“Jean-Michel lived like a flame. He burned really bright. Then the fire went out. But the embers are still hot.”
A n explosion of wild colour, frenetic gesture and emblematic imagery erupts across the canvas of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s spectacular painting, Pyro. Executed in 1984, at the creative pinnacle of the artist’s meteoric career, the work is replete with the hallmark iconography and dazzling energy of Basquiat’s unique and coveted pictorial lexicon. In an electrifying scene of urban chaos, graffiti-like figures, silkscreened animals, architectural shrines, and curious scientific models converge and collide with dizzying force. At the centre of the composition, a monolithic figure – teeth bared and arms splayed wide – is juxtaposed against a flaming yellow backdrop.
With a mask-like face and searing hollow eye sockets, the figure seems engaged in a scream of silent fury that rivals the animalistic cries invoked in Picasso’s seminal Guernica of 1937. As its title infers, Pyro is fuelled by the vigour and dynamism of a blazing fire: its vitality is infectious. The tumult of images, symbols and cyphers that cascade across the canvas speaks not only to the vivacious, exuberant, unstoppable spirit of downtown New York in the 1980s, but also to the artist’s own insatiable and indiscriminate appetite for knowledge.
“He was electric. A Tesla coil with dreadlocks – cool fire emanating wherever he went. Magic.”
Seeking to navigate, through his oeuvre, the great labyrinth of life and death, the complexities of identity, and the singular characteristics of his contemporary moment, Basquiat drew from an endless stream of sources spanning history and mythology, high-art and popular culture, science and philosophy, religion and race. Synthesised into a cacophonous melee of colour, gesture and form, Pyro poignantly grapples with a world that is at once intoxicatingly beautiful and devastatingly flawed.
Working with an almost vertiginous speed, Basquiat would inject his paintings with a sense of unbridled passion and creative furore retained from his graffiti days in the 1970s as part of the street-art duo SAMO©. Taking the essence of the streets to the studio, Basquiat would later paint with endless energy on anything he could get his hands on, from wall space and discarded cardboard to old television sets and refrigerators, elevating the quotidian to ever new heights. Pulsating with vitality and emotionally charged, the tactile qualities of his paintwork – at times scrawled, at others dripping, smudged or seemingly sprayed – retain and exalt the vital immediacy of graffiti art.
As curator Diego Cortez states: “[Basquiat] constructs an intensity of line which reads like a polygraph report, a brain-to-hand ‘shake.’ The figure is electronic-primitive-comic” (Diego Cortez cited in: Jean-Louis Prat and Richard Marshall, Eds., Jean-Michel Basquiat: Volume 2, California 1996, p. 160). Basquiat’s vision was deeply autobiographical, and there are many examples of the artist’s immediate presence in this work. The central figure in Pyro is, like the mythological status of the artist himself, ambivalent in character, at once brutal and compelling, vivacious and forlorn. In spite of his visceral, even violent demeanour, a celestial halo encircles his skull.
Explaining the Explosion of Iconography in Basquiat’s ‘Pyro’
Subverting traditional religious iconography and alluding to a form of worship, the halo was a recurring motif in Basquiat’s oeuvre that would become a potent symbol not only of the cult of celebrity which pervaded American culture in the 1980s, but of the artist’s own tragic and untimely death in 1988, at just twenty-seven years of age.
Rendered in composite layers of vibrant hues and coursing rivulets of pigment, Pyro encapsulates Basquiat’s virtuosic ability to manipulate paint on canvas, distinguishing him as a maestro amongst the vanguard of young and ambitious image-makers of his contemporary moment. Exemplifying the artist’s singular command as a master colourist, the painting is ignited in a blaze of undiluted yellows, reds, greens and purples, which clash and effervesce with the bravura of a firework display.
Considering Basquiat’s heady palette, curator Marc Mayer notes, “With direct and theatrically ham-fisted brushwork, he uses unmixed color structurally, like a seasoned abstractionist, but in the service of a figurative and narrative agenda. Basquiat deployed his color architecturally, at times like so much tinted mortar to bind a composition, at other times like opaque plaster to embody it. Color holds his pictures together, and through it they command a room” (Marc Mayer, Basquiat in History in: Exh. Cat., New York, Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat, 2005, p. 46). Basquiat’s paintings are rich in art historical allusion, and the combustive colours employed in the present work are strongly reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman (1937, Tate Collection).
Picasso was one of Basquiat’s most important artistic heroes – indeed the younger artist painted a portrait called Untitled (Pablo Picasso) in the same year Pyro was executed – and Basquiat’s explosive and fragmentary style was greatly indebted to Picasso’s revolutionary use of colour and Cubist facture. Painted following the notorious bombing of the Basque town of Guernica, Picasso’s Weeping Woman offers a powerful meditation on the raw and guttural force of grief.
Charged with a comparable urgency, the present work stands as a contemporary homage to Picasso’s masterpiece: executed in an age characterised as much by its thriving urban street culture and radical advancements in science, as by its institutionalised racism and threat of nuclear warfare, Pyro conjures both the fiery passion and existential angst of human emotion in all its variegated forms.
The canvas in Pyro abounds with whirlwind, slapdash imagery that pertains to the dizzyingly high-energy of Basquiat’s contemporary era. A soaring jet-black skyscraper to the upper right of the picture plane is matched by a towering pagoda at the lower centre, as if in celebration of the rich multicultural diversity and cosmopolitanism that epitomised New York City in the 1980s.
A rocket poised for take-off in the lower region of the canvas alludes to the American Space Shuttle Challenger sent into orbit in early 1984; whilst in the top echelon, a doodle of a pencil morphs into a shooting rocket as if in emulation of the artist’s powerful imaginative force. Images of stick-figures seem to explode into a sea of acid yellow, perhaps in reference to the anxiety-inducing nuclear threat which, just two years prior, had seen one million anti-nuke demonstrators gather in Central Park in one of the largest political protests in American history.
This is reinforced by the mention of the radio-active chemical ‘POLONIUM’ which is scrawled across the lower right of the canvas amidst a barrage of text detailing chemical substances and metals. In his iconic inscriptions, Basquiat evokes the pioneering, freely-scribbled and graffiti-like work of Cy Twombly, an artist for whom he held a deep admiration. Drawing on this wealth of cultural influences, Pyro becomes the creative detritus of the artist’s youth, through which he could respond to the overbearing weight of social reality.
As Barbican curator Eleanor Nairne has argued, Basquiat’s information-overload, multi-sensory paintings seem to foreshadow our present world: “In many ways his style of working – with books spread open on the studio floor, records playing and the television always on – anticipated the bombardment of information in our digital culture today” (Eleanor Nairne, ‘Encyclopaedia’ in: Exh. Cat., London, Barbican, Basquiat: Boom For Real, 2017, p. 189).
In Basquiat’s practice, the dichotomous forces of life and death compete with equal and explosive force. This is nowhere better encapsulated than in Pyro: teeming with haphazard iconography, textural meanderings, and brilliant colour, this painting is simultaneously life affirming and foreboding, invigorating and catastrophic.
The artist’s oeuvre was often permeated by an astute and haunting sense of premonition and indeed, like an omnipresent weight, the suggestion of death and destruction permeates the present work with a powerful intensity. For, as exemplified by Glenn O’Brien, “[Basquiat] was the once-in-a-lifetime real deal: artist as prophet” (Glenn O’Brien, ‘Greatest Hits’ in: Exh. Cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, 2015, p. 180). In his tragically curtailed life, which abided all too literally by the mantra ‘live fast, die young’, Basquiat produced a prolific and ground-breaking body of work which would alter the course of art history forever.
As his friend Fred Bathwaite, known colloquially as Fab 5 Freddy, poignantly stated following his death in 1988, “Jean-Michel lived like a flame. He burned really bright. Then the fire went out. But the embers are still hot” (Fred Bathwaite cited in: Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 1996, p. 220). Radiating with ebullient ferocity, Pyro is an enduring testament to the passionate, emotive, influential spirit of Basquiat’s incomparable and prodigious painterly mark.