Belonging to a very small number of intensely compelling multi-paneled paintings executed in 1983—the year of Basquiat’s twenty-third birthday—Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta distinguishes itself for its unabashed ambition. The work is constructed from five separate panels of canvas pulled over protruding, exposed wooden stretcher beams. Both the leftmost panel and the center panel are fastened to their adjoining canvases by naked unpainted door-hinges bolted to the top and bottom edges of their stretchers. While the entire painting possesses a magnificent pictorial cohesion, each of the five canvases retains a singular resonance characteristic of Basquiat’s most breathtaking compositions.
The present work is a consummate example of many of the most important themes and subjects that were of primary concern to Basquiat throughout his career. Racial histories figure into the equation most prominently through Basquiat’s citation of Mark Twain, the eminent American author whose Adventures of Huckleberry Finn follows the young Huck as he travels along the Mississippi River. Written twenty years after the abolishment of slavery, the novel was set decades earlier in order to expose the climate of moral confusion surrounding the racial injustices of the time. Twain’s groundbreaking novel is considered a scathing satire of the attitude toward racism; his controversial writing in the dialect of the period, a patois littered with slurs, is evocative of Basquiat’s characteristic adoption of a primitive iconographic lexicon of scrawled letters and elementary forms in order to fully embody the subject that he probes.
As is emblematic of Basquiat’s most multifaceted paintings, text saturates every surface of the canvas, but here it uniquely adopts a syncopated rhythm in the cadence of its repetition. The title of the work when spoken out loud irrefutably pulses to the ticking of a metronome, while the words “Mississippi,” “Mark Twain,” and “Negroes,” each repeated row after row, induce the sonic beating of a drum. As Francesco Pellizzi observed, “His use of words, however, belongs more to the oral traditions of Afro-American cultures—the ecstatic invocations of Voodoo worshipers; the inflamed and inflaming spiritual rhetoric of Baptist preachers with their rousing, recurring, rhythmic juxtapositions of ethical, cosmological, and practical tenets; and, of course, now, black rap…” (Francesco Pellizzi in Exh. Cat., New York, Vrej Baghoomian Inc., Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1989, p. 16) The auditory quality of Basquiat’s painting catapults the work deeper within the fabric of the African-American narrative, aligning it within spoken histories passed down from generation to generation, while uniquely blending in a rhythmic quality reminiscent of the music that figures significantly into many of Basquiat’s paintings. Basquiat, after all, was a musician and a DJ, and incorporated his reverence for certain jazz heroes such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis into his pictorial lexicon.
Rousing connotations of self-portraiture are inherent in the very title of the painting, suggesting Basquiat’s recognition of his own rising fame coincident with his ancestral roots. Whether or not his lineage is traceable back to the antebellum South, it is a fundamental component of Basquiat’s cognitive construction of the self that he has risen up from the shackles of slavery to find liberation in the canvas. The artist utilized the mechanism of repetition to empty words of their meaning, seemingly beating the words “Mississippi” and “Negroes” over and over again until he overpowered their painful resonance; we can see here a potent visualization of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of the “death drive,” a compulsion to repeat traumas until their inordinate repetition discharges them of all psychic energy and renders them overcome. In striving to paint such a magnanimous portrait of slavery in the deep American South—memories that haunt the collective black consciousness—Basquiat passionately hammers out the history in paint until it is abandoned of authority and can no longer be a traumatic force upon him.
Basquiat’s most powerful images present young black heroic figures that assert their strength, independence and liberation, exploring what it means to be black in modern-day America; here, he notably seems to posit himself within the narrative of the canvas. At the uppermost left, “Fig 23” is boxed in next to a portrait of a head resembling Basquiat. Having just turned 23, Basquiat appears to announce himself at the prologue of the painting, positioned just above the title. Merely a “Fig,” the artist conceives himself as statistic—a symbol within a greater trajectory of history. In the center panel, a graphically striking anatomical deconstruction of a head dismantled into its constituent parts, peers through a viewfinder toward the rest of the panels—a hovering presence that suggestively locates the entire image’s narrative as seen through his perspective. Moreover, Basquiat visually juxtaposed the two black human heads with a cow’s head, a rat, and two udders, graphically equating man with animal meat through anatomical associations. Basquiat’s fascination with anatomical drawing originated in his childhood, when after being hit by a car at the age of seven, he spent a month recovering in hospital. His mother gave him a copy of Grays Anatomy, an anecdotal genesis that informs Basquiat’s most ravishing, diagrammatically incisive pictures.
While Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta tempts its viewers to uncover a precise linear narrative, Basquiat’s all-over complexity renders this endeavor futile. The panels cannot be read in a direct progression from left to right, but rather, they merge in a barrage of rich pictorial data that together cohere as one. As Marc Mayer wrote of the enigmatic iconography of Basquiat’s pictures, “Basquiat speaks articulately while dodging the full impact of clarity like a matador. We can read his pictures without strenuous effort—the words, the images, the colors, and the construction—but we cannot quite fathom the point that they belabor… To enjoy them, we are not meant to analyze these pictures too carefully. Quantifying the encyclopedic breadth of his research certainly results in an interesting inventory, but the sum cannot adequately explain his pictures, which requires an effort outside the purview of iconography… This elaboration of the work’s indeterminacy—and not the uncooked technique that came to him without a struggle—is Basquiat’s equivalent of Picasso’s and Matisse’s studied ‘primitivism,’ and at which he worked just as hard, given its thorough consistency. That is, he painted a calculated incoherence, calibrating the mystery of what such apparently meaning-laden pictures might ultimately mean.” (Marc Mayer, “Basquiat in History,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Brooklyn Museum (and travelling), Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2005, p. 50)
Chief among Basquiat’s influences were the Abstract Expressionists, whose illustrious spell is discernible in the thick swaths of radiant yellows, blues, whites and browns swooping vigorously across the panels of the present work. Basquiat built up the surface in multiple layers of pigment, visible in the variegated colors and scratched out textual inscriptions that peek through vast overlying swaths of paint. Possessing a sophisticated knowledge of art history, Basquiat infused his painting with a defined instinctual understanding of the language of abstraction. Forceful painterly strokes are deployed with an assured command. The artist’s brute force of application, and corresponding layering of paint and line through brush, collage and oil stick, confers a remarkably paroxysmal yet deliberate compositional clarity amidst a terrain of exuberant formalism. There is no spatial recession or perspectival logic to the composition. Rather, imbued with the frantic exertion and the poured, dripping aesthetic of Jackson Pollock; the exuberant colorism and dramatic painterly gesture of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline; combined with the integration of text and blackboard-like surfaces of Cy Twombly, Basquiat’s grasp and deployment of twentieth-century American art history reverberates through the painting.
Born to Puerto Rican and Haitian parents, and raised in Brooklyn, Basquiat drew from his manifold ancestral background and racial identity to forge a body of work acutely conscious of his contribution to the meta-narrative of an almost exclusively white Western art history. Basquiat aligned himself stylistically with Picasso, whose Guernica is a History Painting of the highest order and for whom primitivism was an antidote to the conservatism of the academies. Basquiat found in primitivism a correlative mode for expressing an overtly contemporary angst tied to his own black identity, embodying his projected “blackness” while subverting these very identity constructions by emulating Western conventions of painting. Kellie Jones wrote, “…there is no question that Jean-Michel Basquiat, though he sometimes chose to obscure the fact, knew how to ‘paint Western art,’ and was a formidable part of that tradition… His skill was also in his energetic articulations of the ‘neological construction of a black paradigm,’ as outlined by [Gerardo] Mosquera… However, Basquiat’s mischievous, complex, neologistic side, with regard to the fashioning of modernity and the influence and effluence of black culture, is often elided by critics and viewers—lost in translation… Certain related history paintings, such as Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta, are also fairly easily digestible forms of black culture. Through the lens of multiculturalism, these scenes visually signify blackness, are already overdetermined, and as self-contained, U.S. black history can be assigned to ‘the margins of modernism’ as hermetically sealed dioramas of, dare I write it, ‘the other'.” (Kellie Jones, “Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the (Re)Mix” in Ibid, p. 166)
Sophisticated, confident and radiating a conviction of artistic vision, the vivacious iconographic power of Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta is a sheer testament to the thriving talent of a young and brilliant artistic spirit who, by 1983, had truly secured his position at the vanguard of an artistic consciousness. The present work solidified Basquiat as a figure who dashed effortlessly between art historical precedents in order to create a wholly individual painting deeply suffused with personal history, memory and emotion. He redefined the genre of History Painting by brazenly inserting himself at its center, inexplicably painting a picture that animates the annals of oral tradition through his own inimitable perspective.
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