The central subject of Basquiat’s composition is an imposing, gesturally painted mask that makes evident the artist’s sophisticated understanding of art history, as he appropriates and re-contextualizes the Western modernist obsession with traditional African objects and sculpture. Growing up in New York City, Basquiat often visited art museums with his mother, educating himself on the art historical canon. The artist had a special reverence for Pablo Picasso, whose incorporation of African mask imagery features prominently within his oeuvre, particularly in such seminal works as Les Demoiselles d’Avgingon from 1907. Arguably, Picasso’s full embrace of the avant-garde attitude, one that persistently challenged conventional standards of beauty, influenced Basquiat to follow a similar path, resulting in this bold, aggressive work. Masque also conveys Basquiat’s tense positioning as a gifted emerging artist riffing off Western art historical references while operating outside its formal parameters.
Before Basquiat attained art world super-stardom, he attracted noteworthy attention through his eye-catching graffiti works, often found in the lively urban landscape of downtown Manhattan, sometimes in close proximity to the entrances of respected galleries. These self-assertive and politically provocative works were often signed with the artist’s ironic trademark, 'SAMO,' meaning ‘same old shit.' In Masque, one sees a young Basquiat skillfully synthesizing his renowned graffiti street-style with the aforementioned modernist aesthetic, giving rise to a painting that seems to elude rigid categorizations of ‘low’ and ‘high’ art. Furthermore, the vertical smudge lines that run down the mask’s left eye echo the drip effect of spray paint in effective graffiti compositions and also mirror the natural erosion of pigments on public, urban surfaces.
The depiction of the mask in this early work also represents Basquiat’s relentless exploration of cultural identity. The artist, who was born to a Haitian father and Puerto-Rican mother, often expressed his feelings of racialized otherness in a white-dominated art world. Basquiat’s use of the mask, a sacred object which historically functions in the Black diaspora as a mediator between the physical and spiritual realms, now becomes an unapologetic visual metaphor for black identity. These cultural signifiers of universal blackness persistently appear in the artist’s prolific body of work in varying forms, from Hip-Hop informed poetic texts and musings on Black historical events to directed references at legendary jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker. From early works like Masque one can thus observe Basquiat’s worldly, perceptive grasp of the complex interrelatedness of history, society and culture.
The painting’s audacious, electrifying use of expressive gesture also awakens the viewer’s senses with its broadly applied areas of ochre, magenta and black paint; these varied tones, cleverly juxtaposed with one another, articulate a subtle visual dissonance, which symbolizes the artist’s exuberant but unstable inner life. The repeated inscription of the letter A, deeply scratched into the painting’s top-right surface, leads one to imagine the mask shouting at the viewer through its oval, gauze-covered mouth. Besides portraying the interior mental state of the young artist, Masque serves as a historical reaction to the previously dominant movements of Minimalism and Conceptualism, ushering in the new era of emotive and figurative expressionism known as Neoexpressionism. As such, Masque does not only possess historic significance within the artists’ oeuvre but also carries its own weight vis- à -vis the unfolding narrative of broader art historical discourse.
Haunting yet alluring, raw yet poetic, Basquiat’s Masque exemplifies a young, groundbreaking artist on the verge of attaining unrivalled fame. The storied painting situates Basquiat at the beginning of his well-documented trajectory, his intense energy-laden gestures leaving viewers in a volatile, transfixed state of trepidation and awe.
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