Exhibition room 5. Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat first achieved notoriety as part of SAMO, an informal graffiti group who wrote enigmatic epigrams in the cultural hotbed of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City during the late 1970s where the hip hop, post-punk and street art movements had coalesced. By the 1980s he was exhibiting his Neo-expressionist and Primitivist paintings in galleries and museums internationally, but he died prematurely at the age of 27 in 1988. The Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of his art in 1992.

Basquiat's art focused on "suggestive dichotomies," such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience. He appropriated poetry, drawing and painting, and married text and image, abstraction and figuration, and historical information mixed with contemporary critique. He used social commentary in his paintings as a "springboard to deeper truths about the individual", as well as attacks on power structures and systems of racism, while his poetics were acutely political and direct in their criticism of colonialism and support for class struggle.

Source: The Whitney Museum of American Art whitney.org/Collection/JeanMichelBasquiat

In 1981, Basquiat made a crucial change from graffitist to self-conscious artist, in a redefinition of his art from one based on scrawled phrases and calligraphic gestures surrounding minimal images to a grand figurative style, in which broadly painted, monumental bodies often dominate the canvases or backboards they share with texts. This transformation of subject matter and style coincided with Basquiat’s serious attention to the late work of Picasso’s that was shown that very same year.

One of Basquiat’s strategies was to portray artists, athletes, and musicians he admired. In Untitled (Pablo Picasso), as if to dispell any doubt about the identity of the subject, or about Basquiat’s fascination with him, “PABLO PICASSO” is printed seven times. An inscription across the figure’s chest, “PICASSO AS A FIFTEEN YEAR OLD,” keys the image, yet this is not simply a portrait of Picasso as a teenager. While the face is youthful, the striped shirt wrapping the torso evokes the sailor’s jersey adopted by many artists to represent an elderly Picasso. Basquiat’s portrait addresses the long sweep of Picasso’s career through an almost schizophrenic portrayal that shuttles between youth and old age.

Probably Basquiat was comparing his own remarkable early success to Picasso’s, and perhaps contemplating what his own end might be. In fact the figure’s broad nose and unkempt black hair bear a strong resemblance to Basquiat[...]. Ultimately this is a self-portrait, Basquiat’s contemplation of himself through a revered predecessor—the same strategy Picasso used to measure his success throughout his career.

Source: exhibition catalogue for “Post-Picasso: Contemporary Reactions,” Michael FitzGerald