PRINT November 1992


PERHAPS UNDERSTANDABLY GIVEN Jean-Michel Basquiat’s shockingly early and still recent death, the critical literature on his work has been rather uncritical. Emphasizing the anecdotal, the elegiac, and the sacramental, many writers drift from analyses of his art into personal recollections of the artist, and seem at times to vie for the distinction of having known him best. Little art-historical comparison is offered; there is a widespread reluctance to venture outside the sphere of black culture heroes such as Charlie Parker, Joe Louis, and Thelonius Monk, who dominate discussions of his work as if it did not occupy art history in the way of most art. Surely the work of few other important contemporary artists is more consistently talked about in terms from outside the visual arts.

This special treatment of Basquiat, an African-American artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, may in part be attributed to a queasiness about addressing the racial issues surrounding his work. One way to begin to remedy this situation is by contemplating the fact that Basquiat, though an artist of undeniable sophistication, chose to practice a form of primitivism. Why? A “primitive” artist, of course, is one whose sole means of expression lies in one of the visual modes associated with pre-Modern or traditional societies, and who comes from such a society, so that his or her exposure to global culture is comparatively limited. A primitivist, on the other hand, is an artist to whom various modes of expression are available, but who chooses to imitate the look of so-called “primitive” objects.1 Basquiat was a primitivist, not a primitive. And the primitivism of his work was a canny reversal of tactics from the white art tradition, a reversal that resonates with assertions, ironies, and claims.

Primitivism as practiced by Pablo Picasso and other white artists early in this century, in the late-colonial heyday of Modernism, was a matter of white culture imitating the products of nonwhite culture. To white Europeans and Americans of the time, generally speaking, white culture was the norm and nonwhite cultures were aberrations. To borrow from them showed not the impoverishment of white culture, its need for vital input from outside, but its imperial generosity in recognizing the nonwhite.2 This was a kind of royal slumming, as it were, like the visits of downtown white esthetes to upper Manhattan during the Harlem Renaissance.

Basquiat’s practice of primitivism was an ironic inversion of all that. At first, for a young black man to confront the contemporary art world—still overwhelmingly white—with works looking conspicuously like those it called “primitive” seemed to confirm its expectations: a young black male is a primitive. But soon edges of question appeared in the equation, incommensurabilities confounding the same white expectations that seemed to have just been fulfilled. Certain elements in the work did not conform to its supposedly primitive nature: its highly self-conscious irony, for example, and its deconstruction of European culture through fragmented and jumbled lists that portrayed its coherences as breaking down. In fact, it became clear, these were the works not of a primitive but of a consummate primitivist. This black artist was doing exactly what classical-Modernist white artists such as Picasso and Georges Braque had done: deliberately echoing a primitive style.

While seeming to behave like a primitive, Basquiat was actually behaving like white Westerners who behave as they assume primitives do. He was behaving like white men who think they are behaving like black men. So it was not just a question of his imagery glorifying African roots and so on—hymning negritude (though he certainly did celebrate black culture). Basquiat was also focusing on the white art world’s expectations, and on the assumptions and ideologies underlying them.

The enthusiastic acceptance that Basquiat’s work received so quickly from the still predominantly white art world reflects this strategy. The white art world is not necessarily disdainful of or put off by “primitiveness” or “blackness,” which can in some cases have its own cachet and act as its ownselling point, especially when it comes packaged in a modern intelligence, as in Basquiat’s case. The element of irony helps make the primitiveness more palatable rather than functioning subversively. This may throw some light on how a 28-year-old with only eight or ten years of work behind him is accorded a Whitney retrospective.

At the same time that this identity game was going on, the situation had historical resonances too: for a black man to practice primitivism demonstrated that we had once and for all entered the postcolonial era.3 By taking on the role of the white borrower, Basquiat collapsed the distance between colonizer and colonized, embodying both at once. A famous photograph of him, which appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1985, demonstrated this duality. Basquiat sat in his studio, a brush in his hand, a painting like a primitive tribal mask on the easel behind him. His feet were bare. Yet he wore an expensive Giorgio Armani suit—which, however, was soiled with paint. The dirty Armani brought up the cliché of the primitive who comprehends use value but not exchange value; the bare feet similarly suggested a denizen of a preurbanized culture. At the same time, the atelier venue, the expensive apparel, the exaggerated chic of one beyond caring about exchange value even if he understood it well enough, the elitist act of oil painting itself, not to speak of the gaze of the Times reader, on Central Park West or in the Hamptons, for whom this sight was prepared, all cast Basquiat as a cultural aristocrat. Carelessly yet carefully enthroned, he evoked the mood of sprezzatura, that feigned or studied casualness cultivated by the Italian nobility of the Renaissance.

This ambiguous or double self-image—barefoot in Armani—embodies the paradox that W. E. B. DuBois described as “this double-consciousness . . . an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.”4 The iconography of Basquiat’s work parallels this duality. The crown that he often represented on the head of a primitive-looking black male stick figure, for example, points to a sense of double identity, a royal selfhood somehow lost but dimly remembered, overlaid by a voodoo mask. The relic of ancient royalty peers from behind the shattered cultural surface like a Yoruba deity concealed in a santería statue.

In its spiritual aspect, this subject matter is orphic—that is, it relates to the ancient myth of the soul as a deity lost, wandering from its true home, and temporarily imprisoned in a degradingly limited body and an infuriatingly reduced social stature. The theme was fairly typical of the early-to-mid ’80s; Keith Haring’s iconography was also orphic in its formative period. The Wild Child and the Radiant Child are both visitors from outer space, exiles from other dimensions, lost princes or gods who have wandered from a glorious beyond, cloaked in hidden signs of royalty, their divinity sunk briefly in the prison of matter, and so on. Basquiat himself was engaged in royal slumming, as a dethroned black prince.

In Basquiat’s oeuvre, the theme of divine or royal exile was brought down to earth or historicized by the concrete reality of the African diaspora. The king that he once was in another world (and that he would be again when he returned there) could be imagined concretely as a Watusi warrior or Egyptian pharaoh. The soul’s exile could be related to slavery, and its return, to the not-yet-completed civil rights movement. If, when we looked at the Times Magazine cover, we saw dandyism, it was in the serious sense that Disraeli suggested when he observed that the dandy is the prince of an imaginary kingdom. Basquiat’s Armani suit, like the cartoon crown he used to paint, was a sign of that kingdom; the paintbrush in his hand indicated the means through which he recovered the outlines of his true nature, and the channel through which he would find his way back to it. Art appears, then, as a path at once to a primal beginning and to an ultimate beyond.

There are great simplicities in this system of feelings, but Basquiat’s great subtlety, his desire to keep himself clear of them, emerges when one asks exactly what was this imaginary kingdom in the regalia of which he sat enthroned in the Times Magazine. The image of it that he left differs not only from the idealized African past of Alex Haley’s Roots but also from the idealized American future of Martin Luther King’s dream. Pictured through the glyphic disintegration that surrounds the haunted king in Basquiat’s paintings, this is the kingdom of postcivilization, the disintegrated, postkingdom kingdom in which everything is falling apart, fragmenting into atomic bits that look like evidence—clues stacked, sorted, and organized in some purposeless microanalysis. Here Basquiat’s orphic dandyism merges with his iconographic celebration of the idea of the end of the world, or of a certain paradigm of it—at any rate the end of the stranglehold that Western civilization has had on the rest of the world.

In this subject matter his oeuvre is late–Cold War art, somewhat casually apocalyptic. It rather serenely contemplates the moment of civilization’s passing away, or its cyclical sinking into a simultaneously pre- and postliterate swamp of representational decay where the center no longer holds, the image no longer holds, language no longer holds. Skeletal figures glare from a depthless, fragmented plane that is not an adequate arena for selfhood. Language is conjugated meaninglessly in a field of splintered phonemes. It is with great irony that Basquiat presents this afterworld, this world of disintegration and ruin—which also contains an implicit possibility of recombination, renewal, and rebirth—as the primal kingdom of which his rakish crown is both tarnished relic and anticipatory sign.

He will regain his real selfhood, that of the lost godhood of the soul, through a cataclysmic reversal of Western history, turning it upside down and inside out and sorting its ashes for bones while a transistor radio duct-taped to a painting blares Crazy Eddie. In this aspect, the work can almost be read as an inverted joke on Hegel: the Euro-ethnic who said that Africa was ahistorical must accept the revenge of an Afro-Euro-Amero-ethnic who parodied the “end of history” with a chaos of fragmentary language—European literacy disintegrating into lists that aren’t of anything anymore.

Coolly manipulative in a cunning adolescent way, the young Basquiat, barefoot and aloof, gazes out in his oil-paint-spattered Armani, and through the masklike face in his work. Both activist and parodist, he uses the marks and gestures of white Modernist masters to redraw their own civilization as an archaeological ruin of the dream of its own future.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum. His most recent book is Art and Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity, Kingston, N. Y.: McPherson & Co.



1. This is the distinction that was so laboriously made in the “'Primitivism” show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1984.
2. As Modernism waned, white artists like James Brown practiced another form of primitivism in the 1980s. Their practice was somewhat more ironic than Picasso’s; it involved a meditation on the possible end of white hegemony and a raised-eyebrow gesture toward early-20th-century primitivism, with its implicit colonialism. Basquiat’s primitivism was the consummate gesture of this type, and was further inflected and complicated by his identity as an African-American.
3. Basquiat was not the first black artist to practice primitivism, but he surely was the first to force the situation on our awareness in a highly focused and self-conscious way.
4. W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903, reprint ed. New York: Penguin Books (Signet Classics), 1982, p. 45.

Jean-Michel Basquiat is the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, until 14 February 1993, and subsequently traveling to the Menil Collection, Houston, 11 March–9 May; the Des Moines Art Center, 22 May–15 August; and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 18 November–9 January 1994.