ARTIST AS PROPHET: FOUR IMPORTANT WORKS BY JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT FROM A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Taxi, 45th/Broadway brilliantly embodies the dynamic union of two of the twentieth century’s most formidable talents. When the two were first introduced to one another in 1982, Basquiat was a young graffiti street artist who had only just gained legitimacy and recognition, while conversely Warhol was already an internationally renowned artist celebrity. In their friendship, each found in the other something that he himself lacked, and each was enamored and intrigued by the other: Basquiat sought the fame, recognition, and access that an icon like Warhol possessed and offered, and Warhol desperately desired a shock of innovation and renewed energy in his work that a young, fresh voice like Basquiat possessed. As aptly summarized by close friend and artist Keith Haring: “The paintings which resulted from [Warhol and Basquiat’s] collaboration are the perfect testimony to the depth and importance of their friendship. The quality of the paintings mirrors the quality of the relationship. The sense of humor which permeates all the works recalls the laughter while they were being made. They are truly an invention of what William S Burroughs called The Third Mind – two amazing minds fusing together to create a third totally separate and unique one.” (Keith Haring, 4 October 1988, New York)
Capitalizing on the narrative power of imagery, Taxi, 45th/Broadway deftly engages with art history, politics, and race. A black figure, here made invisible in the darkness of night, endures the label “Negro” as he unsuccessfully attempts to hail a cab while a white taxi driver, upon discerning the color of his skin, ignores his plea and and speeds past him, cursing senseless profanities in his direction. Despite Basquiat’s meteoric ascension from downtown graffiti street artist to artist icon of the 1980s New York art scene, of which Warhol was critical in eliciting, his race still prevailed as his primary identifier outside of the realm of the art world, a fact which profoundly frustrated and angered the young artist. The present composition reflects on a deeply personal and demoralizing recurrence in Basquiat’s everyday life, one remembered by Keith Haring: “Being black and a kid and having dreadlocks, he couldn't even get a taxi. But he could spend $10,000 in his pocket." (Michael Wines, "Jean Michel Basquiat: Hazards Of Sudden Success and Fame," The New York Times, September 27, 1988) While experienced more overtly and explicitly by Basquiat, this tension between invisibility and recognition is one that also severely afflicted Warhol, who despite his fame was conflicted by constant introspection. Taxi, 45th/Broadway tempts reading as a double portrait: the black figure undoubtedly represents Basquiat, and the taxicab driver’s frenetic eyes and wiry hair distincts recall Basquiat’s depictions of Warhol.
A vibrant medley of iconography and color that remarkably encapsulates the fast-paced energy and cultural milieu of the city that both artists called home, Taxi, 45th/Broadway reveals Basquiat and Warhol at their most inventive: while fully immersed in their contemporary moment, Basquiat and Warhol also retain a firm grasp on and deployment of twentieth century art history. The frantically scrawled text and chalky blackboard-like surface evoke Cy Twombly’s 'Blackboard' paintings, while the discernible strokes of paint recall the gestural brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism, establishing an underlying engagement with repetition and erasure that reverberates throughout the composition both conceptually and aesthetically. The gestural swathes of paint that comprise the background recall Warhol's expressive brushwork in his paintings of the 1970s and early 1980s. Each prodigious and radically inventive in their own right, Basquiat and Warhol’s distinctive artistic styles in many ways rivaled and opposed one another: Basquiat’s visceral grafitti-esque gestures and densely populated compositions sharply contrasted the ready-made iconography of Warhol’s screen printing process. Balancing Basquiat’s intensive mark-making and frantic scrawls with the graphic immediacy of Warhol’s screen-printing process, Taxi, 45th/Broadway explores a compositional motif familiar to both of their diverse oeuvres: that of repetition.
The luminous yellow taxi cab provides structural weight to the composition and, recalling Warhol’s most technically intricate paintings in which graphic images rendered in vibrant hues are laid against canvases whose painterly surfaces and viscerally visible brushstrokes complicate the hands-off reproducibility of the screen printing technique. Barely viewable as it zooms past and making no effort to slow down for the pedestrian, the taxi cab speeds through the night. The body of the car is seen only through streaks of vibrant yellow, conveying movement. The hastily outlined elements also recalls Warhol’s use of a projector to trace elements directly onto the canvas, a technique which predominated his earliest series, but which he would remarkably return to for his collaboration paintings with Basquiat in the mid 1980s. The contrast between the artist’s two most iconic mediums – Warhol’s consciously flat graphically inspired imagery and Basquiat’s coarse, textured oilstick draughtsmanship – is here completely subsumed by the pictorial blend of Warhol and Basquiat's styles. Keith Haring recalled their mutually beneficial synthesis. “Each one inspired the other to out-do the next. The collaborations were seemingly effortless. It was a physical conversation happening in paint instead of words. The sense of humour, the snide remarks, the profound realizations, the simple chit-chat all happened with paint and brushes. The atmosphere was playful and intense at the same time. Jean-Michel’s painting posture and disregard for technique created a mood of unnerving spectacle. There was a sense that one was watching something being unveiled and discovered for the first time.” (Keith Haring “Painting the Third Mind” in Collaborations: Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1988) Indeed, Taxi, 45th/Broadway offers unparalleled insight into one of the most significant relationships in 20th century art history and reveals the fruitful synthesis of two revolutionary artistic figures.
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