Rome, Chiostro del Bramante, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Dipinti, January - March 2002, pp. 66-67, illustrated in colour
Milan, Fondazione La Triennale di Milano, The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show, September 2006 - January 2007, pp. 196-97, no. 69, illustrated in colour
Monza, Villa Reale, Gli anni 80: Il Trionfo della Pittura. Da Schifano a Basquiat, October 2009 - February 2010, pp. 112-13, illustrated in colour
Modena, MATA, The Mannequin of History: Art After Fabrications of Critique and Culture, September 2015 - January 2016, n.p., no. 5, illustrated in colour
Milan, MUDEC - Museo delle Culture, Jean-Michel Basquiat, October 2016 - February 2017, p. 61, illustrated in colour
Jean-Michel Basquiat: [pauses] Royalty, heroism, and the streets.
(Jean-Michel Basquiat in conversation with Henry Geldzahler in: ‘Art:From Subways to SoHo: Jean-Michel Basquiat,’ Interview, January 1986, p. 46).
“I wanted to paint like the Lower East Side and what it was like to live there.”
Jean Michel Basquiat quoted in: Eleanor Nairne, ‘The Performance of Jean-Michel Basquiat’, in: Exh. Cat., London, Basquiat: Boom for Real, Barbican Centre, 2017, p. 21.
Having resided in the same private collection since it was first exhibited in the seminal exhibition, SAMO, at Galleria d’Arte Emilio Mazzoli in Modena, Italy, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s New York, New York is a powerful and arresting exhibition of the artist’s important formative work. One of the largest canvases of Basquiat’s early production, this painting narrates the artist’s transition from the streets of Manhattan to the art gallery. Intensely forged in an array of media including oil stick, acrylic, and spray paint, New York, New York is highly charged and raw with energy; it pulses with urban rhythm. Immediate and consuming, the frenetic, abstract composition, swathed with gestural image-making, harnesses a myriad of references that strongly evoke the artist’s earlier work as a graffiti street-poet. His paintings on canvas and found objects of 1980-81 fully embraced the urban landscape that surrounded him; from crumbling brick walls to the shiny metal surfaces of vandalised Subway D carriages, these paintings speak the language of a city in glorious disarray. As Glenn O’Brien wrote of New York during the late 1970s and early 80s: “New York was cheap, poor, run-down and dangerous. In its own fabulous way of course” (Glenn O’Brien, ‘SAMO©’s New York’, in: Exh. Cat., London, Basquiat: Boom for Real, Barbican Centre, 2017, p. 101). The dark intensity of New York, New York captures the gritty atmosphere of the city Basquiat grew up in; it encapsulates a metropolis in economic dire-straits that, nonetheless, incubated and bore forth an extraordinarily creative artistic scene at the end of the 1970s. Unconstrained by convention, this painting chrystalises the brilliance of an enormously talented young spirit on the verge of stardom. Indeed, as a focal point of Basquiat’s now legendary first solo exhibition, this work narrates the very moment at which Basquiat’s ground-breaking practice came to the attention of the international art world.
Basquiat first made waves on the burgeoning downtown art scene in 1978 when he teamed up with his classmate Al Diaz to paint enigmatic slogans across the walls of corporate or public buildings in highly visible spaces all over the city. More than just a graffiti tag however, these slogans – executed under the aegis of SAMO – were poetic, syncopated literary maxims aimed at critiquing both the art-world and American culture at large: SAMO© AS AN ALERNATIVE 2 “PLAYING ART” WITH RADICAL CHIC SECT ON DADDY’S $ FUNDS 4 U; SAMO© CONGROMLERATE OF DORMANT-GENIOUS; SAMO© FOR THE SO-CALLED AVANT-GARDE; SAMO© AS AN END 2 THE NEON FANTASY CALLED “LIFE”; SAMO AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO BULLSHIT FAKE HIPPY WHACK CHEER… The origin of the SAMO myth began in 1976 in Basquiat’s class at the City-As School when he invented a character named ‘Samo’ – an abbreviation for the phrase ‘same old shit’. As Barbican curator Eleanor Nairne has explained: “This then morphed into a story written for the student newspaper about a man shopping for a religion: ‘We’re running a Zen Buddhist 2-for-1 sale this month’, offers the ‘Relig-O-Mat’ salesman, before whispering, “Or… What about Samo?... I’m a Samiod myself… we do all we want here on earth and then rely totally on the mercy of God on the pretence we didn’t know”. The wonderfully adolescent premise of the story took on greater sophistication when distilled down into pithy SAMO© writings that appeared on the streets – popularly presumed to be the work of an older, disillusioned, conceptual artist” (Eleanor Nairne, ‘The Performance of Jean-Michel Basquiat’, in: Exh. Cat., London, Basquiat: Boom for Real, Barbican Centre, 2017, p. 21). Although the collaboration between Basquiat and Al Diaz ended in December 1978 when their identities were finally revealed in an article for Village Voice, Basquiat continued to employ the SAMO© name: he sprayed SAMO© aphorisms in person at clubs and on Glenn O’Brien’s public access television show TV Party and even exhibited and signed his earliest work as SAMO© right through to his very first exhibited works.
Following his participation in the politically engaged and zeitgeist-fuelled phenomenon that was The Times Square Show in June 1980, Basquiat was invited by Diego Cortez to exhibit in the similarly underground, yet, by comparison, highly curated project, New York / New Wave at P.S.1 – a rundown former school in Long Island. This exhibition defined a moment, and, to quote critic and curator Carlo McCormack, enshrined “downtown’s greatest attribute: hipness as signifier… it worked the methodologies of exhibition design to create stars, including a still teenage artist, then listed under the name SAMO©, given a room to create a bold installation of some twenty paintings… Amazing his own peer group and attracting a coterie of international dealers, it is reported that on the morning after the opening Basquiat would return to his childhood home in Brooklyn and announce, ‘Papa I’ve made it!’” (Carlo McCormack, ‘Exhibitionism’ in: Ibid., p. 71).
Among the coterie of international dealers mentioned by McCormack was Emilio Mazzoli, who after meeting Basquiat subsequently offered to host the young artist’s debut solo exhibition at his gallery in Modena, Italy. In the short months that followed, Basquiat would soon find representation with Annina Nosei and would thereafter forever leave behind his graffiti pseudonym. As the author of Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, Phoebe Hoban, has written of this time: “Mazzoli found the graffiti-like art fascinating, quintessentially American. He bought $10,000 worth of work on the spot, and arranged with Cortez to give the artist his first solo show that May in Modena… When Cortez, [Massimo] Audiello, and their young protégé landed in Italy, Jean-Michel was carrying the entire show under his arms” (Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, London 1998, p. 75). As Diego Cortez recounts in Hoban’s book: “It was like tubes of drawings and paintings rolled up, and the customs officials didn’t know what to make of it. Should they let this material in? Tax it? They kept Jean-Michel separated from us. He was probably stoned, and he was tired and had been up for days. And the customs guys gave him a really hard time” (Diego Cortez quoted in: Ibid., p. 76). After finally arriving in Modena, Basquiat spent his time in Mazzoli’s gallery making more pictures ready for the opening night of the exhibition on 23rd May 1981. Documentation surrounding this breakthrough early show is scant; although there is no full list of exhibited works, Hoban describes three of the paintings that accompanied New York New York on Mazzoli’s walls: “The paintings Basquiat did were all on very large canvases nearly 80 by 82 inches… In one, a red man, arm raised in a threat or plea, is shown on a beige background on which are sketched an airplane, an ambulance, and several cars. It’s signed ‘SAMO, 81’. In another, more abstract painting, a skelly court, a frequent image at this time, floats against a dull green background. This time, the car crash is nearly obliterated by an orange scrawl. In an even larger painting, about 79 by 111 inches, the crown, an airplane, and a house marked S, another favourite image, dominate one side of the canvas, while a white-on-black skelly court anchors the other” (Ibid., p. 77). Although very much aligned to the symbolic and raw expressive style of the paintings created in Modena, because New York New York is signed New York 1981, it is likely that this painting was in fact one of the works that Basquiat brought with him on the plane to be exhibited in the Mazzoli show. This painting underlines the importance of Mazzoli’s support of Basquiat during this early moment in his career. By titling the show SAMO, the Italian gallerist looked to present Basquiat’s artistic coming of age. A last hurrah for SAMO©, this exhibition cemented the young artist’s artistic ascent from guerrilla street lyricist to practicing and exhibiting studio-based painter.
Draped in broad areas of black paint, this large canvas is dominated by graphic imagery and intense gestural brushwork. Dominating the centre of the canvas, a looming face is mask-like in its construction; with harrowing eyes and clenched teeth it is both totemic and evocative of the primitive scribbles of a child and the elaborate iconographies of ancient cultures. Born to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, and having grown up in the cultural crucible of Brooklyn, Basquiat was fascinated by his cultural heritage and its artistic legacy. The disembodied head draws reference to African reliquary masks both in form and in its allusion to an almost spiritual presence. Basquiat, like his hero Picasso before him, assessed long-forgotten artistic traditions to interpret contemporary visual culture from a completely new perspective. For Picasso, primitivism was an antidote to the conservatism of the academies; in Basquiat’s work on the other hand, ‘primitivism’ provided a means to critique the history of art and express a distinctly contemporary angst tied to prevalent social issues concerning race and ethnicity.
Stemming from his experience on the streets of Manhattan, the series of ‘cityscapes’ to which the present work belongs were Basquiat’s first large-scale paintings. Together they form an in-depth exploration into and representation of the urban environment he lived in. Graffiti encompassed a whole range of associations and meanings for Basquiat, from an urban vehicle for free speech to primitive art forms produced by outcasts and native peoples. Surrounding the head, Basquiat populated his canvas with a full expression of his inner-city street vocabulary. Painted in white on the right hand side is the depiction of a skelly court – a children’s street game; the act of scoring out the skelly court on canvas is only one step removed from the act of inscribing chalk on tarmac (a form of graffiti in itself). The collaged element on which the skelly court has been painted evokes peeling subway posters and commercials, while the criss-crossing of spray painted lines and architectural passages of white and black paint conveys a tumult of forms that imply the vertiginous skyscrapers of New York’s famous skyline. Within this composition, the artist’s soon-to-be iconic three-pointed crown is repeated twice, emblazoned in metallic-silver spray paint and flanking the left and right sides of the composition. Indeed, New York, New York is one of the first works in which the crown plays a central role.
In this work, Basquiat’s trademark talismanic symbols are loaded with codified import. Text, word-play and poetry were paramount constituents in his street art, and an innovative and brilliant use of language adorns his most highly regarded paintings. Here, sitting at the bottom of the composition, towards the right-hand side, the word MILK reinforces the sense of an urban environment – perhaps Basquiat refers to the milk trucks that he may have seen early in the morning – while it also compounds the artist’s critique of commerce. To the right of the totemic head, etched in silver spray paint is the letter S. This symbol could be read as a reference to SAMO© and, like a labelled trademark, Basquiat has laid ownership to the canvas as if it were a graffiti-tagged New York wall. Other letters appear in the composition; however there is no ostensible translation of their sequence. Often Basquiat would cross out words to emphasise more clearly their importance, while the very act of writing nonsensical words engages the mind in a fruitless search for meaning. Basquiat’s highly ambiguous and deeply personal dialect echoes the lyrical externalisation of Cy Twombly’s cursive scrawls. Across a divergent landscape of marks, signs and symbols, Basquiat conveyed the world in which he lived, and crucially, how he made sense of it.
Emboldened by the notoriety that his work as SAMO© first brought to him, Basquiat sought to remove the constraints imposed on creativity by society and the traditional principles that governed painting. Basquiat's wholly inimitable symbolism is enmeshed in a complex matrix of signifiers steeped in an instinctual appreciation of art history and full immersion in popular culture. From a distinctly Warholian non-hierarchical absorption of mass culture through to the ancient artistic traditions of Africa and the influence of Picasso, Twombly and the Abstract Expressionist masters, Basquiat was utterly fluent in every aspect of visual culture. The spontaneity of the painterly background indicates Basquiat’s debt to Franz Kline whose urgent and gestural application of paint, enriched by his signature black and white palette, epitomized the genre of action painting. While the prevalence of talismanic symbols, letters and words echoes the inchoate overload of an increasingly visual capitalist culture. The liberating effects of this creative process are powerfully conveyed in New York, New York through the juxtaposed variety and energy of painted gestures, be they made by brush, oil stick or spray can.
In what could be considered a perfect explanation of this very painting, Jeffery Deitch has eloquently articulated: “His paintings are a canvas jungle that harnesses the traditions of modern art to portray the ecstatic violence of the New York Street. His graft of street culture onto high art is a classic example of how modernism continues to rejuvenate itself” (Jeffery Deitch, Ed. Jean Michel Basquiat, The Notebooks, Princeton 2015, p. 13). Echoing Basquiat’s metropolitan and urban experience, this canvas is vast, spontaneous, disorganised and irrational. Utterly redolent of his encyclopaedic relationship with visual culture, New York, New York is a masterwork that embodies Basquiat’s command of culturally loaded sign and symbol. Standing at the threshold of the artist’s impending stardom, this painting is a remarkable exemplification of the inimitable artistic conviction that propelled Jean-Michel Basquiat’s meteoric rise. Like a breath of fresh air, Basquiat's art broke rank and was subsequently devoured by critics, dealers and collectors alike. The potent exuberance of New York, New York is as challenging today as it was in 1981. As the artist himself once uttered, “I wanted to paint like the Lower East Side and what it was like to live there”: with New York New York, Basquiat surely succeeded (Jean Michel Basquiat quoted in: Eleanor Nairne, ‘The Performance of Jean-Michel Basquiat’, in: Exh. Cat., London, Basquiat: Boom for Real, op. cit., p. 21).
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