to one side
to dark – TRICK
The mouth washed out—
the Magic© —
dipped in milk.
in hands, black
like fish. Licked.
Kevin Young, "Oreo," To Repel Ghosts, five sides in B minor, Cambridge 2001, p. 278
The life and work of Jean-Michel Basquiat have taken on a renewed importance in recent years as America revisits its relationship with race and identity. His work holds an unquestionably canonical position in American art, and he stands as one of the few black artists to successfully navigate and stake his claim in the predominantly white art world during this time. Madonna, his one-time lover in the early 1980s, said of him: “He didn’t know how good he was…He used to say he was jealous of me because music is more accessible and it reached more people. He loathed the idea that art was appreciated by an elite group” (Madonna in Jérôme de Noirmont, Ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat: Témoignage, Paris 1998, p. 23). Basquiat brazenly criticized the status and power of white America and struggled with his position as a lone wolf amongst the wealth and elitism of New York; this personal and professional struggle is evident in his work.
Basquiat’s short yet prolific career as a working artist began in the mid-1970s with his street art pseudonym SAMO, short for 'same old shit,' capturing the punk aesthetic of young New York at the time. In 1980 he participated in his first exhibition, and by 1982 he was featured in a solo exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, then based out of Los Angeles. With his ascent to international acclaim came a sudden rock star lifestyle and subsequent drug addiction. Untitled (Oreo), painted in the year of his tragic, untimely death is an almost serene reflection on the artist's rapid rise and fall, representing in one image the internal struggle of one of the 1980s most prolific and infamous artists.
'Oreo' being a term for a person who has betrayed or forgotten their blackness, black on the outside, white on the inside, this work directly and unambiguously addresses the subject of race, more specifically Basquiat’s experience of his own race in an art world dominated by white Americans and European. Untitled (Oreo) is strikingly straightforward, nearly monochrome and lacking his characteristic ‘primitive’ figures and imagery. Where he often “[crosses] out words, writing them again, correcting, emphasizing, obliterating, inexplicably changing the subject, and pulling it all together with a grimacing mask” (Marc Mayer, “Basquiat in History,” Basquiat, Brooklyn Museum 2005), here he is conscious and deliberate: the reproduced Oreo logo is the unmistakable center of the composition, accompanied by little else and entirely undistracted. Untitled (Oreo) is a reflection upon Basquiat’s position straddling two communities: that of his Brooklyn, Haitian, Puerto Rican background, and that of the bourgeois, artist-filled streets of SoHo and the Lower East Side. Kevin Young’s 1988 poem by the same name, from a book of poems and spoken word texts entirely dedicated to Basquiat, touches upon this racial dichotomy with specific reference to this work’s color and composition. Caught between these milieux, Basquiat struggled to feel fully a part of either community, a sentiment which informed much of his own racial subjectivity and transformed his art into a social dialogue continually relevant to the contemporary viewer.
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