The Breakthrough (1981-83)
In 1981, renowned critic Rene Ricard published an article “The Radiant Child” in The Artforum Magazine that brought Basquiat to the attention of the art world. Ricard noted that Basquiat’s early work had the potential to create a massive shift in the art world and ultimately he was right. Basquiat’s singlehandedly stole the spotlight from art’s savior Andy Warhol, whom Basquiat actually met at a coffee shop in 1981 and became great friends with, while at the same time helped guide the transition from Pop to Neo-Expressionism. It certainly did not hurt his mystique that he was a black artist. Never before in the history of art had the art society focused its attention so astutely on a black man: a black man who voiced the plights and accomplishments of his race during the 1980s. He did not do so with his words but with his transcendent art. One can simply google Basquiat’s work and see an often recurring figure in all of his paintings: an unnamed head or stick figure painted in a black hue. But then again, it makes senses that Warhol’s protege would be so keen on using art as a platform to show the wrongs of 20th century American society. It was Warhol who started this trend.
Irony of Negro Policeman (1981)
“Irony of the Negro Policeman” was a critical and commercial breakthrough for Basquiat. Good artists borrow from the great artists before them; the greatest artists do not simply imitate but they transcend and contribute. For instance, the influence of Cubism is obvious but so is Basquiat’s personal twist. The scribbling on the canvas is reminiscent of Braque. The words written to the right of the black policeman are the title of the work. They clarify both the figure he is depicting and the social message he is trying to portray. Cubists never made the point of their paintings so clear, but in the vein of graffiti Basquiat did not care how obvious the writing made his work. He sought to use writing not as literal flatness but as literal reference because all he cared about was highlighting the importance of the issue that plagued him and his brothers. The phrases “Irony of Negro Plcmn” and “Pawn” are examples of this. Basquiat is pointing out that the cop uniform on a black man is a deeply incongruous image. The autonomous regions combine to make an incoherent image- again in the vein of Synthetic Cubism- but that visual presentation is clever because it relates to the incoherence of the black policeman. The man belongs to the very sector of America that the police establishment subjugates. Basquiat only drives home this point with the brick wall around the head. His consciousness is locked in; it shows that his decision to be a cop is not thinking outside the box.
Charles The First (1982)
In “Charles the First,” Basquiat makes an ode to black royalty. He lists “Cherokee” on the upper right panel of the piece because it is one of jazz musician Charlie Parker’s recordings. Hands pop up all over, in some places drawn literally and in other places written only to be crossed out so that the viewer may pay even more attention to it, to pay tribute to the bodily instruments that allowed Charlie Parker to become royalty. The Superman logo is prominent as well and it describes Charlie Parker’s contribution as heroic. The upper left panel holds his signature crown symbol and there ends the praising of Charlie Parker. The rest of the piece faces reality: “Most Young Kings Get Their Head Cut Off.” He even draws a line through young, acting on a conviction that crossing out words made people look harder.
The title itself is a reference to both Charles I of England and black jazz musician Charlie Parker. Like Irony of the Negro Policeman, the writing on the painting is just as essential as the figure in comprehending the entire work. The words “Most Young Kings Get Their Head Cut Off” tie everything together. Charles I of England was executed by decapitation for his transgressions towards Parliament and Charlie Parker, just like Jean-Michel Basquiat, died at the age of 27 due to a heroin overdose. This piece is perhaps one of Basquiat’s most famous because it encapsulates why his career was so good. He was able to draw upon and extend the past while simultaneously reflecting on the current and staying fresh for the future. Charlie Parker and Charles I are references to the past; Basquiat was the present king of time and perhaps eerily saw his own demise coming and for the young kings of the future who might see this piece, this painting may hold profound personal significance.
Hollywood Africans (1983)
“Hollywood Africans” is a brilliantly colored portrayal of the black American. This piece is best described as organized confusion. Seeing it at first glance cannot possibly lead to a coherent thought process. Words dominate the canvas with the exception of the three black Hollywood stars in the middle. At first, the images of the baseball player and movie characters seem like an ode reminiscent to “Charles The First,” but in actuality Basquiat is not celebrating anything. The menacing figure in the middle is symbolic of the “Gangsterism” written in the bottom left corner of the painting and a representation of the movie characters usually portrayed by black men in cinema. The man to the right of him wears African garb and face paint; the paw underneath his chin is meant to imitate the position one takes in deep thought. If an African were looking at all of this, what would he think? The piece is a comparison between the blacks in America and the blacks in Africa. The two are the same in terms of heritage but yet somewhere along the way the goals and idealizations of African-Americans had been corrupted to savior the money and bright lights of Hollywood. Looking at the words that are crossed out in a Basquiat painting is a good idea because those are the words that the artist wanted to draw attention. He does not mean to cancel or downgrade the significance of what he is writing but he means to highlight it. Stare at the phrases he draws a line through. What is Bwana? Do you know? Should you know? More importantly, do these Hollywood Africans know?