New York

Jean Michel Basquiat

Annina Nosei

Surprisingly, though Jean Michel Basquiat comes, infamously by now, from a graffiti tradition (nom de spray: Samo), his colliding opposites are much less anarchistic than MacConnel’s. Whereas MacConnel’s ironic stance allows him to endorse nothing publicly, Basquiat’s reversals are not those of his own irony but of the unintended situational irony of a system he would like, one surmises, to see work, if only it could. His tone, as compared to the Flaubertian one of MacConnel’s slice of commercial low life, bears the accent of disillusionment: if MacConnel presents the way it is, Basquiat tends to emphasize the way it should be; if MacConnel describes false premises, Basquiat decries false promises.

So even such a potentially neutral formal decision as the subtly diptychal nature of these works (the ground is often split, though not evenly between two dominating colors) becomes an analogue for double talk, the rhetoric of American democracy whose true import is revealed by a simple process of inversion. The scales of justice? “Peso neto,” Basquiat writes on one of the canvases. “Net weight”: the scales of commerce. Trial by jury? Trial by combat: painting after painting features boxers, winners and/or losers. The repeated gesture of the dazed champion raising his arm above his head in victory is uncomfortably close to that of the Statue of Liberty bearing her torch aloft, a resemblance brought home when one of the fighters actually does hold a torch, although not exactly aloft. Meanwhile, the incomplete word “everlast” written across the waistband of his polka-dot shorts has more to do with a huckster’s claim for the life span of the elastic than with the endurance of freedom.

These preliminaries absorbed, the plot thickens. While only one of the contenders wears the crown (literally), the loser is often saintly, boasting a halo—as, frequently, do skulls. To lose is to be holy is to be dead? Yet this is shadow boxing; that is, one’s competition in Basquiat’s ring of social Darwinism is oneself, and the desire to win ends in the destruction of that possibly nobler doppelgänger. Every victory is a betrayal, every survivor an arriviste. With views like these, Basquiat, like MacConnel, must feel some queasiness about his own notoriety. His story is nothing like that of “Jimmy Best on his/back to the sucker punch/of his childhood files,” this three-line case history being provided by one of the framed image/poems that form a counterpoint to the large canvases.

This possible uneasiness may motivate the welter of ambiguities informing some of the other paintings. Although the word “milk” ends the string of poems—as though mother’s milk were the natural, wholesome antidote to ersatz (“gold wood”), exploitation (“origin of cotton”), nouveau uppitiness (“ignorant Easter suit”), and so on—yet in Arroz con Polio (sold prior to the exhibition but handily available on postcards) we have a more complicated development. Here a white scarified female form offers her breast while a black skeleton holds out a roasted chicken in the classic division of cooked vs. raw noted by Claude Levi-Strauss as a transcultural element in folktales. Yet the woman clutches a fork in one hand, and that symbol of middle-class prosperity, a chicken in every pot, is proffered by the black haloed devil/saint of radical revolt, who cradles in the palm of his hand the charred wreckage of a city.

Ambivalence? Or a simple statement of the reality of vicious circles? Maybe both. To a certain extent Basquiat does seem at odds with himself. The fact that these works look much better for real than in reproduction is telling; much of their impact comes from the large scale and the deftness of the paint handling, neither of which comes through in a photograph. What the camera doesn’t lie about is the stick-figure primitivism. Basquiat is no untutored naive, and even if that style was once justified, he has outgrown it. There are many aimless markings, more than are needed to make a point or establish a mood, and occasionally an entire painting is put on hold. Oddly, the poems are most successful at making peace between Basquiat’s technical sophistication and rude subject matter. The deluxe paper provides an elegant whole-wheat color/texture which lifts the black or red graffiti graphic out of itself, while the phrases themselves are about as evocative and precise a condensation of the vulgate as you could ask. Small and simple, they have none of the puffery of the more ambitious undertakings. There’s obviously a head at work here, and a hand; if Basquiat can put them together so that one doesn’t contradict the other, maybe he won’t get ulcers while chewing the cud of success.

Jeanne Silverthorne