New York

Jean Michel Basquiat

Annina Nosei Gallery

What struck me in looking at this memorial exhibition of Jean Michel Basquiat’s paintings—at least in regard to the best works here—is how neat they are: how organized, calm, concentrated, and coherent, for all their gestural flourishes. This self-contained and unified quality suggests that Basquiat’s improvisational fervor (characteristic of the graffiti idea) was under the control of a strong will. The paintings done under the strict regimen of black and white make the point succinctly: Basquiat was capable of restraint, of channeling his energy. He was not just another new fauve, full of manufactured mania. There are in fact strong systemic aspects to his work: repetition of images, standardized lettering, even coordination between the gestures, which are at once less awkward and less fluid than one is led to expect from a “primitivist.” The pieces follow a more or less fixed format, poster-derived, in which all visual complexities take their place.

Basquiat’s ideational complexities seem less certain to me. Certain details suggest that he was an amateur commentator on our society, more fascinated by it than critical of it. But there is the ambition to be critical, or at least ironic, as in the untitled 1981 work in which a schematic crown is placed over a baseball, with the written word “famous” overstating the point. Being crowned by success for playing ball—with all that connotes—is not exactly the same as being awarded the laurel wreath of fame for a victorious accomplishment. The baseball metamorphosizes into a less-than-heroic head; the new constellation is repeated obsessively in the lower portion of the work. Above, a featureless white face presides. Does this imply that to be successful one has to be white, but also that to be white is to have no identity? Many of Basquiat’s works are meditations on the ambiguity of fame—on the strange reasons for which one gets it, and its effect on one’s identity. Basquiat may have thought that he owed part of his success to the fact that he was a black artist, but that becoming successful—“somebody”—in fact made him inwardly “white,” that is, nobody. It is this quandary, I think, that his “black” realism and wry black humor articulate.

In Untitled (Per Capita), 1982, a black boxer is crowned by a black halo, with “E Pluribus” (no “Unum”) written above it. The whole is set in a field of white: one black man out of many white men—is that the subliminal message? I don’t know how much of Basquiat’s iconography involves his consciousness of himself as black, but it seems possible to say that much of it involves reflections on the American dream of success (at any cost—that’s what’s written between the lines, or in the contract’s fine print), in part understood in black terms.

Certainly there’s a general existential irony to the works, a reflection on the perversity of the human condition. In several works we see the human being from the medical point of view—reduced to a bag of bones. Underneath their quasicaricatural humor and seeming immaturity—the child’s perspective is what it’s customarily called—there is an odd grimness to Basquiat’s images. In general, his pictures are emblematic constructions, and full of emblematic details, such as the crowned object. Like all emblems, Basquiat’s have an allegorical function, and like all modern emblems they imply profound ambivalence—an emotional doubleness that cannot be healed. The inarticulate, inchoate air of Basquiat’s works is the chaos on which this ambivalence floats, and into which the emblems can sink as easily as they emerged.

Donald Kuspit