- Jean-Michel Basquiat
- acrylic and oilstick on canvas
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above circa 1995
Málaga, Junta de Andalucia, Jean-Michel Basquiat, May - July 1996, pp. 75-76
Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts; Taichung Museum, Jean-Michel Basquiat, January - June 1997, p. 83
Seoul, Gallery Hyundai, Jean-Michel Basquiat, July - August 1997, p. 73
Tokyo, Mitsukoshi Museum; Marugame, M.I.M.O.C.A., Jean-Michel Basquiat, October 1997 - May 1998, p. 90
Sao Paulo, Pinacoteca do Estado, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings/Works on Paper, June - August 1998, p. 87
Naples, Museo Civico Castel Nuovo, Basquiat in Naples, December 1999 - February 2000, p. 111
Milan, Fondazione La Triennale di Milano, The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show, September 2006 - January 2007, p. 291, illustrated in color
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, 1st ed., vol. I, p. 273, illustrated in color
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 1996, 2nd ed., vol I, p. 333, illustrated in color
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, 3rd ed., vol. I, p. 323, illustrated in color and vol. II, fig. 2, p. 250, illustrated in color
By the time that Jean-Michel Basquiat conceived of and painted Reok he had already established himself as the quintessential visual artist of the 1980's and was fast on his way to becoming a permanent icon of contemporary popular culture. The son of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat began his career as a graffiti artist in New York City and was a sort of polyglot artistic type, frequently dabbling in performance as well as visual arts. He frequently drew inspiration from these other interests and those performers and artists whom he most admired. His art was at once personal and intimate and through its "primitiveness" and raw innocence also assumed a particularly poignant immediacy. The rough-hewn nature of his work, however, is certainly not uninformed as Basquiat commonly saturated his works with various historical and ontological references investigating most directly the nature of his own being and standing within the economic, creative and cultural machinations of the 1980's.
Reok is an awe-inspiring canvas stretching up ten feet and measuring nearly seven feet wide and contains many of the iconographic symbols and elements that pervade his work until his untimely death at the age of 27 in 1988. The word "reok" is written along the bottom of the canvas and may be an invented homophone for the word "rock." By 1985, the hip-hop movement was in full force and as a connected member of a downtown conglomeration of young street minded artists, Basquiat was exposed to the lyrical, rhythmic stylings of these up and coming musicians who frequently altered language to suit their creative needs. Constantly plagued by being a sort of outsider within the art world establishment, Basquiat was wary of the status quo and constantly found ways to subvert it through his art. By using his own word, Basquiat transmuted the symbol of the rock linguistically back into an image on the canvas creating a powerful word/image entirely composed of and imbued with a solidified staying power of his own conception.
Basquiat maintained a pantheon of heroes, typically other African Americans who in some way had been able to cross over into the mainstream often through either athletic or creative achievement. The musical notes emanating from the mouth of the figure to the right, the large "E" note encapsulated within the carrot are all allusions to the jazz musicians whom he idolized such as Charlie Mingus and Lester Young. These musicians would find their modern day counterparts in the likes of Fab Five Freddy and other hip-hop artists whose permeation into celebrity through outlets like MTV would mirror that of Basquiat's within the art world. Indeed, many other works from 1986 such as In the Wings and King Zulu illustrate Basquiat's infatuation with his identity as an African-American artist whose work was largely consumed by a white audience.
The crown, a frequent recurring theme within Basquiat's art, is most obviously a symbol of power and authority and he wielded it frequently as a means by which to elevate his icons. Interestingly, here we find it reigning over the word "salt," that white crystalline substance that also holds a particular gravitas as a commodity frequently involved with the West African slave trade. Instead of elevating an idol, Basquiat seems to be invoking himself as master over this domain, this critical aspect of his history. His story is also that of an invigorated American youth and what one also notices is that the "E" embedded as a musical note is also the first word of the phrase found on the Seal of the United States, "E Pluribus Unum," a phrase which recurs frequently in his work.
Observing the piece in its manic entirety, one understands that there is indeed a kind of latent unity embedded within the amalgamation of seemingly disparate elements, an apt metaphor for the conflicted artist. Basquiat was an idiosyncratic creator whose arresting treatment of the canvas, color, image, and text elevated him above and beyond any of his flash-in-the-pan peers. Through its economy of form and technical elaboration but while exploiting chromatic aberration, Reok is an affirmation of Basquiat's self-assured supremacy, of his involvement with and connection to his community, and of his dedication to the relentless pursuit of inspired creation.