Creation of intricate capital letters by Celtic scribes

called themselves writers, and their primary works were alphanumeric signatures,
or tags, executed in fonts of singular
originality, occasionally illuminated with
vernacular images poached from comics
or from recent art history. I suppose the
closest analogy would be the creation of
intricate capital letters by Celtic scribes in
such works as the Book of Kells. Seldom
has a movement gone so far so fast. The
illustrations in a book like The Faith of
Graffiti, published in 1974, show tags that
have evolved well beyond TAKI 183, but
scarcely prepare one for the baroque splendor of those in Martha Cooper and Henry
Chalfants 1984 edited collection Subway
Art, most of which were executed around
1980. Subway Art ends with an inscribed
rap epitaph by the writer Lee Quinones in
relatively straightforward lettering: There
was once a time when the Lexington was a
beautiful line/When children of the ghetto
expressed with art, not with crime.
The centrality of the signature is easily
grasped, since the primary goal of graffiti
was getting fame, and the subway car
or burneroffered a billboard-size surface with the added advantage of mobility.
Glory consisted in the abrupt emergence
of ones freshly painted tag from a tunnels
darkness onto a viaduct, like the one across
125th Street. The primary audience consisted of other writers, who knew ones
identity, appreciated the dangers involved
in getting up and admired the artistry
and originality of ones achievement. In
a recent letter, Tony Silverwho made a
wonderful documentary with Chalfant,
Style Warswrote, I liked the idea that
the transgressive writers with no consciousness of the art world had taken over
public space as vandals with their tags and
burners, and discovered they could be artists, creating their own canon.
When I asked Silver why Jean-Michel
Basquiat, who was something of a graffitero in the early 1980s, was not included
among the writers in his film, he said that
he could not fit him in. Despite the fact
that Basquiat worked as a street artist for
a time and even had a tagSAMOhe
viewed himself, from the outset, as a fine
artist, and the unprecedented art world of
the 1980s rightly accepted him on his own
terms, though the outlaw aura of graffiti
probably abetted his meteoric ascent. By
1984 some of the writers were trying to
cross over into the gallery scene, but it
proved impossible to sustain the energy
that had made them underground stars.
Basquiat, however, flourished in the downtown art world. In May of that same year,
Flyboy in the Buttermilk
I can safely say that Jean scoffed at the term graffiti when applied to himself. Rene Ricard
he creative period of New York graffiti art lasted for about a decade, beginning
with the appearance all over Upper West Side walls and sidewalks of TAKI
183 in 1971 and culminating, around 1980, in the realization of spectacular
works by individual masters that covered the sides of subway cars. The artists
May 9, 2005 The Nation. 25
Untitled (Head), 1981
26 The Nation. May 9, 2005
Basquiats work was close to the best the art
world had to offer in his day, and his achievement only grows more impressive with time.
he had his first one-person show at Mary
Boone, one of the hottest galleries of that
moment, and was included in An International Survey of Recent Painting and
Sculpture, with which the Museum of
Modern Art inaugurated its 1984 reopening. He had re-created on canvas the visceral excitement other writers achieved
only in the rail yards of the MTA.
Though writing was an important feature of Basquiats art, he is closer to Cy
Twombly than to CRASH or DAZE, who
showed at the Sidney Janis
Gallery in 1984. Graffiti, even
at its most inspired, really belongs to the visual culture of
the early 1980s, whereas Basquiats work, for all its graffiti
gestures, belongs with the art of that decade. And while he sought fame as eagerly
as the uptown writers, he was after the
kind of recognition that the establishment
alone confers, not the ephemeral celebration of co-conspirators in an underground
network. Moreover, fame was not the
substance of his art, as it was in the art of
the writers. Like artists in any period, he
was concerned with what Hegel would call
the highest needs of the spirit. Basquiats
painting was close to the best the art world
had to offer in his day, and his achievement
only grows more impressive with time, as
is evident in the powerful retrospective of
his work at the Brooklyn Museum, a short
walk from where he grew up. The show is
up through June 5, after which it goes to
the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los
Angeles (July 17October 10) and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (November
18February 12, 2006).
Contrary to popular legend, Basquiat
was anything but an outsider artist, and
indeed much of what was most distinctive in his work came from the recent
avant-garde rather than from the streets.
Among his most important influences was
Cy Twombly, whose work on paper, still
on view at the Whitney Museum, I addressed in my last column [American
Graffiti, March 21]. As Richard Marshall
observed in the catalogue to the exhibition of Basquiats work he organized for
the Whitney in 1992, From Cy Twombly,
Bas quiat took license and instruction on
how to draw, scribble, write, collage, and
paint simultaneously.
In a conversation for Interview with
the late Henry Geldzahler, former curator
of contemporary art at the Metropolitan
Museum, Basquiat identified as his favorite Twombly the 1975 Apollo and the
Artist, which features a big Apollo written across it. Apollo and the Artist is in
like Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, though in terms of the number of
works dedicated to him, Charles the First
reigns supreme. These range from the
stark Nows the Timein the form of a
black phonograph record, ninety-two and
a half inches in diameter, with Parkers
tune Nows the Time scribbled in white
paint over PRKRto works consisting
largely of lists, like Discography, written in
white against a black background, with
the names of Parkers fellow bebop revolutionaries (Miles Davis, Max Roach and
the others) as well as the names of pieces
recorded on NOV. 26, 1945. The use of
lists is another Twomblyism. A wonderful
example is Jawbone of an Ass, in which
what may be a crude self-portrait as Rodins
Thinker occupies a space in the upper left
corner and surveys a scroll of historical
names, including Achilles, Sappho, Cleopatra, Anaxagoras, Aristophanes, Sophocles,
Socrates, Alexander the Great, down to
Harrison, Tyler, Transcendentalism and
Perrywith, again, a crude drawing in the
lower right corner of a black figure saying
Yup! and hitting (Bip) a white figure
with Grrr in a thought balloon over his
head. It is, in my view, less a cartoon of
racial strife, or even of the black specter
haunting the white imagination, than a
symbol of history as a pageant of war,
since the scroll lists so many ancient battles
and famous heroesHannibal, Hamilcar,
Scipio, Alexander the Great, Spartacus,
Julius Caesar. These are not the kinds of
names that turn up on burners.
If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet
had a baby and gave it up for adoption,
Rene Ricard quipped, it would be JeanMichel. What this omits is the place of
blackness in Basquiats art, as well as in
his life, and in the complex relationship
between the two. Basquiat himself did
not shy away from the subject of race. In
quent symbol in his work, flanked with
two black smears. Below that he wrote
FIFTY THREE FIVEan allusion to the hotel
where Parker would die on March 12,
1955 . (As Basquiat explained, I cross out
words so you will see them more; the fact
that they are obscured makes you want
to read them.) There is a simple cross
under that, above the inscription CHARLES
THE FIRST. And across the bottom several
bold black swipes of paint, which almost
certainly evoke Franz Kline, also one of
my favorites, he told Geldzahler.
have no great interest in the idea of
influence, which is, as Michael Baxandall wrote, the curse of art criticism.
I emphasize the way in which Basquiat
broadly took license and instruction
from Twombly (and Kline), less as an
exercise in what Baxandall calls inferential art criticism than to modulate the
temptation to situate his work in black
vernacular culture. It was characteristic of
Basquiat not merely to think of Parker in
terms of Apollothe god of music and
poetry (Twombly wrote poetry music
under Apollos name)but also in terms
of history, calling him Charles the First.
He uses that as the title of a companion
work, made when he was 22. In the lower
left corner of Charles the First and across
two of its three panels he wrote MOST
In the upper part of the central panel, the
cross appears beneath some dates, again
alluding to Parkers death. But certain
motifs (the crown, crudely drawn hands)
and certain words (among others, HALOES, FEET, THOR, OPERA, CHEROKEE)
are loosely inscribed, together with some
numbers and the word COPYRIGHT and the
symbol , over the three panels. Despite
the scribbling, the scrawling, the smearing
and the playful misspellings, the overall
feeling of Charles the First is the certainty,
authority, boldness and graphic confidence
that, more than any particular set of images or symbols, mark Basquiats art. And
while I would not attempt to work out the
iconography of the piece, it bears out Basquiats claim that his subject was royalty,
heroism and the streets. It is a tribute to
a hero, a king of jazz, in a constellation of
symbols that evokes a schoolyard wall on
which different hands have drawn or writthe Whitney show, and it is interesting to
compare it with Basquiats CPRKR in the
Brooklyn show. Where Twombly wrote
Apollo in large letters in blue wax crayon
across the top of his piece, Basquiat drew
CPRKR in big, loose letters with black
paint stick across the top of his. Twomblys
piece has the feeling of an elegy, with a
crude flower drawn at the base. Basquiats
is a memorial tablet for one of his greatest heroes, Charlie Parker. Beneath the
name he drew a three-point crown, a freten different things.
Basquiats heroes were
black sports stars such as Joe
Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson,
Jack John son and Muhammad Ali, and jazz musicians
28 The Nation. May 9, 2005
ings of Julian Schnabel, David Salle and
others enhanced their value to collectors.
Artists who painted big canvases began to
live suitably big, opulent lives. Basquiats
brilliantly splashy work merged perfectly
with the new ethos, and the fact that he
painted in designer suits, rather than the
working-class bluejeans and flannel shirts
of an earlier generation, embodied the
shift in self-perception. Basquiat became
typical of the spoiled American artist that
Tama Janowitz wrote about in Slaves of
New York. His pals were Keith Haring,
Kenny Scharf and especially Andy Warhol, who became his mentor. There is a
wonderful double portrait of himself with
Warhol, Dos Cabezasanother painting
from 1982, perhaps his best year. The two
artists are shown side by side, but in different spaces. Warhol cuts a meditative profile in his white wig, looking out through
one green eye. Basquiat shows himself like
a golliwog, with wild black hair. Interestingly, there is no lettering.
hether because of Basquiats race or
the uncertainty of his association
with graffiti, the official art establishment was leery of him. Relatively few
of his works are in public collections.
Critics in the 1980s generated rarified
theories to deal with Salles disjunctive
canvases, which were believed to express
something about the fractured reality of
the external world. Or they speculated
that Julian Schnabels fragmented, sharded
compositions expressed something deep
about the mind and the worlds disorder.
Basquiat ended up being critically ghettoized, discussed in ethnic rather than
philosophical terms. To some extent this is
still true today. I had not, I must confess,
especially gone out of my way to see his
work until after his death in 1988, when I
finally went down to see a show assembled
by his first dealer, Anina Nosei. It then
struck me that nobody had really looked
at the work. Basquiats gift, I realized, was
like Pollocksbrilliant, daring, impulsive. None of the hot artists of his moment in the 1980s could touch him. He
alone transcended the fevered period he
He did not survive his decade. He
made a lot of money, which he spent
lavishly on drugs. He had a terrible
heroin addiction. One of his last works,
on brown canvas, is called Riding With
Death. A brown and black equestrian
figure sits astride a horse skeleton. There
are crosses in the eyeholes of the horses
skull. Horse, of course, is slang for
heroin, which transports the rider out of
the world, with his arms spread out in a
gesture of helplessness. Basquiat was 27
when he died.
ive years ago an enterprising poet named Kevin Young edited an anthology
called Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers, which he
packed with impressive work by writers such as Hilton Als, Edwidge Danticat
and Joe Wood. Young wanted to update The New Negro anthology, that
touchstone of the Harlem Renaissance,
for the hip-hop generation, and he undertook the project in a spirit of reverence.
I see it as the writers job, especially the
African-American writers job, not to kill
the literary father but rather to celebrate
our ancestry, he explained in the books
introduction. Its understandable that
Young would not want to look back to the
past in anger since, for African-American
writers, killing the literary father has often
meant getting tangled up in fights over the
proper way to represent the race (think
of James Baldwins attacks on Richard
John Palattella writes about poetry for The
Nation and other publications.
a 1985 profile for The New York Times
Magazine published under the title New
Art, New Money: The Marketing of an
American Artist, Basquiat said that he
included so many people of color in his
paintings because I didnt see many paintings with black people in them. His father,
Grard Basquiat, an accountant, was Haitian, and his mother, Matilde, who had an
interest in fashion design, was Puerto
Rican. The family lived a middle-class life
in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where, for a time,
Jean-Michel attended St. Anns, a private
Catholic school with a progressive curriculum. His early interest in drawing was encouraged at home. When he was recovering from an accident, Matilde gave him a
copy of Grays Anatomy, which became
the source for the anatomical drawings
that were so much a part of his artistic
vocabulary. Thanks to Matilde, who often
took him to the Metropolitan Museum
and the Brooklyn Museum, he had an
unusually rich museum background. The
art, he said, came from her.
Yet he never traveled in an exclusively
black world, and his introduction to art
does not seem to have come through black
painters like Jacob Lawrence or Romare
Bearden. His downtown milieu was chiefly
white, and though he resented the scarcity
of blacks and the art worlds subtle undercurrents of racism (one painting on display
is entitled Obnoxious Liberals), he seems to
have flourished in the scenethe galleries,
the clubs, the parties. He had a band called
Gray, which played at the Mudd Club and
CBGB, he was a great dancer and he had
many white girlfriends, including Madonna. Lizzie Himmels photograph of him
for the cover of The New York Times Mag azine shows him barefoot, in a paint-stained
Armani suit and necktie, peering out with
sulky curiosity. There is a black figure in
the painting next to him, somewhat fetal
in shape, with two long rows of many white
teeth. In the eyes of New Yorks mostly
white art world, Basquiat was exotically
hand some, a black bohemian prince.
he downtown art world of the 1980s
had undergone a dramatic reconfiguration by the time Basquiat arrived on
the scene. Painting, which had been
marginalized in the 1970s, had enjoyed
a resurgence as part of a world movement
then known as Neo-Expressionism. NeoExpressionist paintings were brushy, urgent, figurative and, not least, very large.
Since the immense demand for the Abstract Expressionist canvases of the New
York School was raising prices to unprecedented heights, the very size of the paintBOOKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY
By Kevin Young. Knopf.
241 pp. $24.95.
By Kevin Young. William Morrow.
100 pp. $20.
By Kevin Young. Zoland. 350 pp. $17.95.
By Kevin Young. Knopf. 190 pp. $15.
GIANT STEPS: The New Generation of
African American Writers.
Edited by Kevin Young. HarperCollins.
364 pp. Out of print.

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