A is for X-Ray: Seeing Basquiat past the 110.5 Million Dollars

Take a look at the Basquiat painting Untitled (1982) that just sold for $110.5 million at the recent Sotheby’s auction. What do you see?

While you’re thinking about it, consider what Sotheby’s sees:

Untitled is among the most important paintings by the artist still in private hands. The vast canvas marks a critical moment in the artist’s career, executed in the same year that the artist had his seminal first solo exhibitions at Annina Nosei Gallery in New York and Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles. Intricate layers of forcefully applied and impastoed oilstick, acrylic, and spraypaint in a spectrum of electric color coalesce in an intensely worked, rich surface that exemplifies Basquiat’s singular command as a master colorist and draftsman. Exploding in a torrent of irrepressible gestural energy that reflects Basquiat’s early beginnings in graffiti, the painting further inaugurated the beginnings of a new mode of figurative painting that took hold of the New York art world in downtown Manhattan in the early 1980s. Basquiat’s virtuosic rendering of a single skull-like head draws many parallels with the artist’s most celebrated works, perhaps most significantly Untitled from 1981 in the collection of The Broad Museum, Los Angeles. The canvas is populated with a range of Basquiat’s greatest icons: most remarkably dominated by the complexly detailed anatomical head, the three-pointed crown, and all-over scrawled typography. The work is estimated to fetch in excess of $60 million.

And, then, consider what Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa, the painting’s new owner, sees?

When I saw this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art. I want to share that experience with as many people as possible around the world—regardless of age or background or whether they are a collector or not. One day the painting will be a centerpiece of my museum in my hometown Chiba, but before then I wish to loan this piece—which has been unseen by the public for more than 30 years—to institutions and exhibitions around the world. I hope it brings as much joy to others as it does to me, and that this masterpiece by the 21-year-old Basquiat inspires our future generations.

When you look at Untitled (1981), where do you stand in this contrast between Sotheby’s dense description of the work’s form, composition and aesthetic qualities and the expression of  ‘joy’ felt by the collector and his desire to share his work with the world, as well as his hometown? Do you side with one or the other? Do you think these two positions can be reconciled?  Traces of such contrasting views can be found by looking back to an earlier moment in Basquiat’s immediate reception, via two reviews of the 1992-3 retrospective of the artist’s work at the Whitney.

Thomas McEvilley opens his essay ‘Royal Slumming: Jean-Michel Basquiat here below’ published in the November 1992 issue of Artforum by bewailing the lack of critical reception for Basquiat’s work:

Perhaps understandably given Jean-Michel Basquiat’s shockingly early and still recent death, the critical literature on his work has been rather uncritical. Emphasizing the anecdotal, the elegiac, and the sacramental, many writers drift from analyses of his art into personal recollections of the artist, and seem at times to vie for the distinction of having known him best. Little art-historical comparison is offered; there is a widespread reluctance to venture outside the sphere of black culture heroes such as Charlie Parker, Joe Louis, and Thelonius Monk, who dominate discussions of his work as if it did not occupy art history in the way of most art. Surely the work of few other important contemporary artists is more consistently talked about in terms from outside the visual arts.

McEvilley’s response to this situation is to embed Basquiat within the ‘primitivist’ traditions of Picasso and European Modernism, whereby we are asked to appreciate the irony of the ‘primitive’ Basquiat ‘behaving like white Westerners who behave as they assume primitives do.’ This interpretation grounds the idea of ‘royal slumming’ of McEvilley’s title. In explaining this idea he unpacks the ‘orphic’ symbolism of Basquiat’s work (‘the soul as a deity lost, wandering from its true home, and temporarily imprisoned in a degradingly limited body and an infuriatingly reduced social stature’). He proceeds to map this ancient philosophical symbolism  onto a racialized cultural symbolism as follows:

In Basquiat’s oeuvre, the theme of divine or royal exile was brought down to earth or historicized by the concrete reality of the African diaspora. The king that he once was in another world (and that he would be again when he returned there) could be imagined concretely as a Watusi warrior or Egyptian pharaoh. The soul’s exile could be related to slavery, and its return, to the not-yet-completed civil rights movement.

While we may seem a million miles away from the dense description on the Sotheby’s website, McEvilley’s recourse to art historical and cultural legitimacy for Basquiat’s work is still committed to a certain value-laden, authorizing perspective. This perspective is undercut by bell hooks, who, writing several months later about the same exhibition and in direct engagement with McEvilley’s essay, for the June 1993 issue of Art in America, begins with the question of a blind spot in how Basquiat is received, yet one that is the direct opposite to that critiqued by McEvilley:

At the opening of the Basquiat exhibition at the Whitney last fall, I wandered through the crowd talking to the folks about the art. I had just one question. It was about emotional responses to the work. I asked, what did people feel looking at Basquiat’s paintings? No one I talked with answered the question. They went off on tangents, said what they liked about him, recalled meetings, generally talked about the show, but something seemed to stand in the way, preventing them from spontaneously articulating feelings the work evoked. If art moves us—touches our spirit—it is not easily forgotten.

Like McEvilley’s critique, hooks is disturbed by the anecdotal responses to the young Basquiat’s work, but unlike McEvilley hooks does not demand a more critical discussion, but instead questions why there is not a more emotional response. In doing so, hooks first distances herself from McEvilley’s ‘primitivist’ argument as follows:

Basquiat was in no way secretive about the fact that he was influenced and inspired by the work of white artists. It is the multiple other sources of inspiration and influence that are submerged, lost, when critics are obsessed with seeing him solely connected to a white Western artistic continuum. These other elements are lost precisely because they are often not seen, or if seen, not understood. When art critic Thomas McEvilley suggests that “this black artist was doing exactly what classical Modernist white artists such as Picasso and Georges Braque had done: deliberately echoing a primitive style,” he erases all of Basquiat’s distinct connections to a cultural and ancestral memory that linked him directly to “primitive” traditions.

One such “primitive” tradition that hooks cites is that of Australian aboriginal art and her reading of this connection can be directly related to the experience of looking at the skull of Untitled (1982) recently sold by Sotheby’s:

In Basquiat’s work, flesh on the black body is almost always falling away. Like skeletal figures in the Australian aboriginal bark painting described by Robert Edward (X-ray paintings, in which the artist depicts external features as well as the internal organs of animals, humans, and spirits, in order to emphasize “that there is more to a living thing that external appearances”), these figures have been worked down to the bone. To do justice to this work, then, our gaze must do more than reflect on surface appearances. Daring us to prove the heart of darkness, to move our eyes beyond the colonizing gaze, the paintings ask that we hold in our memory the bones of the dead while we consider the world of the black immediate, the familiar.

(One proof of hooks’ analysis here is the work of Australian artist Gordon Bennett, especially his Notes to Basquiat series – I am aiming to write a post on his work sometime this week).

Again focused on the black body, hooks introduces an example closer to one of McEvilley’s Watusi warrior: the Maasai tribe and their art:

Stripping away surfaces, Basquiat confronts us with the naked black image. There is no “fleshy” black body to exploit in his work, for that body is diminished, vanishing. Those who long to be seduced by that black body must look elsewhere. It is fitting that the skeletal figures displayed again and again in Basquiat’s work resemble those depicted in Gillies Turle’s book The Art of Maasai. For both Maasai art and Basquiat’s work delineate the violent erasure of a people, their culture and traditions. This erasure is rendered all the more problematic when artifacts of that “vanishing culture” are commodified to enhance the esthetics of those perpetrating the erasure. The world of Maasai art is a world of bones. Choosing not to work with pigments when making paintings or decorative art, the Maasai use bones from hunting animals in their art to give expression to their relationship with nature and with their ancestors. Maasai artists believe that bones speak—tell all the necessary cultural information, take the place of history books. Bones become the repository of personal and political history. Maasai art survives as a living memory of the distinctiveness of black culture that flourished most vigorously when it was undiscovered by the white man. It is this privacy that white imperialism violates and destroys. Turle emphasizes that while the bones are “intense focus points to prime mins into a deeper receptive state,” this communicative power is lost on those who are unable to hear bones speak.

hooks brilliantly takes up McEvilley’s challenge to insert Basquiat within art historical traditions, but rejects the Eurocentric ‘primitivist’ argument by looking to the artistic practices (and not some simplistic ethnic and cultural analogy) of so-called ‘primitive’ peoples of Australia and Africa. Her cunning grounding of this argument in the monographic studies of Robert Edward and Gillies Turle, transforms the ‘primitive’ Basquiat into a meticulous student of global art history, not merely referencing the warriors or pharaohs, but his artistic forebears themselves.

On encountering hooks’ subtle take-down of McEvilley’s ‘primitivist’ argument, I was curious what a comparable approach would be to Basquiat’s use of the ancient Greek and Roman references in his work? Perhaps they are less aligned with the Classicism of Modernist traditions than to direct reading experiences. In fact, to return to Untitled (1982), I was immediately drawn to the lettering in the lower left corner. As far as I can make it out, Basquiat painted and then crossed out a capital and lower case A, putting in their place a capital ‘I’ (an perhaps another letter in the bottom right). The ‘Aa’ appeared to evoke a basic early learning tool for for associating letters with words (‘Aa is for Apple’). In this case, the skull would be seen as illustrating a learning tool ( ‘A is for Artist?’). Yet Basquiat replaces the ‘Aa’ with an ‘I’ enacting both the substitution for and erasure of the black body at one and the same time. When the names of ancient philosophers or Roman emperors appear in Basquiat’s canvases, maybe a similar effacement and erasure is taking place? Here and now, such white European cultural references have been irrevocably changed and there is no point trying to track them back to their (pure) origins within Basquiat’s work. Like hooks’ tracing back to the Aboriginal X-rays of the black body, Basquiat’s work demands that we see past its formal, aesthetic features, past its art historical position, to how it makes us feel. This begins, to quote hooks, with the demand that ‘the established white art world (and I would add the Eurocentric, multiethnic viewing public) must first “look at themselves.”‘

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