Characterised by its graphic force and visual directness, Rubber from 1985 brings together many of the central themes of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s influential oeuvre. The work offers a vibrant medley of Basquiat’s unique visual vocabulary, at once presenting the artist’s signature outline of a human head, a saturated palette, the potent conflation of image and word, his intuitive working method, and pervasive political concerns. One of the first artists to successfully and radically infiltrate the institutional art world with the outsider language of graffiti, Basquiat imbued his paintings with a sense of the alternative New York street culture of which he was an integral part, without losing sight of the urgency and ideology of his agenda. This is perfectly embodied in the present work: not only does Rubber juxtapose the formal language of street art and traditional painting by melding rapidly applied oil stick and paper collage with thickly painted smears of acrylic; it also contends with some of the most important and enduring subjects and concerns of the artist’s pioneering practice.
In Rubber, an explosion of wild colour, frenetic gesture and emblematic imagery erupts across the canvas. The scene is engulfed in flames that rip and roar across the picture plane with a vital and urgent ferocity. A falling man – a reference, perhaps, to original sin and the downfall of humanity – tumbles through the inferno. Depicted in blazing hues of orange, yellow, red and blue, each painted lick of fire is rendered with an expressionistic energy that recalls the sweeping gestural brushstrokes and enlivened palette of Willem de Kooning in seminal works such as his Composition of 1955 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York), as much as Jackson Pollock's early painting from circa 1934-38, The Flame (The Museum of Modern Art, New York). To the top right of Rubber, Basquiat has rendered a crude and skull-like head: one of the most ubiquitous emblems of the artist’s complex pantheon of cyphers and symbols, its inclusion offers a self-referential allusion to the artist himself. Portrayed in jet-black paint, a warm amber glow invigorates his mask-like face, searing through his bared teeth and hollow eye sockets like an electric current, radiating from his very core. It is a bold and powerful image which conjures, to an almost uncanny degree, the vivacious spirit for which the artist was known amongst acquaintances and friends: “he was electric”, recalls the writer Glenn O’Brien, “A Tesla coil with dreadlocks – cool fire emanating wherever he went. Magic” (Glenn O’Brien, ‘Greatest Hits’ in: Exh. Cat., Ontario, Art Gallery of Ontario, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, 2015, p. 176). Simultaneously suggestive of a traditional African mask, the reductive, even primitive form of the silhouette seems to pay homage to the artist’s ancestral roots.
Born in 1960 to a Haitian-Puerto Rican family in Brooklyn, New York, Basquiat grew up at a time of deeply prevalent racism within American society. His experiences of marginalisation would profoundly impact his life and work, and indeed his oeuvre is pervaded by references to outsider cultures and critiques of mainstream politics. His most iconic motif is arguably that of the silhouetted and mask-like head, as exemplified in Rubber, which poignantly presents the black man as the central subject of his paintings. Whilst visiting museums at a young age, the artist quickly noticed how the subjects of Western art were exclusively white, with people of colour traditionally only occupying inferior positions. By elevating his ‘black heroes’ (predominantly sportsmen and jazz musicians as well as self-portraits) to the key figures in his paintings, Basquiat forcefully countered this racial imbalance.
Whilst black identity is indeed at the centre of Basquiat’s oeuvre, the artist was equally critical of capitalism and its side-effects. Rubber provides a powerful example of his concern with systems that control and exploit natural resources for the creation of wealth. At the lower left of the picture plane, Basquiat has inscribed the canvas with the word RUBBER, giving the painting its name. As suggested by the black car tires portrayed within the work, the artist’s interest in rubber goes back to the Second World War when the United States introduced rubber rationing to steer all supplies to the army for use in gas masks, inflatable rafts and military vehicles – leaving families immobile with a limited number of car tires to get through the war. Perhaps more pertinently, however, the word alludes to the fraught and loaded history of natural rubber production that is intertwined with colonialism, plantations and the slave trade, revealing the complex and politicised relationship between society and natural resources. As curator Richard Marshall has observed: “These frequent references… reveal Basquiat's interest in aspects of commerce – trading, selling and buying. Basquiat is scrutinizing man's seizure and monopolization of the earth's animal and material resources, and questioning why and how these resources, that are ideally owned by all of the world's inhabitants, have become objects of manipulation, power, and wealth at the expense of the well being of all mankind” (Richard Marshall, ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat and his Subjects’ cited in: Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, p.43).
The merging of image and word, as Rubber encapsulates, is deeply emblematic of Basquiat’s pioneering technique. Reminiscent of the work of artists including Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, Basquiat’s inclusion of text in his artworks is indebted to 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 energy 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 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-Michel Basquiat: Volume 2, California 1996, p. 160). Boldly merging word, gesture and form, Rubber testifies to the ferocious splendour and raw, uncensored authenticity which has come to define the artist’s radical oeuvre.
In Basquiat’s practice, the dichotomous energies of life and death compete with equal and explosive force. This is nowhere better encapsulated than in Rubber: teeming with haphazard iconography, textural meanderings, and brilliant colour, this painting is simultaneously life affirming and foreboding, invigorating and catastrophic. Much like Andy Warhol’s deeply prophetic reflections on mortality in works such as the Death and Disaster series of 1963, Basquiat’s own oeuvre is frequently permeated by an astute and haunting sense of premonition. Indeed, like a foreboding weight, the suggestion of death and destruction imbues the present work with a powerful intensity. As Glenn O’Brien once wrote, “[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, fiery 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, Rubber is an enduring testament to the passionate, emotive and influential spirit of Basquiat’s incomparable and prodigious painterly mark.
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