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.