Basquiat appropriated popular culture as a way of addressing sociopolitical issues that also occurred in the microcosm of children’s cartoons, here exemplified in two versions of The Flash. The two raw, naively-rendered figures epitomize Basquiat’s fascination with the body as a motif through which he was able to explore themes of race, identity and mortality. Although structured by an architectonic grid of lime green, brick red, teal and navy lines assuredly drawn onto the canvas, these two characters explode from this linear prison. Basquiat thrusts the left-hand figure of the Flash forward, using his visual vernacular of arrows and lightning bolts to underscore this dynamic upward motion. The Flash sweeps his left arm across his chest, propelled by the luminous marks of pink that nearly radiate with energy, springing forth to the block letters IL FLASH. A blue lightning bolt visually echoes this heroic movement, drawing our eye to the white nova exploding in a blaze of shocking light beneath the bent knee. This character beams in exaltation at his power, strength and the seemingly limitless possibilities in this surreal landscape.
Meteorological imagery abounds in this painting, most notably in the three lightning bolts that anchor the overall composition and serve as a crest for the Flash. The farthest left bolt, outlined in blue, virtually catapults the left-hand Flash across the canvas, charging forward and drawing our eye toward the upper right hand corner to the dark teal lightning bolt, outlined in fuchsia and circumscribed in a lemon yellow sun. The fuchsia lines dissect the teal zig zag in an almost heraldic manner, and indeed this small symphony of shapes and colors reaches its literal coda in the written word EMBLEM, which remains visible despite the purposeful rust colored marks pressed over the letters, an artistic decision Basquiat deliberately executed. He remarked, “I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.” (Jean Michel-Basquiat quoted in Taka Kawachi, King For a Decade: Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1997, p. 12) If we follow this second lightning bolt’s downward trajectory, we arrive at the finale of this celestial trio, whose colors are almost a photographic negative of the former. A strong white chalk-like line frames a magenta circle onto which Basquiat has drawn a goldenrod bolt of lightning, the Flash’s insignia here presented with more pink than its source material. His crest accents the Flash’s uniform, magenta leotard fastened with a belt, the edges of a cape stitched neatly onto his shoulders. This hero faces the viewer head on, the scale of the painting rendering him nearly life-sized and intensifying his fearless presence.
Flash in Naples exists in a small series of paintings executed in 1983, which bear in common similarly gridded backgrounds illustrative of Basquiat’s remarkable draftsmanship, most obviously seen in the present work, Lye and Napoleonic Stereotype. This circumscribed grate is less apparent in Piano Lesson (For Chiara), but nevertheless features in Batman’s costume and several small lattices scattered across the canvas. Perhaps most significantly, this suite of works depicts the artist’s heros: the Flash, Batman and Robin, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Nat King Cole and Joe Louis. The 1983 execution of these acrylic and oilstick paintings marks a pinnacle in Basquiat’s career in which he demonstrated a heightened confidence and aplomb in his output. No longer a precocious art world outsider, Basquiat skyrocketed to fame as a celebrated wunderkind and extraordinary force, attracting critical acclaim for his inimitable and instinctive gestural force, a quality that shines through in the present work.
Basquiat is famous for his motif of the three pointed crown, a playful sobriquet that appears in several of his most recognizable works. Included in this varied lexicon are various hieroglyphics, swords, bones, and arrows, the latter of which features prominently in Flash in Naples. Two maroon arrows hover in the top left corner, echoing the white arrow and lines emphasizing the left-hand character’s dynamic forward movement as he springs upward to the word FLASH. Basquiat’s pictorial language and explosive artistic style were rooted in his early graffiti, television, music, books and the colorful characters of bohemian New York, such that his daily existence was marked by a riot of images, words phrases, noises and colors, a sensory overload that the artist perfectly distilled in Flash in Naples. In the words of prominent dealer and curator Jeffrey Deitch, “Basquiat’s canvases are aesthetic dropcloths that catch the leaks from a whirring mind. He vacuums up cultural fall-out and spits it out on stretched canvas, disturbingly transformed.” (Jeffrey Deitch quoted in Larry Walsh, Ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks, New York, 1993, p. 13) This regurgitation of stimuli provides a private glimpse into the artist’s subconscious. Although the title undoubtedly refers to the cartoon source, Flash in Naples can retroactively also be read as a self-portrait, illustrative of a triumphant moment accomplished despite a structured and prescribed agenda: a flash, but nevertheless a moment of victory.
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