Jean-Michel Basquiat

French Name… Haitian Heritage

The Middle Years (1984-86)

The poster above is an iconic image of the contemporary art history. It depicts Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the two last greats of American art, standing side by side as collaborative competitors and the best of friends. Their friendship developed through a love for their profession with the bond perhaps being cemented by recognizing each other’s greatness. If Jean Michel-Basquiat (1960-1988) was the last great American artist, then Andy Warhol was certainly his predecessor. He was the greatest artist of the 1960′s and 1970′s and maybe through his recognition of this lineage, he chose to work closely with Basquiat. The two worked closely on over 150 paintings over the course of 3 years, but unfortunately these works were not received well by critics. The expectations of their output were astronomical considering their names of course so any average work would have been considered mediocre by their standards; however, after their deaths in the late 1980s, the popularity of their collaborative work has soared. 

Origin of Cotton (1984)

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“Origin of Cotton” is not just a collaboration between Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat but also had pictorial contributions from Francisco Clemente. Therefore, the painting is exceptional in that it does not derive from a singular artistic mind but it is a combination of three different perspectives. What is even more exceptional is the background of each artist and its relation to the topic of the painting. The origin of cotton is being discussed in the framework of American slavery and it is being discussed by a roundtable consisting of a white man, a black man, and a Hispanic man. In fact, when working on the “Origin of Cotton”, the three artists worked on three variations of the same painting, each moving in rotation to add their own little touch. On this particular variation, the one that was ultimately chosen, the faces were painted by Francisco Clemente and they represent the multitude of slaves that crossed over the Atlantic to come to America. The screen printing often used by Andy Warhol shows up in the form of the yellow flower, which is reminiscent of the cotton crop, in the middle of the canvas. The screen printing process mimics the factory element of slavery: slaves were the machines that produced the finished product and they did so with such a systematic efficiency. Basquiat’s touch is the most obvious-the white paint on the canvas is mostly his- and as to be expected, the most visually confusing. It refers to a number of Southern elements: the prominence of the eel that Basquiat also smartly uses to represent the danger of the South with a “200 Volts” sign, a Christian cross that deeply underlines the irony of the Christian word and its often pairing with slavery. Basquiat takes upon the task out of the three artists to create a distinct social message.

Taxi, 45th and Broadway (1985)

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The visual aspects of “Taxi, 45th and Broadway” are so clear in what they are portraying that a long discussion on the pictorial elements’ relation to a social message is unwarranted. Basquiat makes it clear with the word “Negro” that is used as a metaphorical and literal labeling of the customer being ignored. It is metaphorical in that this man represents countless African-Americans living in New York City who have had experienced this subtle racism. It is literal in that this is how the cab driver perceives the man standing on the side of the road. He only sees the color of the man’s skin and knows nothing about the man’s character and so the logical reasoning leading to his conscious decision to pass him by screams the inclusion of the word “Negro”. The curse word written next to the taxi driver’s head A focus on the artistic style also leads to a fruitful examination. Here, the marriage of Andy Warhol’s and Basquiat’s techniques is harmonious because they both aim to express the same idea: repetition. The blurry purple swept vertically of the painting is used when Warhol tries to express to the occurrences of everyday tragedies. Blurring the pictorial elements drives home the fact that the viewer does not know who this man driving or this man standing is but that it happens often enough that it could be anyone. Similarly, Basquiat’s writing is implemented as a convenience of social awareness or attaches meaning to these everyday tragedies. American society as a whole has to change its way of thinking.

GE (Alert) (1986)

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This piece is distinctly a collaboration to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol because anyone well-versed in twentieth century art history can probably guess who contributed what to the painting. The screen printing in the middle of the page of General Electric’s logo would be Warhol’s contribution whereas the figurativism- the heads and the writing- would be Basquiat’s contribution. The faces drawn in “GE Alert” are best described as primitive and it represents the perspective GE has towards its customers. The symbol is overpowering and even covers some of Basquiat’s contribution. It serves to show the influence General Electric has in comparison to the so called “primitive” figures. They do not have much say over how much they pay for their electricity and in this way, they are completely subject to the authority of the company. The company itself is a monopoly and so even searching for other options of electrical sources is not an option. The progression of American society in terms of its economy is a facade because of the very system that made its economy so successful: capitalism. Capitalism holds people in slavery in a lot of aspects. Basquiat and Warhol are drawing attention to the breadth of this slavery: it covers primitive people of all races and all letters of the alphabet.