12.22.60 – 8.12.88
BASQUIAT AS ANTI-ARTIST
Jean-Michel as ignition.
SAMO as alternative to art.
Basquiat as anti-artist.
Every once in a while a soul comes into the universe with a heightened sensitivity to the hypocrisy and bullshit of the world and is compelled to do something about it; is driven to be the antithesis of present day preconceived notions and constraints; is determined to turn the world inside out and reflect it back. Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of those souls. Born in the Peoples Republic of Brooknam in the then Puerto Rican barrio of Park Slope, to a Puerto Rican mother and Haitian father Jean-Michel couldn’t help but see the world through his own eyes. His mother introduced Jean-Michel and his sister Lisane to art when they were young. Taking them to museums and drawing together at the kitchen table as a family.
Basquiat had a mind of his own. He owned his own mind. He owned it wholly. The New York City Board of Miseducation did what it could to try and bring him to conformity but failed in getting Basquiat to graduate high school. It did however succeed in bringing together Al Diaz and Basquiat, who then created a cryptic graffiti character by the name of SAMO. SAMO was the first salvo in a battle to be that antithesis of preconceived notions and constraints.
“SAMO is all, all is SAMO.”
“SAMO the guilt-free religion… and beyond.”
“SAMO as an alternative to mindwash.”
A homeless high school drop out living in downtown parks like Tompkins Square and Washington Square. Living on street smarts, postcard collages and painted t-shirts. Living on the fumes of dreams of fame all young graffiti artists inhale.
“Since I was seventeen, I thought I might be a star. I’d think about all my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix… I had romantic feelings of how people get famous.”
SAMO became infamous and Basquiat got famous. And like the heroes he idolized, struggled with his fame. Charlie Parker changed the world with his horn and was attacked by the critics for his contribution then died of an overdose at the tender age 35. Jimi Hendrix changed the way an electric guitar could be played and was ridiculed by the critics, then died of an overdose at 27. Basquiat changed the way art would be viewed and then died of an overdose at the same age as Jimi.
“Did you know that you were going to stop doing stuff on walls and start putting stuff on canvas… did you have any idea that you wanted to hit the gallery circuit?”
No, I was more interested in attacking the gallery circuit at the time. I just thought about making fun of the paintings that were in there more than about making paintings. The art world was mostly Minimal when I came up. I thought it alienated people from art.”
Basquiat was an anti-artist. He challenged the traditional definitions and ideas of what it was to be an artist and of what art should be. He attacked the canvas in a way that didn’t allow external forces to get in the way of expressing the way he felt internally. That internal energy poured out of him uninhibited and unencumbered in a well thought out stream of consciousness. He captured the exuberant energy of a child in his paintings and mixed it with fierce social and political commentary. He painted and repainted paintings in layers, editing and refining images, using symbols and text and letters and numerals as tactics to create a new way of looking at the world. He gave birth to a personal vocabulary and then forged it into a new language. In the early 80’s the art world needed change, but like anything that needs changing it feared any change it couldn’t control. Basquiat saw the opportunity to be the change that the art world needed. And he saw the way the art world wanted to control him. So he went out of his way to be everything they loved and hated and he that put it in his work.
“I think the two similarities that Jean and graffiti in general had in common was that people wanted to harness a wild animal. They couldn’t control him and they couldn’t control graffiti. The art world was bland and they wanted something on their walls. Jean-Michel’s work is very anti-art world, you know. It’s almost like a curse. And people still love that. They love being cursed at.” – Lee Quiñones
Basquiat came from the world of hip-hop and be-bop and salsa and punk. He was the quintessential Puerto Punk. A fusion of clashing cultures and intersecting ideologies. He straddled the uptown hip-hop b-boy scene with the downtown art punk no wave scene. He was a graffiti artist and a DJ at the same time that he was in the no wave punk band Gray. He produced and created the artwork for the most sought after hip-hop vinyl record (Beat Bop by Rammelzee vs. K-Rob) and recorded with fellow Puerto Punk Coati Mundi (of Kid Creole and the Coconuts). His roots in the hip-hop and punk scene imbued him with a healthy sense of disdain for the art world and he took every opportunity to take a shot at it. Even going so far as to create paintings that were outright attacks on the idea of buying and selling art. One painting entitled “Obnoxious Liberals” has the words “Not For Sale” incorporated into it. Another painting called “Five Thousand Dollars” that consisted solely of blocks of color with the words “Five Thousand Dollars” painted across the canvas demonstrated a clear awareness of the way in which the art world made not just his art but he himself into nothing more than a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder.
Basquiat’s outrage was not solely confined to the art world. He held a radical social and political dialogue in his work aimed at the ills of a racist society that exploited people of color in the Americas, the Caribbean and in Africa. Works such as “Joe Louis Surrounded By Snakes” spoke of the way black talent was used in the interest of white business. “Undiscovered Genius” was a statement on the black experience in america from slavery to the blues. “Origin Of Cotton” was another piece that was done both in the streets and on paper that spoke of the exploitation of life and labor. “Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari” illustrated the way in which Europeans colonized people of color.
Other pieces like “The Death Of Michael Stewart” (a graffiti artist killed by the police in 1983) and “Untitled Sheriff” focused on police brutality. While pieces like “Irony Of A Negro Policeman” are a reflection of societies complex contradictions. Much of Basquiat’s work held a level of consciousness that assaulted the comfortably held beliefs of a racist, capitalist society, particularly focusing on the way the lives and talent of black and brown people were used and continue to be used to this day. A perfect example of this is “Per Capita” with an image of a black statue of liberty and the Latin word “E. Pluribus” found on money written above it’s head. His art contained a justified anger that railed against the way things are in a capitalist, white supremacist world.
His sensitivity and his ability to maintain his vision in the face of the odds he was up against as a dark skinned Puerto Rican – Haitian artist in an all white controlled art world, could only be rooted in his connection to the early hip-hop and punk subcultures. In the early days of hip-hop and punk the aesthetic was D.I.Y. and anti-commercial. Punk’s doctrine dictated that you didn’t need to sound like the radio to express yourself. Put a band together and find your own voice. Record you own music, make your own records, and book your own gigs. Hip-hop’s manifesto was to create something out of next to nothing. Turntables became instruments, cardboard became dance floors, trains became mobile museums. Basquiat mixed the ideologies of both of these subcultures and turned the art world inside out. His meteoric rise to fame and the art world’s desire to accept him on terms they wanted to dictate and Basquiat’s awareness of their manipulation of him and his – art always left him feeling ill at ease with his own fame.
“My paintings are about royalty and the streets.”
But this contradiction of fame and infamy: artist or anti-artist, art or anti art took its toll on Basquiat. He was conflicted, caught in the gears of his own contradictions. His love – hate relationship with the art world really ate away at him. These contradictions showed up in his work with pieces dedicated to the negative attributes of fame, in paintings that referenced Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Jack Johnson, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson as well as other “Famous Negro Athletes” and jazz musicians. Towards the end of his short life he wanted to give up painting and talked about moving to Hawaii and writing poetry and making music. Yet at the same time Basquiat used his fame and fortune to return to his roots. He traveled to Puerto Rico to paint, and traveled to Africa creating friendships with other African artists and having exhibitions of his work in Africa.
“Believe it or not, i can actually draw.”
He created a huge prolific body of work in the 8 to 9 years of painting he did as a young man. He pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be an artist by becoming an anti-artist and still remains a controversial icon in the art world and beyond. He stepped outside of the definitions of artist and managed to be one, he stood outside of what was considered art and still created it. And like his boxing idols Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jack Johnson and Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, he held his own, he went toe to toe with an art world that wanted to beat him into submission and came away with the crown.
This essay was first published in the ‘zine SALVO. The full issue can be downloaded here.