ridiculous amount of discrimination. Instead of choosing images of the lynch mobs that still terrorized black Americans, at the time, he chose black victory through athletics. Through the exploration of black athletes, he created powerful images of black power and black pride. During Basquiat’s career, he painted a multitude of different boxers: Minimalistic portraits of Sugar Ray Johnson, Jack Johnson, and even Muhammad Ali. However, the most provocative painting based in boxing uses boxing as a statement for much larger ideas of racial equality and black power; This painting is “The ring, 1981”.
This painting is an angry, emotional portrait of a black man standing victorious in a boxing ring holding a spear over his head. In the foreground, there is a deep red backdrop, halfway down the painting and boarding the left side of the painting there is a large white shape. The painting is split by the outline of a boxing ring, complete with a boxer’s stool and a boxer. The ring itself is drawn with a black oil stick quickly and almost crudely, including smears in some places, which looks as though Basquiat himself had taken his hand and smeared the paint before it could dry. On the floor of the ring looks as though Basquiat added texture by painting in white in certain places on the floor creating a smear like effect, exclusive to the floor of the ring. On the floor of the ring, there is also a large brown object, shaped like an L, stretching from one side of the ring to the other. The boxer standing at the center of the ring is outlined with a white acrylic paint marker his insides have been shaded in with a set of ribs detailed in the same paint used to outline the face. From the figure’s head are several protruding shapes similar to one of Basquiat’s own hairstyles. The figure is standing in a victorious pose, holding a spear triumphantly over his head. To the figure’s left there is a moon drawn in yellow and blue, above the spear, there is the sun, drawn in black. The painting as a whole is a tribute to the African Americans that have been able to successes and find fame through boxing, without sacrificing their culture. The spear represents the culture that the black boxer carries with him in the ring. The man is holding the spear above his head because he is and be proud of his heritage. The boxer’s dreadlocks are another example of Basquiat’s role in his own art, projecting himself and his own experience into the art, implying that the boxer’s victory is also his own.
Dieter Buchhart in Against All Odds put the boxing-themed painting in the context of the violence of the time saying: “At a time when black Americans were still lynched for hitting white men, the physical victories of black men over their white counterparts were powerful moments in the African-American consciousness” This argument reinforces the ideas of need for paintings like “the boxer” and why Basquiat would project himself into such paintings. Despite a tragic death after only 27 years of life after a tragic overdose, Basquiat is now remembered as a spokesperson for his time, someone who was able to accurately channel the intangible culture of his time.He was able to express his opinions and thoughts in a way that were uniquely his own and stumbled upon a community of people that shared his vision, or at least intrigued by it. He was a revolutionary who changed the way we express ourselves. Someone who was able to, through his art, redefine the black experience and affect culture in a way that was uniquely his.