Basquiat’s idiosyncratic line and brazen employment of text as a form of drawing is rooted in his early practice as a graffiti street poet. First appearing on the scene as SAMO© in 1976, Basquiat developed a signature manner that wittily synthesised social critique, subversive poetry, and hieroglyphic shorthand – a defining period in which the artist emerged on the Manhattan art scene as a disruptive presence. Garnering the attention of Andy Warhol, Bruno Bischofberger, and critic and curator Henry Geldzahler – who noted that “[Basquiat’s early work] consisted of conceptual, enigmatic combinations of words and symbols, executed with the curt simplicity of a late Roman inscription” – the iconography of SAMO© was a youthful, radical intervention, breaking with the ossified language of Minimalism and Conceptualism that had held sway since the 1960s (Henry Geldzahler cited in: Franklin Sirmans, ‘Primary Compositions’, in: Exh. Cat., New York, Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, 2015, p. 50). The energy and intensity of Basquiat’s 'Be-Bop' drawing aligned him with the Neo-Expressionism of Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, and Georg Baselitz. However, the expressive piquancy of Basquiat’s drawing centres on the encyclopedic references that underlie and connect his practice, illustrated with the confidence and economy of a cultivated master, and annotated with the diagrammatical charm of a studied professor.
Littered with references to idols from as broad a field as Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Muhammad Ali, Basquiat’s drawings are rendered with a self-taught, expressionistic urgency that forms a unique tenet of the artist’s oeuvre. Soothsayer thus stands as an immaculate example of Basquiat’s formal trademarks – combining candid poetics with an illustrative bravura – exemplifying the iconography and mythology of the hero character that the artist frequently revisited. The motifs of stardom, aristocracy, and themes of mythology present across his complete body of work are doubtless bound to an autobiography that Basquiat illustrated in myriad self-portraits, drawings, poems, notebooks, and in the earliest SAMO© graffiti. Such works “further establish Basquiat’s association of sacral exceptionalism, martyrdom and heroism with the figure of the artist” (Leonhard Emmerling, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1960-1988; The Explosive Force of the Streets, Cologne 2003, p. 33).
Basquiat’s ability as an exceptionally skilled raconteur places him in the canonical descendancy of the artist-hero; the most recent in a history of mythmakers that could be said to include Caravaggio, Vincent van Gogh, and Jackson Pollock. The image of the fortune-teller in Soothsayer is a deeply significant icon of Basquiat’s career arc, therefore, an avatar of the artist’s own commitment to fulfilling his self-described prophecy. From his rise to prominence as SAMO© to his final works, the emblematic crown that adorns Basquiat’s extraordinary poems, drawings and paintings manifests as the artist’s inspired destiny. What reveals itself is the image of the artist as his own prophet – the soothsayer as a self-portrait. In this remarkable work of outstanding poignancy, Soothsayer is drawn with trademark virtuosity – a confidence and brevity that is exemplary of Basquiat’s unparalleled hand. Standing as a totem of the artist’s career, few works have such complex and meaningful intimations, described with all the energetic charisma that Basquiat is so revered for.
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