Following the laudation of his arrival to the New York art scene through René Ricard’s seminal 1981 text ‘Radiant Child,” the years of 1982-1983 represented a watershed moment for Basquiat. At first he produced a landmark solo show at Annina Nosei Gallery and participated in Documenta in Kassel. Exhibiting there alongside the greatest figures of twentieth-century art, including Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly, he became the youngest artist to ever partake in this historic exhibition. The year in which the present work was created, 1983, marks a solidification of institutional recognition as Basquiat participated in the Whitney Biennial, which in turn crystalized his commercial success. At the Whitney dinner he met Mary Boone, the “New Queen of the Art Scene” who would soon represent the ambitious artist propelling him further into the cultural spotlight. Concerning this period Basquiat remarked: "I had some money. I made the best paintings ever.” (the artist quoted in Cathleen McGuigan, "New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist," The New York Times Magazine, February 10, 1985, p. 29)
In 1983, Basquiat also strengthened bonds with his iconic mentor, Andy Warhol, from whom he rented a studio. The two famously began their “collaboration” paintings in this year and inaugurated a short-lived but fruitful artistic exchange. Whilst Warhol established an eminent career through the glorification of iconic symbols from advertising and everyday consumption, in the present work we see Basquiat taking a far more sardonic view of the world of commerce. Onion Gum sees Basquiat unpicking the tricks and tactics used to sell products, including that product in which he had the most vested interests: art. At the heart of Onion Gum is a multifaceted joke base on this idiosyncratically cryptic phrase. ‘SOAP’ is an analogous motto that Basquiat utilized in other works, referring to a common prank that he reformulated as a racially charged, satirical device: “Black Face Soap, a joke item advertised in the back of comic books that turns the users face a black color, illustrates the internalized racism characteristic of American society and promulgated in young readers.”(Richard D. Marshall, “Jean-Michel Basquiat and His Subjects” in Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, p. 31)
‘Onion gum’ is a novelty item which holds the appearance of regular gum but has an intensely foul taste. Basquiat’s use of esoteric prank items and childish jokes epitomizes his movement of quotidian commerce into the realm of high culture, typified in the gallery space. In this case, the artist plays a pointed joke on the rigid art establishment over which he had conflicting desires regarding his position within and outside of it. Just as an alluring ‘onion gum’ leaves a surprising taste, Basquiat’s paintings, though fast becoming the most coveted works of his time, still bear a rough aesthetic with a sarcastic edge. They circulate around an air of mystery, typifying Basquiat’s position as a semiotic sorcerer, alluding to meaning that may or may not be there.
The artist makes poetry of obscure chemical compounds, isolating letters and phrases within them: the particular graphic attention paid to a ‘T’ drawn from ‘thiamine’ evokes an element of the periodic table; “mononitrate” gives birth to “onio”- a whimsical mutation of the painting’s namesake. Words are crossed out and sentences stop in the middle, testifying to the erratic nature of his creative frenzy. This tactic is crucial to Basquiat’s allure and his semantic trickery: “I cross out words so you will want to see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.” (the artist quoted in Robert Farris Thompson, "Royalty, Heroism, and the Streets: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat" in, Graham Lock and David Murray, Eds., The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Culture, Oxford, 2008, p. 262) The rhythmic dispersal, rupturing, and repetition of words also finds kinship with the contemporaneous innovation of the re-mix and sonic methods of early Hip-Hop, which was breaking out of the Brooklyn vanguard music scene at this time. Recalling the ‘SAMO’ graffiti tags that Basquiat marked the streets of Soho with as a youth, the idea of tagging and branding also comes to the fore with Basquiat’s trademark use of the copyright symbol.
At the center of the wordplay, a crude head is articulated with a uniquely gestural splattering of blue, evoking Abstract Expressionist forbears such as Jackson Pollock and exhibiting the versatility of Basquiat’s painterly hand. Visibly disgusted, this unworldly character is tormented by another symbolic figure atop his head dangling two wily snakes; we see the victim of the prank latent in the piece. The red accents of the serpents’ tongues mirror the text as well as the red eyes, fiery mouth and steaming vapor off the pained mask. Obsessed with Henry Dreyfuss’ Symbol Source Book, the medical connotations of the serpents would not be lost on Basquiat, nor would their biblical symbolism as facilitators of the original sin. Through a masterful collision of aggressive acid tones, Basquiat creates a sensorially overwhelming allegory of the psychological aggravation of consumer culture, embodied in this Pagan symbol of advertising. The inherent clashes between the stark yellow ground and the blood red scrawl go against all traditional understanding of color balancing, as Basquiat courts his growing patrons through an array of visual tricks. It proclaims a new vibrant aesthetic that the public was hungry for. At the height of his commercial success Basquiat serves 'onion gum’: something seemingly delicious yet inherently distasteful.
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