J ean-Michel Basquiat’s approach to painting was unequivocally innovative, playful and dynamic. The tumult of images and symbols that cascade across the artist’s canvases speak not only to the vivacious, exuberant and unstoppable spirit of downtown New York in the 1980s, from which he emerged, but also his own insatiable and indiscriminate appetite for knowledge. Even though he only painted for about eight years, Basquiat has become one of the most influential and internationally renowned artists of the late 20th century.
Following a 1982 exhibition at Fun Gallery in the East Village, Basquiat spent an extended period of time in Los Angeles, returning to the city many times throughout his life. This period was pivotal in Basquiat’s career, as he rose to extraordinary heights of critical and commercial prominence. Away from the pressures and crushing pace of the art world in New York, this emergent talent was able to pursue his mission with less distraction and to process his rising popularity. Basquiat quickly completed a phenomenal series of paintings for a March 1983 solo exhibition, including Zingest, a work currently on view in Basquiat: Young King, a selling exhibition at Sotheby’s Los Angeles. Many of the works in this show express a dialogue with fame and stardom. Referencing famous boxers, musicians and Hollywood films, Basquiat developed the themes and iconography that would become hallmarks of his unique pictorial lexicon.
An important part of Basquiat’s process involved selecting and inserting various pieces of appropriated materials into his compositions. On almost every inch of the surface one finds symbols, images and phrases that the artist freely borrowed from the world around him – as exemplified in Number 1 from 1981. Its powerful iconography and text perfectly encapsulate Basquiat’s transition from graffiti to fine art. The crown of thorns – or perhaps it’s a halo – above the central, black figure, in conjunction with the name Jesus repeating across the canvas, not only nods to Christianity, but also celebrates and elevates Blackness in art and religious history.
The most iconic symbol in Basquiat’s work is the crown, shown in numerous paintings, such as Untitled (Boxer), 1983, Famous Negro Athletes, 1981, and Bracco di Ferro, 1981. While the source of the motif is much discussed, Suzanne Mallouk – Basquiat’s long-term girlfriend – says it came from Basquiat’s favorite TV show, “Little Rascals,” where the crown is featured on the production company’s logo. Another theory is based on the fact that graffiti artists often draw crowns above other artists’ work as a sign of respect. No matter its source, the crown is often considered an assertion of power within Basquiat’s work, alluding to the mastery of his craft and his success in the market.
Basquiat drew from an endless stream of sources spanning history and mythology, high art and popular culture – yet there is one that appears in almost every work by the artist. After a childhood car accident, in which Basquiat broke his arm and needed to have his spleen removed, his mother gifted him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy. Basquiat studied this medical reference book voraciously and applied many of the anatomical diagrams to memory; later he drew allusions to Leonardo da Vinci’s Study of Arms and other anatomical sketches. The art historian Fred Hoffman wrote that, in Leonardo’s work, Basquiat “identified a kindred spirit able to transform scientific truth into artistic vision.”
Language and text are key to unlocking the meaning of Basquiat’s imagery. He was obsessed with words, especially after he moved away from his graffiti moniker, SAMO, after 1982. Poetry and language seeped into his paintings, often as the sole visual content of a work. While seemingly random, each word has a specific meaning, revealing a mind-map of the artist’s intent. Despite the artist’s spontaneity and improvisation, his use of words and symbols are proof of great genius and a deep understanding of the world as a whole. Basquiat goes beyond simple collage in references to African, Greco-Roman and American art; he rewrites art history, drawing connections from these cultures into his experiences as an artist and as a visitor to a gallery or museum.