Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann, London 1986, p. 229
“I get my facts from books, stuff on atomizers, the blues, ethyl alcohol, geese in Egyptian glyphs… I don’t take credit for my facts. The facts exist without me.”
Jean-Michel Basquiat cited in: Exh. Cat., London, Barbican, Basquiat: Boom For Real, 2017, p. 189
A cacophony of information flashes across the canvas of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1986 painting Apex. Images and icons, cyphers and symbols, diagrams, words and bursts of colour emerge in fragmentary disarray against a vast expanse of searing white. They range from monumental proportions to microscopic detail, competing for the viewer’s attention as they lead the eye into a haphazard, hypnotic, electric dance that transcends the ostensible flatness of the picture plane. Executed just two years before the young Basquiat’s tragic and untimely death, Apex poignantly contends with some of the most potent and fundamental themes addressed throughout the artist’s oeuvre, from questions of identity to existentialism, duality to displacement, and celebrity to disillusionment. Indeed, many of the painting’s key motifs come from an important drawing that Basquiat created in 1983, and went on to use in a number of his major works. Painted, as its title prophetically suggests, at one of the most pivotal moments of his tumultuous and meteoric career, Apex encapsulates the raw and primal intensity of Basquiat’s unique pictorial lexicon. In his painted, scribbled, smeared, collaged, colourful, vibrant world, everything he knew, learnt, saw, felt, and breathed would be synthesised into his artworks: life versus death, past versus present, history versus mythology, high art versus so-called low. His appetite for knowledge was insatiable and indiscriminate; his sources of influence endless. “I get my facts from books,” he once stated, “stuff on atomizers, the blues, ethyl alcohol, geese in Egyptian glyphs… I don’t take credit for my facts. The facts exist without me” (Jean-Michel Basquiat cited in: Exh. Cat., London, Barbican, Basquiat: Boom For Real, 2017, p. 189).
Apex is composed from a combination of media and collage, which serves to underscore the sense of universal eclecticism in Basquiat’s practice. Each side of the canvas is dominated respectively by a large visage rendered in acrylic paint and oilstick. To the left is an iconic silhouette of the artist himself, portrayed in jet-black; his white teeth are bared, his trademark dreadlocks unbridled, and a warm orange glow surrounds him like a halo or an electric current, searing through his eyes, radiating from his very core. It is a bold and powerful image which conjures, to an almost uncanny degree, the vicarious energy and 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). To the right of the canvas, in stark contrast, is a line-drawing of a skull; delineated in white oilstick and set against a mottled brown rectangle, its crude, even primitive form is simultaneously suggestive of a traditional African mask, and a medical X-ray. Such slippages and ambiguities between motifs, neither accidental nor incidental, form much of the basis of Basquiat’s visual language. They speak to the all-pervasive, sensory-explosive world of downtown New York City in the 1980s, brimming as it was with an amalgamation of facts and fables, museums and street art, consumerism and deprivation, graffiti and dance, hip-hop beats and improvised Jazz. They also allude to Basquiat’s own understanding of the world as an ever-expanding conflation of knowledge and experience. Hence, as the circling arrow labelled WIND at the bottom of the canvas seems to infer, do Basquiat’s motifs change direction under the gaze of the viewer, evoking in the very same moment a plethora of histories, references and temporalities.
In spite of its flat façade, Apex implies a sense of space and depth beyond the confines of the canvas. This is largely in result of the sheets of Xerox collage which Basquiat pasted onto his composition. Filled with an array of drawings, figures, scrawled notations, symbols and cartoon-like forms, these printed sheets imbue the painting with an additional layer of dynamism. The Xerox prints are minute in scale by comparison to the hand painted elements of the work, demanding a meticulous level of engagement from the viewer by urging us to home in on the detail. Like vortexes into some other dimension, each collaged sheet has been encased in black and grey painted boxes that lend the appearance of television sets. These were, in fact, another great source of inspiration for the artist and, as Eleanor Nairne notes, “In many ways his style of working – with books spread open on the studio floor, records playing and the television always on – anticipated the bombardment of information in our digital culture today” (Eleanor Nairne, ‘Encyclopaedia’, in: Boom For Real, op. cit., p. 189). By the time the present work was painted, Xerox had become a vital tool for Basquiat, providing him with an invaluable means of multiplying and proliferating his output at dazzling speed.
Under a closer inspection of Apex, it becomes evident that many of the collaged elements have been replicated from the same original work: an Untitled drawing that Basquiat composed in 1983. Brimming with vibrant iconography – from a colourful Chinese dragon and a silver-suited astronaut, to a children’s wind-up toy car and the jet black figurine of a driver at the wheel – Untitled proved to be hugely significant to the artist. Indeed, he incorporated Xeroxed elements of the drawing into no less than twenty-two subsequent artworks created between 1983 and 1987. In Apex, both the yellow, green and pink dragon, and the silhouetted driver from Untitled feature prominently at the bottom right of the canvas, and the WIND slogan perhaps refers, as a double-entendre, to the wind-up toy car itself. The dragon, as a symbol of power, strength and resilience, recurred as a motif throughout Basquiat’s oeuvre, whilst the toy driver seems to evoke a sense of raw and child-like candour. Furthermore, in the same year Basquiat’s Untitled drawing was executed, Andy Warhol produced an influential series of paintings and silkscreens for children, based on toys that he had collected. Basquiat was inspired by the primitive, unpretentious spirit of Warhol’s Toy Paintings, and, searching for an unadulterated means of artistic expression liberated from the constraints of society, class and race, he hired, in 1983, an eight-year-old boy called Jasper Lack to paint and draw in some of his works. Reading like the visual manifestation of a stream of consciousness, this primality is beautifully captured in the present work.
Several other motifs from Basquiat’s earlier drawings have been Xeroxed into Apex, yet are likewise presented in fragments, always off kilter, never as a coherent whole – we see snippets of the same red hotel priced at $200, the same anatomical skeleton, the same black skull with maddened eyes and gnarling teeth. The artist had an erudite knowledge of the human form, and explored the structure of bones and body parts almost incessantly throughout his oeuvre. This fascination with anatomy dates back to his childhood when, after being hit by a car at the age of seven, Basquiat had to undergo a splenectomy. During his convalescence, his mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy; its impact on his artistic practice was nothing short of profound. Music played a similarly important role in Basquiat’s work, and indeed he was in a noise rock band appropriately named Gray. This collision of influence is inferred in the present work, in a small detail of the Xerox collage to the centre left of the picture plane: as if undergoing a lyrical metamorphosis from skeletal structure into musical instrument, Basquiat has strategically interspersed an elongated form labelled TRUMPET amongst a selection of anatomically drawn finger bones. Considering the elusive nature of Basquiat’s representations, Francesco Pellizzi remarks, “Just when we think we have seized something essential about them, the essence evaporates. The paintings seem to slip away right and left, despite their remarkable compositional strength – a centripetal tension between all the elements” (Francesco Pellizzi, ‘Black and White All Over’, in: Now’s the Time, op. cit., p. 184).
The merging of image and word is deeply emblematic of Basquiat’s pioneering technique. Inspired by artists such as Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, Basquiat’s inclusion of text in his artworks is, simultaneously, reminiscent of 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). Basquiat was riveted by different modes of human expression and communication, and frequently incorporated within his paintings a series of codes found in Henry Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook. He took a particular interest in the 'hobo signs' which travelling vagabonds would use to denote certain areas as safe or treacherous along the road, and indeed several of the signs appear within the present work, signifying warnings such as 'There are thieves about', 'Dangerous drinking water', and 'You’ll be cursed out'. Many of these symbols, carried throughout his practice, are repeated like incantations in his drawings and paintings.
In the year Apex was painted, Basquiat travelled to Ivory Coast in what was to be his first and last excursion to the African continent. He went first to the economic capital Abidjan, where an exhibition of more than sixty of his paintings had been organised at the French Cultural Institute, before visiting Korhogo in the north of the country to meet people from the Senufo tribe. The artist’s dynamic and fragmentary style is indicative of a man who thrived on lived experience, knowledge and information, which he relentlessly absorbed, consumed and extruded into his art. “Anything can act as an influence,” he stated in an interview in 1985; “If I see a painting from the Middle Ages, I can see the life, I can see how people were… like seeing a sculpture from Africa, I can see the tribe, I can see the life around it” (Jean-Michel Basquiat in conversation with Geoff Dunlop, 1985 in: Boom For Real, op. cit., p. 265). Yet Basquiat’s remarkable pictorial language is simultaneously revealing of a man who was greatly troubled by the vast dichotomy between the desire to create his own reality, and the stifling rules and restrictions of a society to which, as a black artist in the American 1980s, he was all too often subjected. As with all tormented geniuses, like Van Gogh before him, Basquiat left a resounding mark on the art world that continues to reverberate well into the present day. An explosive whirlwind of sensation and intrigue, Apex vividly embodies the raw, visceral syntax of Basquiat’s ground-breaking style.
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