Emblazoned with an array of motifs and word combinations, Leverage synthesizes Basquiat’s influences, channeling the political heft of his messaging into a supremely dynamic composition of frenetic, rampant inscription. Upon close inspection, viewers can discern the work’s several inscribed copyright symbols. In terms particularly evocative of the present work, Richard Marshall writes that “the © is Basquiat’s stamp of approval, authority, ownership, and originality. In an ironic tone, he also used the copyright symbol to undermine the notion of ownership of ideas […] sarcastically commenting on the obsession with legitimacy, ownership, and authorship, even of his often cryptic, subversive, and anti-ownership phrases” (Richard Marshall quoted in: “Repelling Ghosts,” in: Exh. Cat., New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art (and traveling), Jean-Michel Basquiat, October 1992 - February 1993, p. 16). Born in Brooklyn to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat’s mixed heritage comes to the forefront in Leverage through his brilliantly evocative admixture of French, Spanish, and English words—several of which hold fraught connotations. A mask-like bull, a polysemous symbol and a great hallmark of Basquiat’s visual language, crowns the composition. The image self-consciously draws a dialogue between traditional African masks and the work of Western masters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, who were greatly inspired by such so-called “Primitive Art.” Leverage reclaims the icon of the mask, heralding its significance and embodying Dieter Buchhart’s argument that “Basquiat’s artistic genius reflects the pulsing setting of his times – New York in the 1980s – as well as attacks against humanity within the context of colonialism, slavery and racism present in his contemporary society” (Dieter Buchhart cited in: Charlotte Jansen, “The Legend of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” Fold Magazine, 2018, online).
One of the greatest draftsmen of the Twentieth Century, Basquiat harnessed the graphic aesthetic he cultivated as a street artist while also looking “to the vocabulary of modern art for the technical means and painterly styles that would accommodate his message” (Richard Marshall quoted in: “Repelling Ghosts,” in: Exh. Cat., New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art (and traveling), Jean-Michel Basquiat, October 1992 - February 1993, p. 15). Picasso provided a model of expressionistic portraiture that enabled Basquiat to depict subjects without inhibition: with unwavering, bold distortions and remarkably strong lines. In describing the artistic affinity between Basquiat and Jean Dubuffet, Richard Marshall writes that “Dubuffet, believing that true art could only be found outside the traditions of the artistic elite,” demonstrated a raw and unfiltered view of street life that Basquiat gravitated toward in his similarly brutish examinations of urbanity. Leverage exhibits Basquiat’s admiration of Cy Twombly’s graffiti-esque mark-making and his regard for Robert Rauschenberg’s turn to urban detritus in his multivariate “Combines.” A searing and provocative rumination on the dark underbelly of New York in the 1980s, Leverage speaks in the language of the great modern masters, inviting sustained contemplation of society’s grave injustices.
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