By 1984, the year in which Air Power was executed, Jean-Michel Basquiat had reached full artistic maturity and was well and truly accepted into the fold by the artworld’s elite. His path of ascent was astronomical: in the period of only a year he went from being a young artist spraying graffiti on New York’s subway and scavenging for food, to exhibiting at Annina Nosei’s Gallery and enjoying upmarket dinners at the famous Mr Chow’s. Striking out against the staid and dry minimalism that saturated New York’s Soho galleries, he emerged with a totally fresh and utterly different dialogue that was immediately accessible yet extraordinarily intelligent. Totally unprecedented, his work announced a form of neo-expressionism radically reflective of the contemporary moment, of racial identity and the underground movement in downtown New York.
This freshly urban and inimitable brand of intellectualised primitivism was informed by a full spectrum of art historical sources, including Leonardo da Vinci, graffiti and cave art, as well as religious and cultural influences from his tripartite heritage. His style retains the power of arts both ancient and modern. This was balanced not least within his passion for music, specifically jazz - Basquiat formed the band Gray and would play in New York’s Mudd Club (often frequented by Bowie) and his paintings are replete with references to music and jazz players.
Executed in 1984, Air Power is an imposing painting; diagrammatic and linear without compromising spontaneity or vivacity, this is the work of a man grown more analytical and discerning through the lessons of experience. Dominating the centre of the composition the highly stylised face, mask-like in its construction and illuminated with a triumphal yellow halo, confronts the viewer with penetrating glaring eyes, flaring nostrils and clenched white teeth, and evokes both the primitive scribbles of a child and the elaborate iconography of ancient African cultures. Born to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, growing up in the crucible of Brooklyn, Basquiat was fascinated by his cultural heritage and its artistic legacy. Indeed, Basquiat was a self-taught artist who used his vast cultural knowledge to create an entirely unique iconography.
Basquiat drew from his manifold ancestral background and racial identity to forge a powerful and arresting body of work. Air Power draws reference to African reliquary masks both in form and its allusion to an almost spiritual presence within the composition, while also invoking the traditional deathly symbolism of the skull in Dutch vanitas paintings. These were seminal influences on the young Basquiat who, like his hero Picasso before him, interrogated long-forgotten artistic traditions to interpret contemporary visual culture from a completely new perspective. The subject of death is an omnipresent weight that imbues the work of Basquiat. From its birth, the artist’s paintings of heads and mask-like faces convey an ominous sense of being a death mask or skull. The frequent presence of skeletons and skulls, evident here in the skeletal figure to the left of the composition, conjures up recollections of cemeteries, haunted houses, voodoo ceremonies, and mortality. For Basquiat, mortality and immortality were one because he remains eternal through his paintings.
Whilst steeped in the indigenous and ancient artistic traditions of African tribal art, Basquiat’s painting also looked to the vocabulary of modern art. Channeled through the influence of Picasso, Twombly and Abstract Expressionist masters, for the technical means and painterly styles that would accommodate his message, Basquiat's grasp and deployment of Twentieth Century American art history is impressive and diverse. Air Power is imbued with the exuberant mark-making of Willem de Kooning and, in particular, Franz Kline - Basquiat specifically cited Kline as one of his 'favourites'- whose urgent and gestural application of paint epitomized the genre of action painting (the Artist, quoted in Henry Geldzahler, 'Art from Subways to Soho' in Jean-Michel Basquiat, (exh. cat.), Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1999, p.48). Basquiat did not merely appropriate or create pastiches of Abstract Expressionism, tribal or primitivism, but commanded, combined and synthesised these sources to create a unique and cohesive contemporary narrative.
The Bowie-Basquiat connection is thus far really only known through the lens of Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film Basquiat in which Bowie played the iconic role of Andy Warhol, part-mentor and collaborator of the young artist. When, in 1996 following his part in the film, Bowie wrote of Basquiat, 'The wave he would have liked us to see was the surf-wave of free-association, uninhibited and loaded with a new fractured language, a street-map for a city not yet designed, a dialogue with our sub-present' (David Bowie, quoted in Modern Painters, op. cit., p.47), little did he know that his words are readily applicable to himself. Even amid a predominantly British-focussed collection, it is no surprise to see the affinity which Bowie saw in a fellow polymath and to see a work by Basquiat forming an integral counterpoint in the collection.
Air Power presents an extremely powerful image: unconstrained, immediate and consuming. The frenetic, abstract composition is charged with raw energy and expressivity, providing the viewer with an image that exemplifies the electrifying spirit and bold, brash expression of one of the twentieth century’s most enigmatic and lauded artistic prodigies.
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