The Imagery of Jean-Michel Basquiat | Woodshed Art Auctions

The Imagery of Jean-Michel Basquiat

In a life that ended tragically early, Jean-Michel Basquiat (12/22/60 – 8/12/88) established a remarkable visual vocabulary that has not only influenced a generation of artists, but has pervaded popular culture as well.

From his beginnings as a Brooklyn punk graffiti artist, he quickly attracted the attention of Uptown New York galleries, becoming a driving force in the Neo-Expressionist movement. Despite having no formal art training Basquiat, along with more traditionally trained artists like David Salle and Julian Shnabel, championed the reintroduction of the human figure into contemporary art, reacting to and resisting the current (late 1970’s) dominance of the Conceptual and Minimal art movements.

Basquiat’s imagery is, at first glance primitive and wildly spontaneous. Canvases of devils and kings, angels and heroes were often scrawled with seemingly unrelated graffiti. Having been given a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, he became fascinated with anatomy and the human form, often represented in the guise of the West African griot, a kind of story teller, referencing his own Afro-Caribbean origins.

Irony of a Negro Policeman Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981

A central theme for most of Basquiat’s work it what has been called “suggestive dichotomies”, dualities addressing issues of race and class. Oracles and folk heroes are crowned as kings, black policemen wear white masks, and the bodies of athletes become disjointed and distorted. Themes of racial integration/segregation, and the inner experience vs the outer experience were also central to his work. These images are frequently accompanied by what seems to be stream of consciousness writing, or with appropriated text from poetry. Basquiat suggests meaning, but always leaves room for interpretation.

Federal Reserve by Jean-Michel Basquiat

The Woodshed Gallery is proud to offer Federal Reserve, a mixed media work on cardboard. (Note: is the fed reserve hooking us?) In this piece the word “canine” is repeated at the top of the painting. A large fish is being lured with a fish hook and the word “YES!” The fish has teeth, canines. Perhaps we are to consider that the fish eats the hook and then we eat the fish with our canines? A power imbalance?

Conservator/Auctioneer Bruce Wood notes, “This piece is unusual in it’s bright coloration and 100% paint coverage on both sides and even the edges of the cardboard panel. It also bears two strikingly different signatures, one on each side, both accompanied by the outline of a crown. It is perhaps from earlier in Basquiat’s explorations of making art, before his major commercial success.”

Fame came to Basquiat early and quickly. In 1978 he was spray painting buildings in Lower Manhattan as part of SAMO with his friend Al Diaz. By 1981 he was collaborating with Andy Warhol, and by 1983 he had had his second show at the Gagosian Gallery.

Basquiat’s career was cut short by a heroin overdose in 1988. His overdose is considered by some to be a tragic metaphor for the overheated hyped-up art scene of the mid 1980s which embodied both artistic and social excess. In May 2016, Basquiat’s Untitled broke records at Christie’s, selling at auction for $57,285,000.