Essays

Notes on Five Key Jean-Michel Basquiat Works

The ASX Team

December 22, 2013

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Untitled (Head), 1981

His paintings proclaimed the existence of a more basic truth locked within a given event or thought.

The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works

By Fred Hoffman

The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
Just because the body is rotten—
That is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
You will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.

—Kabir

Underlying Jean-Michel Basquiat’s sense of himself as an artist was his innate capacity to function as something like an oracle, distilling his perceptions of the outside world down to their essence and, in turn, projecting them outward through his creative acts. This recognition of his role first manifested itself in street actions wherein, under the tag name of SAMO, he transformed his own observations into pithy text messages inscribed on the edifices of the urban environment. This effort quickly became the basis for his early artistic output, including a series of text-image drawings executed in early 1981. Containing a single word, a short phrase, or a simple image referring to a person, event, or recent observation, each drawing refined an external perception down to its core.

As an exhibiting painter, Basquiat was informed by the same process of distillation in both his work’s content and its stylistic strategy. His paintings proclaimed the existence of a more basic truth locked within a given event or thought. As his career unfolded, the young artist applied the same intense scrutiny previously reserved for the world around him to the emotional and spiritual aspects of his own being.

Beginning in the early part of 1981, when he was barely twenty years of age, Basquiat went through what would be a defining period in his career. Homing in on the possibilities implicit in drawing from his own life experiences as a means of addressing larger human concerns, he produced five key works over an eighteen-month period: Untitled (Head) (1981), Acque Pericolose (1981), Per Capita (1981), Notary (1983), and La Colomba (1983). These works not only offer insight into this period in Basquiat’s career but reveal the depth of his concern for portraying spiritual experience. Though much has been written about the artist’s almost mythic persona and his role in revitalizing the New York art world in the early 1980s, little discussion has focused on the works’ irrefutable power to transcend the individual and address broader issues and universal themes.

In pursuing these key works, their way of handling dualities—that is, fundamentally opposing ideas or belief systems—can be seen as an underlying pictorial strategy for the artist. In this regard, I note the 1981 drawing depicting balancing scales with the words GOD and LAW positioned below the two scales (figure 1). Basquiat saw that drawing as capturing what was for him the dichotomy that existed between the freedom of expression demanded by his own creative activity and the requirements of societal responsibility.

Many of the dualities suggested in his work evolve out of the recognition of his predicament as a young black man in a white art world. Having worked closely with the artist in the production of his editioned silkscreens as well as his first unique paintings utilizing silkscreen-generated imagery, I became acutely aware of the extent of Basquiat’s concern for incorporating the dichotomy between black and white into both the content and the strategies of his artistic production. A primary example is the artist’s fraught self-transformation from black to white in the untitled silkscreen on canvas of 1983:2 in the original artwork,3 the artist depicted a black head set on top of a ground of texts and images; but the silkscreen reverses the positive imagery and texts, turning everything originally depicted in black into white, and everything white into black. Basquiat throughout his career focused on other suggestive dichotomies, including wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience. This examination of five key paintings will show how Basquiat’s handling of such dichotomies came to define his work.

Untitled (Head)

Sometime in the early months of 1981, Basquiat began a painting depicting an oversized head extending across the pictorial field, an image that had no precedent in earlier sketches, drawings, or paintings. Showing little regard for either physiognomic accuracy or individual likeness, Basquiat chose to emphasize the expressive qualities of the head. With its public presentation, this painting declared Basquiat’s arrival as a new and authentic voice in the world of contemporary art.

Unlike many of his later paintings, which were completed quickly, Untitled (Head) (page 35) was begun and then put aside for several months,4 to be completed later in the year.5 One can only speculate about the reasons for this hesitation, but several individuals close to the artist—including myself and Annina Nosei, the artist’s dealer at the time—suspect that this young, unseasoned artist hesitated to complete the work because he was caught off guard, possibly even frightened, by the power and energy emanating from this unexpected image. Others had a comparable reaction, later in the year, shortly after the work was first publicly exhibited.

While the painting was presented in the artist’s debut exhibition in New York as Untitled, when it entered the collection of its current owners a few months later the word “Skull” had been appended to the designation Untitled and has accompanied the painting ever since, through numerous exhibitions.6 This renaming represents a misinterpretation of the work that may be attributable to both the uniqueness of its subject matter and the way it is presented. Most likely, the change in title was the result of confusing the work with the more traditional iconography of the memento mori, in which a skull implies death. However, Basquiat’s head—having little if any precedent in modern art history—requires more careful analysis. Close inspection reveals that this head, unlike a skull, is alive and responsive to external stimuli; as such, it seems alert to our world while simultaneously allowing us to penetrate its psycho-spiritual recesses. Basquiat’s representation of a single enlarged head is a breakthrough. The visual information it contains provides insight into many of the strategies of dichotomy the artist would adopt over the following eighteen months.

Untitled (Head) depicts the left upper and lower teeth, possibly accounting for the work’s misinterpretation as a skull by some. But Untitled (Head) clearly also depicts functioning facial features as well: the left ear, both eyes, and the nose. There is even a suggestion of hair. While the handling of these features could hardly be characterized as realistic, neither are they grossly distorted or misrepresented. Rather, the way they are portrayed clarifies the artist’s intent in depicting a vitally interactive being fully in possession of the means to process external stimuli. That is, the artist also reveals less tangible aspects of the head, such as the subtle neural pathways connecting the sense organs to their internal processor. This concern for sensory and cognitive activity negates the interpretation of the head as an inanimate skull. What this work ultimately captures is the fluidity between external and internal—the complex, living processes connecting seeing, hearing, smelling, and knowing.

Basquiat was fascinated by greater realities than meet the eye.

Untitled (Head) indicates that, from the outset, Basquiat was fascinated by greater realities than meet the eye. This work introduces the unique X-ray-like vision he brought to his subjects. His work appears to break down the dichotomy between the external and the internal, intuiting and revealing the innermost aspects of psychic life. In so doing, the artist extends the concern for spiritual truths advanced most notably by the Abstract Expressionists four decades earlier. This formative generation of American artists sought to capture man’s inherent nature and deal with the question of identity by reasserting “man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationships to the absolute emotions…. We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth.… The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation.”7 Artists with these aspirations, such as Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock, and Barnett Newman, attempted to represent a world beyond that which is identified solely with physical experience. Though Basquiat came from a completely different social milieu and historical context, he was similarly engaged in the pursuit of fundamental truths. However, he did not achieve this through abstraction, but through newly discovered possibilities for representation. As he pursued his creative activities, the young painter recognized that his breakthroughs would occur in direct relationship to his ability to penetrate intuitively the façade of physical form and appearance and allow other truths and realities to surface.

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Acque Pericolose , 1981

If Untitled (Head) announced Basquiat’s arrival, the magnitude of that event was only enhanced by the realization of two other works within a matter of weeks, the first of which was Acque Pericolose.

Acque Pericolose

If Untitled (Head) announced Basquiat’s arrival, the magnitude of that event was only enhanced by the realization of two other works within a matter of weeks, the first of which was Acque Pericolose (pages 28-29). Depicting a single black male figure (a subject that would reappear throughout Basquiat’s oeuvre), it represents the first time the artist undertook complex narrative subject matter. The work centers on a full-length male nude whose arms are folded across his chest and who is placed in a vaguely defined landscape setting, midway between a coiled snake and a seemingly decomposing cow with two flies hovering over the remains of its head. The figure’s head, arms, and hands reveal a Cubist-inspired reductivism used as a means to organize as well as consolidate the information included.

The mystery and power of this haunting figure are reinforced by the rich, atmospheric landscape into which it has been placed. To the right of the central figure, multiple hints of sky and subtle tonal modulations suggesting atmospheric effects invite the viewer to enter a hospitable space of sensual pleasure. By contrast, the shrill tones of red, orange, and yellow appearing on the other side of the figure allude to something other than realism. These colors are not employed for their representational credibility but for their expressive power and symbolic associations: while the artist’s color certainly exudes sensuality, possibly even the hint of earthly pleasure, its chromatic intensity connotes an apocalyptic world of fire and upheaval.

A comparable duality is asserted by the brushwork and handling of line. The cow’s skeletal remains are represented through a half dozen paint-loaded black brushstrokes along with a very few lines drawn in oil paintstick. However, it is unclear whether the animal is represented as alive or dead, since thinly layered sepia brown brushstrokes also suggest corpulent mass. While the artist’s subtle modeling of form suggest life, his equally adept use of line suggests a moment of transition from life to death. A coiled snake and a pair of hovering flies imply imminent death, a reading echoed by the artist’s inclusion of the Greek symbols alpha and omega interspersed between arrows pointing both to the earth and to the heavens. Basquiat’s inclusion of these dichotomous symbols, here used consistently with their rich iconographic history, alludes to “the beginning and the ending” (Revelation 1:8) as expressed in religious and spiritual texts and traditions.

Acque Pericolose (or Poison Oasis, as the work has often been called)8 hints at mortality. The image of a towering, nude male figure—with long, flowing dreadlocks that in places become intertwined with (and consequently are often confused with) the accompanying halo—stands not only as the artist’s representation of the transcendence of the mortality of human flesh; and in its details reveals the artist’s insight into the means of achieving such a state. In what may be interpreted as Basquiat’s first major self-portrait, the artist has depicted himself as vulnerable, yet possessed of pride and authority.9 Thus, the man’s arms are positioned across his chest in a gesture symbolically associated with self-surrender—a sense of being at peace with himself even though he is surrounded by death and upheaval.

This inner harmony is ratified by the halo hovering above and behind the figure’s head.10 The preponderance of halo or crown-like imagery in Basquiat’s oeuvre asserts a spiritual aspect to the work, but the specific meaning of this symbolism thus far remains largely unexplained. It should be kept in mind that his use of such symbolism changed over time. By 1982, Basquiat had more or less replaced the halo with a personalized, even trademark, image of a three-pointed crown. The crown often accompanied a figure but occasionally appeared on its own throughout the remainder of the artist’s career. The intent behind this symbol is revealed in the 1982 silkscreen on canvas called Tuxedo (page 118), in which a crown is the culminating image atop tiers of texts and images alluding to diverse political, historical, social, and cultural events. The crown hovering over manifestations of the temporal/phenomenal world signifies a “going beyond,” or transcendence, as suggested by the numerous ladders and arrows leading up to it.11

That a man of less than twenty-one years old was able to capture convincingly his own mortality is in itself noteworthy.

In Acque Pericolose, the artist’s juxtaposition of the figure’s head and a radiant orb implies inward reflection—the figure consumed by a transformative force or power. This reading is supported by the inclusion of a small, lit flashlight (or torch) positioned vertically alongside the figure’s head. This image was Basquiat’s affirmation of the mind’s central role in self-realization.12 This simple yet profound understanding of the role of the mind is the basis of all spiritual pursuit. In Basquiat’s case, the use of symbolic references of this kind was entirely intuitive and did not incorporate any particular religious doctrine. His symbolism of the mind does, however, roughly correspond, for example, to Christ’s response to Mary Magdalene as given in apocryphal sources: she asks “how one who sees a vision knows it to be true through the soul or through the spirit? The savior answered and said, one does not see through the soul, nor through the spirit, but the mind which is between the two: that is what sees the vision.”13 In this light, Basquiat’s depiction of himself—as alone and stripped bare at the crossroads between life and death—takes its place alongside countless representations of saints and historical figures at their moments of self-realization.

That a man of less than twenty-one years old was able to capture convincingly his own mortality is in itself noteworthy. That he could instill this subject with such credibility, and at the same time acknowledge the enlightenment of the soul, is nothing less than remarkable.

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Per Capita, 1981

Throughout Basquiat’s career, political and social commentary functioned as a springboard to deeper truths about the individual.

Per Capita

The isolated male figure announced in Acque Pericolose in the middle of 1981 underwent a significant transition over the subsequent twelve months. While this iconic subject was first represented as a raw, fully exposed, and humbled youth, it quickly morphed within a series of paintings, each depicting a now fully mature male figure filling a significant portion of the pictorial field and accompanied by a compendium of symbolic references. Indicative of newfound power and emerging identity, these works were Basquiat’s declaration of artistic freedom of expression. Showing the assimilation of figure, text, and symbolic references into compelling narrative content, this group of works largely became the basis for the artist’s public reception.

Per Capita is Basquiat’s third major painting from 1981. It depicts a single male figure wearing Everlast boxing shorts, positioned halfway between a vaguely defined cityscape and a surrounding pictorial field of abstract atmospheric effects. The work evolved out of an earlier group of untitled works that I refer to as Cityscapes, which were the first artworks Basquiat executed in a strictly studio context.14 Each of the Cityscapes contains aspects of the pictorial techniques and imagery previously used in his graffiti works executed under the SAMO tag in 1979 and 1980. Unleashed at the moment of his initial public recognition (first in Diego Cortez’s Times Square Show, then through Basquiat’s lead role in Glenn O’Brien’s film New York Beat), Per Capita initiates the iconography of male boxers, red and black warriors, and other male figures evincing heroic, even exalted, gestures that characterize some of his most recognized paintings, including Untitled (Self-Portrait),15 Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump (1982), Untitled (Boxer) (1982), and Profit I (1982).

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The iconographic breakthroughs of Per Capita were a result of the artist’s pursuit of specific pictorial strategies. As part and parcel of this newfound concern for thematic content, Basquiat implemented two new devices, both of which would become mainstays of his pictorial vocabulary. In addition to exploring the integration of image and text, Basquiat discovered more complex and elaborate means of “layering” the distinct planes of illusionistic space created by form, color, line, and atmospheric effects into a unified composition. These strategies became especially pronounced through the artist’s practice of collaging both original and photocopied drawings directly onto the canvas. While there are no collaged drawings in Per Capita, this work signaled to the artist the possibility of introducing new source material in his quest for the unification of text and image. The subsequent introduction of a collaged ground not only facilitated the union of image and text but enabled a more seamless integration of an “exterior” world into the fictive pictorial realm. Basquiat also reaffirmed what he had initially resolved in Acque Pericolose—that by applying thin, subtly modulated hues, he could build up rich atmospheric effects, thereby creating an arena in which his figures could breathe and interact. Thus text-image integration and pictorial layering went hand in hand. Enhanced by the artist’s experience as a graffiti tagger, where he reveled in the pictorial qualities of walls overlaid with layers of history (including the words Basquiat himself might apply), these new artistic discoveries reached their first phase of resolution in Per Capita.

Having synthesized his means of expression, Basquiat felt comfortable adapting a number of well recognized, even populist symbols for his personal iconography.16 In Per Capita, the Latin words E PLURIBUS—part of the motto “E pluribus unum,” meaning “out of many, one”—are inscribed in the topmost portion of the painting. These words are often associated with the image of a hand holding a bouquet of flowers and are found on the Great Seal of the United States, where they refer to the historical unification of the thirteen original American colonies into one Union, and they also appear on U.S. currency. By including E PLURIBUS along with, in the upper left, a partial alphabetical listing of states in the Union and the respective per capita income of their citizens, Basquiat points to the inequities of monetary distribution that divide the wealthy (CALIFORNIA 10,856 ) and the impoverished (ALABAMA $7,484), the dichotomy of rich versus poor. Per Capita thereby extends the artist’s concern for the common people and their labor found in many of his earliest paintings, such as an untitled work (1981; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles) in which a prison inmate, wearing a number, holds a rake or broom, the tool of his labor.

Throughout Basquiat’s career, political and social commentary functioned as a springboard to deeper truths about the individual.

Throughout Basquiat’s career, political and social commentary functioned as a springboard to deeper truths about the individual. Thus, in Per Capita the radiating halo hovering over the black boxer’s head as he holds a burning torch in his left hand seems to assert a universal theme. While the social-political commentary is undeniable, that does not adequately reflect the totality of the work. Equally, the inclusion of a lit torch—replacing the more traditional “E pluribus unum” bouquet—could possibly refer to the torch traditionally carried from Olympus and used at the ceremonies inaugurating Olympic competitions. In view of the painting Cassius Clay and several others devoted to the same subject, it would not be far-fetched, then, to conclude that Basquiat’s figure in Per Capita, too, pays homage to the legendary Olympic boxing champion and role model.17 More important, however, the nimbus and torch in Per Capita allude to what the myth scholar Joseph Campbell called “a unity that already exists,”18 an underlying set of truths that binds all peoples in all times. Seen this way, Basquiat’s black male—who first surfaces in Acque Pericolose, finds definition and clarification in Per Capita, and is subsequently developed in works such as Untitled (Self-Portrait), Profit I, and Untitled (Boxer) —declares the birthright of all humankind: the idea that each individual shares in, and is entitled to, his or her “per capita” distribution of God-given rights and responsibilities. It is this democratic ideal that is proclaimed by Basquiat’s champion as he enters the stadium of self-realization.

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Notary, 1983

Having mastered many of his formal strategies and extended his ability to address profound psychic experience, Basquiat revealed the depth of his own pathos in the work.

Notary

By the spring of 1983, Basquiat was immersed in a number of highly complex paintings using themes and pictorial strategies developed over the previous eighteen months. The culmination of these is Notary, completed in New York in March 1983.

A comprehensive indicator of how the artist viewed himself at the apex of his career,19 Notary is a rich compendium of figurative imagery and references accompanied by an array of specific textual references to Greek mythology, Roman history, African tribal culture, systems of monetary exchange, and natural commodities, as well as states of health and well-being. The images and texts are presented as part of one loosely unified web or network. Indeed, Notary may be seen as a summation of the artist’s interest in integrating image and text, as well as painting and drawing. In addition, the work evidences Basquiat’s slow and methodical building-up of the picture’s surface, layer upon layer—sometimes by painting over an image, sometimes by crossing one out; and in a few areas he allows traces of collaged silkscreen prints to be seen beneath the picture’s surface.20

Notary, along with several other key works from this period, was painted using an unusual system of open stretcher bars; that is, the canvas picture support actually wraps behind the stretcher bars at the points where the bars cross each other. The stretcher bars overlap at the corners of the picture as well as on both top and bottom, where the three separate pieces of canvas butt together. This novel method frames the work’s content in such a way as to declare that the fractured glimpses that the artist permits into his psyche requires patience. Unraveling his non-hierarchical presentation takes time. With some physical junctions and transitional passages remaining hidden, the work’s meaning unfolds only after hints and speculations are tested, slowly building up a more comprehensive set of conclusions.

The dual inscription of the word DUMARIUS21 in Notary further suggests that Basquiat saw it as his obligation to guide us through his psychic self-portrayal. The word, which also appears in The Nile, executed at the same time, is derived from a Greek inscription that appeared in connection with the reproduction of an African rock painting in Burchard Brentjes’s well-known reference on this subject;22 Brentjes’s discussion of the nomadic Blemyan tribe in the Eastern Sahara includes an image of Saint George accompanied by the Greek inscription (figure 2). As Brentjes notes, disparate images scratched on the rocks by the Blemyans—including images of Egyptian gods, an ox with the ancient Libyan decorated horns, Bedouin camels, and old Arabian altars, all depicted side by side—were the tribesmen’s means of recording their presence at a specific location for the benefit of fellow tribesmen who would follow them. In essence, the images functioned as a seal, declaring the existence—both physical and spiritual—of the Blemyan tribesmen. Basquiat’s reasons for including the reference are not documented, but in keeping with his self-image as an oracle—one who provides insight into a greater truth—it is likely, I feel, that he found not only affirmation of his own nomadic journey in the practices of an earlier black culture, but validation of his own artistic activities in the idea that one’s marks and gestures could play a determining role in linking one person to another and guiding the passage of others.

Notary, then, can be seen as the summation of how Basquiat saw himself as he consolidated his creative achievements. Having mastered many of his formal strategies and extended his ability to address profound psychic experience, Basquiat revealed the depth of his own pathos in the work. Notary invites the viewer to penetrate visually into the core of the centrally positioned figure’s nervous system, suggesting the introspection of an individual confronted by pain and suffering. Through text references to LEECHES, FLEAS, and PARASITES who are destined to DEHYDRATE, and diminish the FLESH of this MALE TORSO, it also shows the artist’s vitality and energy being continually challenged by life-draining organisms. Notary concerns itself with the darker aspects of human existence, as suggested by no fewer than four references to the Greek god of the underworld, Pluto. So, as much as Notary reveals the artist’s spiritual journey, it also exposes the plights and pitfalls along his path. Notary can be seen as Basquiat’s portrayal of his own inner turmoil—his grappling with the contradictions between a realization of profound inner truths and the responsibilities accompanying public notoriety —at the very moment that his art had obtained public recognition and market value. Hence the ambiguous, and perhaps apologetic, inscription borrowed from U.S. currency: THIS NOTE FOR ALL DEBTS PUBLIC + PRIVATE.

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La Columba, 1983

La Colomba

La Colomba (page 114), painted at about the same time as Notary, also reveals anguish at this point in the artist’s career. With this work Basquiat returned to the representation of a large head, similar to the one that eighteen months earlier had announced his debut. In contrast to Untitled (Head), however, La Colomba also depicts the upper torso, including portions of the arms, and further distinguishes itself in its distortion of human physiognomy.

Particularly notable in La Colomba is the shape of the head. In naturalistic terms, the length of the head, from front to back, would appear to be more than twice its height; and the neck, wide enough to support two heads, looks awkward. The head seems grossly distorted, possibly even deformed. Yet, rather than presume that such distortion exists purely as a means to evoke psychological content, we would do well to consider this image in relation to the simultaneous presentation of two different views in a canonical work such as Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror (figure 3). In the Picasso painting, the youthful female figure filling the left half of the canvas contrasts with the depiction of an aged woman reflected in the mirror on the right. The duality has been interpreted as suggesting maturation or the passage of time. In the Basquiat painting, the left and right halves of the composition would seem to show two different views of the head, which meet at the center. Basquiat used this organizational device not for the intent of representing the passage of time, however, but as a means of distinguishing the externally oriented facial features (on the left) from the internal workings of the mind (on the right).

As with Untitled (Head), the facial features of La Colomba mark the portals of sensory perception, admitting external stimuli, while the inside of the head suggests the capacity for the mind within to process the totality of experience. However, La Colomba, realized eighteen months later, enhances the drama unfolding between the internal and the external. Drips from the mouth, gestural slashes of red paint along the edge of the face, and the fact that the figure’s right arm seems to have been amputated contribute to the sense of an extreme emotional state.

The suggestions of physical pain and emotional suffering are offset by the artist’s portrayal of the mind’s inner recesses.

These features link this work to personal pathos of the kind expressed in Notary, but here the suggestions of physical pain and emotional suffering are offset by the artist’s portrayal of the mind’s inner recesses. In contrast to the amputated limb, a passage of white brushwork more or less extending the figure’s other arm may be read as raising a symbolic white flag. In contrast to the anger and helpless rage consuming the externally directed senses, seen on the left of the picture, the raised limb on the right, associated with the mind, appears engaged in an act of surrender to something that we do not see. Tellingly, the title La Colomba translates from the Italian as “The Dove,”23 and while the symbolism traditionally associated with that bird refers to the peaceful resolution of a conflict, or good tidings, it can also be seen as signifying a victorious act of deliverance. In this way, perhaps, through the idea of deliverance, the work becomes linked to the artist’s heroic black male figures.

To support this conclusion, we may note one of the many photocopied text drawings collaged into the painting. Directly below the back portion of the head, Basquiat refers to two biblical passages, writing: “1. REVELATION I, 11, 12 / 2. KINGS VII, 21, 22.” The citation of the First Book of Kings, chapter 7, is especially helpful in deciphering La Colomba as it describes the construction of King Solomon’s temple. Verses 21 and 22 refer to the construction of the left and right pillars in the porch of the temple; verse 22 reads (in King James): “And upon the top of the pillars was lily work: so was the work of the pillars finished.” While this may account for the floral work to the right of the head in La Colomba, we might nonetheless ask why the artist is at all interested in this particular passage of Scripture in the first place. As I have already said, the artist was rarely interested in any particular religious practice nor its scriptural offerings. Nonetheless, his quotation of Scripture evidences his continual consumption of any and all source material that would support or validate his more intuitively discovered spiritual insights. Basquiat found in the symbolic architectural forms and their accompanying floral coronation of First Kings an expression of his own attempt at unifying the seemingly conflicting aspects of external experience (anguished facial features, a severed arm) and internal understanding (a white flag of surrender).

It seems doubtful that the young painter was concerned with the architecture of a historical temple, but perhaps the implied duality suggested by the two pillars, crowned by lilies, captured his imagination. By referring to the symbolism of this passage of Scripture, Basquiat was able to represent the duality of an external reality consumed by pain and suffering counterbalanced by surrender and an equally obtainable internal reality.

La Colomba’s other scriptural citation, Revelation 1:11, also describes a kind of duality. The verse reads: “… saying, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches….” Some eighteen months after Acqua Pericolose’s reference to the union of a beginning (alpha) and end (omega), Basquiat returned to these symbols, perhaps as a means of envisioning his own transcendence of pain and suffering. At the top of La Colomba’s head sits a very small crown, the artist’s trademark substitute for the halo of the spiritual realm. In the context of the artist’s personal iconography, used consistently with crown symbolism in other portrayals of the inner life, Basquiat’s coronation of the head of La Colomba alludes to the king’s central role as the provider of the resolution of conflict. For in essence the king commands his position because he either provides security and peace (the resolution or absence of conflict) or rightly or wrongly makes his subjects believe that they are attainable.

La Colomba captures aspects of Basquiat’s personal sense of depletion, and possibly even anticipates his eventual demise, but what elevates this work is the artist’s implied understanding of the means to traverse the troubled grounds of his life experience. Recalling his practice of crossing out words and images in works such as Notary, we realize that by negating certain references, Basquiat was essentially declaring that he was, so to speak, “not this, not that.” By so doing, he refused to be identified with the limiting, transitory nature of his own life experience. This particular practice in his art recognizes the way people have, as the Buddhist monk and scholar Bhante Henepola Gunaratana puts it, “arbitrarily selected a certain bundle of perceptions, chopped them off from the surging flow of experience, and conceptualized them as separate, enduring entities.” Understanding the burden of our individual “bundle of perceptions,” Basquiat affirms the mind’s ability to get beyond them. In such a state, all becomes one, one becomes all; distinctions and differentiations are extinguished. Basquiat had indeed reached this artistic and spiritual turning point. He was at peace with the world.

EXPLORE ALL JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT ON ASX

(All rights reserved. Text @ Fred Hoffman, images @ the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.)

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