Jean-Michel Basquiat, the American artist hailed by critics as the “Radiant Child” and the “Black Picasso”, had a short, prolific career: first exhibiting in 1981; appearing barefoot and dreadlocked in an Armani suit on the cover of New York Times Magazine in 1985; dying from a heroin overdose in 1988. Art dealer Jeffrey Deitch described his work as “a knockout combination of de Kooning and subway scribbles”. In this well-researched study, Jordana Moore Saggese unravels the myth of Basquiat as unschooled and naive street artist.
Basquiat left his Brooklyn home as a teenager, couch-surfed in Manhattan and hung out at the Mudd Club. Working under the sobriquet SAMO with Al Diaz, he spray-painted cryptic, poetic texts on to walls, critiquing “MICROWAVE & VIDEO X-SISTANCE”. He shifted from SAMO to the noise band Gray, and then into a meteoric career as a painter, befriended by Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, Madonna, Debbie Harry and art dealers Annina Nosei and Mary Boone. Saggese evokes the milieu of 1980s New York: punk and hip hop, “the overhyped contemporary art market”, “a cultural landscape dominated by media culture like never before” and Basquiat’s conflicted position within it. She explores “his place within an African American art tradition” and the “syncretic nature of his artistic practice”, and the inspiration he took from both black jazz musicians and beat generation writers.
He was concerned with “all diasporas and the cross-pollination of cultures, histories, and ideas”, and Saggese grapples with distinctions between spontaneity, automatism and improvisation, and discusses the role of appropriation and sampling. Basquiat’s work is loaded with eclectic references: comic strips, cartoons, Western art history, African spirituality, bebop. As she notes, “the use of recognizable quotations – sometimes called licks, tricks, patterns, motives, riffs, or cribs by musicians” is a distinctive feature of his work.
As her title suggests, Saggese’s emphasis is on “reading” as opposed to looking at the paintings. Discussion of scale, colour, texture and composition is slight, but the strength of her account is its focus on “the overwhelming abundance of written words on the canvas” and how “Basquiat complicates the boundary between text and image”. Drawing on graffiti, hieroglyphics, calligraphy and gestural painters such as Franz Kline, Basquiat explored the kinship between writing and mark-making. A crudely drawn crown blurs with the letter W; painting the letter A, he “pushes past its function as a letter and [it] becomes an image instead”. Saggese also weighs his repeated redactions. “I cross out words so that you will see them more,” he said of work that suggests the complexity and rapidity of thinking dropped on to canvas.
Many of Basquiat’s paintings incorporate elements of self-portraiture. Gold Griot (1984) shows a fierce, energetic black figure on gold-painted strips of wood. In West Africa, the griot is a storyteller, praise singer, repository of oral tradition, adviser to kings, with a devastatingly honest wit and formidable knowledge of history and current affairs, occupying a position akin to medieval skalds; Basquiat was the griot of 1980s Western culture. Reading Basquiat is amply illustrated with colour plates, and Saggese makes good use of them in a lucid account that encourages the reader to look with refreshed eyes at the richnesses of the artist’s work.