Jean-Michel Basquiat, Grillo, 1984 © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, ADAGP, Paris, 2017
Fig. 2 (on top of box)
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Great Jones Street studio ©Lizzie Himmel 1985
Fig. 3 (mask)
Statue, Songye, République Démocratique du Congo
haut. 103 cm – 180,000-250,000 €
Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, Paris, 12 décembre 2017
Fig. 4 (African drawing)
Burchard Brentjes, African Rock Art. Royal portrait from the "Dende-maro" at Rusape (New York: Clarkson N. Potter)
Complex, hybrid, protean, nonconformist, visionary, radical, intransigent, immediate, remorseless… Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings appear to have no limits. Inspired by pop culture, African sculpture, sacred voodoo mythology and the work of Leonardo da Vinci, Basquiat continually pushed against the edges of art, to the limits of artistic, aesthetic and poetic representation.
Although his career was short, Basquiat explored many paths. His interests spread to themes such as capitalism, racism, identity and death. In this sense Thin in the Old is emblematic of Basquiat’s work as it deals with all these subjects at once.
Painted a few weeks after the artist’s trip to the Ivory Coast where he exhibited thirty or so paintings at the Centre Culturel Français in Abidjan, the fleuron of French cultural diplomacy in Francophone Africa, Thin in the Old reflects the artist’s fascination for African cultural heritage. Basquiat suffered from racism all of his life. Even when famous, the young man explained how it was impossible for him to take a taxi as drivers refused to let him in because of his skin colour. In 1986, following his one and only trip to Africa, Basquiat was galvanised by what he thought to be the beginnings of international recognition, hoping that the great museums he had visited as a child would soon become interested in his work. He hoped to soon accomplish the mission he held close to his heart, and which he resumed in the following terms: “Picasso arrived at primitive art in order to give of its nobility to western art. And I arrived at Picasso to give his nobility to the art called ‘primitive’.”
Another essential theme dealt with in Thin in the Old is death, explicitly represented here in the central skeletal figure which inhabits the space of the painting like an eerie warning. With the motif of the memento mori which reminds the viewer of the fragile and precarious nature of human life, Basquiat refers to a long iconographical tradition which can be traced back to Antiquity. In the Middle Ages death was a recurring theme in paintings, dances of death and descriptions of the triumph of death such as the one by Brueghel the Elder today kept in the Prado museum were very popular. In most cases, as in Thin in the Old, death was represented in its simplest form, that of a skeleton.
The addition of architectural elements from everyday life in Thin in the Old is also a means of criticizing consumer society and the established order between what was considered street art or low art and high art. The two boxes covered in inscriptions and visible in the lower part of the painting thus, like the Vanitas, refer to art history and more specifically to Marcel Duchamp’s famous Boite-en-valise , a kind of portable album reflecting its author’s interest in aesthetic theories which brings together the images of his works, as well as his friend and mentor Andy Warhol with his famous Brillo Box which, like Duchamp’s ready-mades, question the limits of representation by imitating a product of consumerism and transforming it into a museum icon that undermines artistic references. Finally, they also refer to African fetish boxes holding amulets and talismans.
Basquiat’s paintings thus depict the things that haunted him. They are his personal diary. An assemblage of simplistic boxes and boards figuring a brown, skeletal silhouette which carries the violence and the force of art. Thin in the Old is an exceptional painting fed by popular American culture and evocative of so many questions that still haunt America today.
“A connoisseur of modern poetry, Basquiat was ultimately a painter-poet. He composed paintings and drawings like songs, hymns or verses of an immense pulverized poem, torn from the nerves and the organs. We can hear his voice, his breath, as if he were talking to himself out loud as he painted and drew, just like certain jazz musicians such as Jimi Hendrix. Each time, his being is engaged in a wrestle with words, similar to his wrestle with painting. This was the case of the Beat generation poets that he loved, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and William Burroughs (…). Closer in this to poets than to painters. He was the only artist in the United States to constantly demonstrate this, without saying so.”
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