This famous black-and-white portrait of Basquiat was shot in 1982 by the renowned photographer James van der Zee. The elder artist was 95; Basquiat was 21. The young man sits pensively in a chair that might as well be a throne, a cat on his lap, the trousers of his suit speckled with paint. Slumped forward, his head in his hand, he exhibits the same melancholy beauty seen in a video clip of him tagging a New York wall with spray paint in 1981.
It's hard not to conclude that Basquiat’s best years were his early ones. The paintings from 1981 and 1982 display a fixation with anatomy: see how sprinter Jesse Owens’s right foot is pinned down!
Later works have little of that mystery, and there are some dire late collaborations with Andy Warhol that do no favours to either artist. Basquiat was also better on paper than on canvas.
Many of Basquiat’s canvases end up looking imbalanced and adrift, but the more economical drawings – such as a series of skulls from 1982, done with bold circuits of black lines – have an anti-humanist bile that recalls Jean Dubuffet.
Things went south for him after 1982 but Basquiat was no innocent outsider corrupted by the art world.
On the contrary, he was an intensely ambitious middle-class boy (the family owned a brownstone in Brooklyn; his father drove a Mercedes) who knew his art history and was especially sensitive to the complex absence/presence of blackness in western art. One of the finest pictures here is a drawing from 1984 that features two heads of Pablo Picasso.
The left one, of Picasso in his 20s, refashions his self-portrait from 1906 – whose African influences mark the start of what European art historians, used to call his époque nègre
. The right one is of Picasso in his later years, with bald pate and giant schnoz. Basquiat then defiles the older Picasso with incisive lateral strokes with an oil stick. The easy reading is: young artist good, old artist bad, don’t trust anyone over 30. But it’s not so simple...
There are multiple invocations of Martin Luther King Jr, and an excerpt of his “I have a dream” speech is literally on repeat with Basquiat, whose career began two decades after the March on Washington. “I cross out words so you will see them more,” he once told. “The fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”