While on my internet travels, I stumbled upon a Basquiat artwork I’d never seen before.
Milk and Asbestos was painted between 1980-1984 in acrylic and gouache on a smaller surface than usual for Basquiat; a board at 16x12x2 inches. The piece depicts a skull as the focal point with words such as “JAIL JAIL”, “SOAP SOAP”, and the title “MILK + ASBESTOS” painted in the space.
It’s currently held by Mandarin Fine Art Gallery, having been in various private collections since its completion. And it’s for sale (you’ll have to contact the gallery for a price if you’re interested).
STiCH is an “artist, machine, design researcher and artist intelligence” according to Urbancoolab, its creator. The AI machine spent over 700 hours learning the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat to produce a series of art in the late artist’s style (or an adaption of it).
For me, the results are derivative and closer to mediocre Picasso than anything else. Basquiat’s work and style had specific meaning and context—his life, surroundings, and, most importantly, his Blackness. AI could never replicate that because it’s AI and using Basquiat for this was a bad idea.
“Our team met the challenge to see how an AI machine with no emotion can learn to express itself with gestural abstraction while remaining to be visually intuitive. We’re focusing on Basquiat as his work continues to inspire others, and his message continues to be relevant. There would be nothing more incredible than to have Basquiat’s work continue. His conceptual and aesthetic appeal will always remain strong because of the inherent emotional depth and power it communicates.”
I’ve always had a strange relationship with the art world. I grew up in single-parent family. My dad still lives in the flat I grew up in. By definition, in the society we live in, I should never have been into high art. Or ever knew about it.
We always try and skirt around this issue and say that’s not true. We live in a meritocracy, and everyone gets exactly how much they work for. But… in the age of being completely honest, we know this couldn’t be further from the truth.
It all depends on how you come into it. I used to sit in the library at school, to avoid bullies. I read book after book after book. When I ran out of all the horror and the history, I turned to the art books. I started reading about Witkin and people like Matisse who had a different way of thinking. But they were still all white and rich. So there was a disconnect.
Then, there was Basquiat.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s face stared through my soul. He was a Black man. He did graffiti. He was outspoken. He had background noise and was making art in his own way. His relationship with the art world (one of his pieces sold for 110 million, the most expensive piece sold by an American artist.)
I have a real obsession with outsiders going on to redefine the value and form of art. It’s often the outsiders that have the most to say, in the most interest ways. They make things we’ve never even dreamed of. It’s because they didn’t grow up in the arts. They weren’t taught the rules, and neither was I. My love for Basquiat goes deeper though. He was Black mixed race like me. He was self-taught like me. There’s so many parallels. He used very abstract images to explain himself, but he was very specific about what they meant. He know his vision so clearly, even if it wasn’t clear to others.
Here are my 5 favourite pieces.
5. Untitled (1982)
I think it cements his whole identity, as an artist and a person in the world. It’s also the piece that proved everyone wrong. It sold for $110 million in 2017, making him the most expensive American artist. Yeah, not Black artist, just American artist. This solidifies this piece for me. He did it. He did it for all the streets kids. Completely cut across every single elitist, intimidating, exclusionary art gallery and institution. A self-taught graffiti street kid of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, did it bigger than anyone. I was so happy when it happened.
The piece itself, probably isn’t Basquiat’s strongest, honestly. But the aesthetic and the brashness of it, encompasses everything that Basquiat had become in the public eye. There’s very little thematic significance to this piece (i think there’s definitely something deeper BUT, he had far more siginificant social commentary in others.). But what it has done for his legacy, and the statement to kids that just work on instinct, is monumental.
4. Obnoxious Liberals (1982)
It’s probably the most “political” Basquiat is at, if you ask the art scene. It was a direct comment on the rich arts scene at the time. It was signifying their relationship between artists like himself, who had come up from the streets, and how they treated him, in their elitist attitudes. After, when he started getting acclaim, they would swarm around him, but he had a long memory. It’s a direct, to a point, tongue in cheek critique that they were so hallowly hungry for art, that they would allow themselves to be parodied by an artist they had racially and socio-econimcally cast out. He makes his own stance very clear as well with slogans such as “not for sale” and dollar signs, directly challenging the notion that art should be capitalist.
3. Tuxedo (1982)
It’s striking in the way it defies Basquait’s uniform he stitched for himself. His iconic crown is sprayed on the top of the paper and it shows his influences boldly. He loved hip-hop, scat music and poetry. He worked in symbols and poetry and it’s no clearer than here. It’s probably his most abstract work. He often put social commentary through art into his work. The crown, I think, isn’t something to be celebrated. He’s not calling himself a king. He’s using it ironically to symbolise the inequalities he faced. How can you wear a crown if people are dying? Shine it up good, make it twinkle. So we’re not seeing a person wearing a tuxedo, we’re seeing what he thinks a tuxedo is figuratively.
2. Riddle Me This Batman (1987)
Riddle Me This Batman was made with acrylic crayon on paper. It shows Robin and Joker, but it completely subverts it. I think he’s making a comment on us as a society and who we put our stock in. Growing up in New York, he definitely saw his fair share of corruption and brutality. I always think he’s commenting on our societal need for a hero and a villain; we can never just be… We can never create revolutions as citizens. We always expect someone to rise up and we follow them, to buffer the damage. The same as calling out injustice or defeating evil… We always need a Batman. He subverts this, crossing out Batman’s emblem twice, and portraying Robin as a drunkard.
1. Untitled (Fallen Angel) (1981)
I’m not an OG fan. I learnt about him when his work came with the Boom! For Real exhibition at the Barbican, but I instantly felt connected to him. Like an old friend. Untitled (Fallen Angel) is one of the most striking paintings I’ve ever seen. I was struggling badly with my mental health, and the painting alleviated some of that, which is monumental. It’s a mix of pain and freedom. It says, to me, that freedom is beautiful to the oppressed, but the white and upper-class supremacist system sees us as monsters when we do fight for our freedom. It gave me a lot of comfort when I was struggling with whether to assimilate or go my own way. When I learnt about Jean-Michel and where he had come from, I decided to go my own way and never looked back.
Jean-Michel Basquiat is a testament to talent. People have often commented on “talent being in an unexpected place” but that is rooted in racism. they said the same about Alexander McQueen, and it was deep rooted in classism. Basquait is enigmatic, passionate, multi-faceted and he left us way too soon.
He died of an overdose, brought on with the struggles of fame within the art world. He was being lauded by the same people who were calling him racial slurs behind his bag; an absolute madness to deal with. He died at 27, a year younger than me. I think about that alot. All the art he’s left. What he would have said about the world today. Maybe that wasn’t written though.
As so many great artists leave young, maybe we were only supposed to have his greatness for a short time. To spark the next minds and then leave. To tell us, in his very short life, what street kids were capable of, and not to take it too seriously. Keep that tongue in cheek spirit with the critiques too. And give it to them, every single day, the only way a street kid can.
The Brant Foundation has launched a new online Basquiat exhibit, simply named Jean-Michel Basquiat. It has been curated by Dr. Dieter Buchhart, scholar and well-known curator. In fact, he curated the Basquiat: Boom for Real exhibit as well as the Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria.
In it, Buchart has chosen pieces from Basquiat’s collection that explore his fight against racial inequality and his unique use of language. The featured artwork includes:
Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) (1982)
Untitled (the one with the black skull on a blue background) (1982)
But the important number today isn’t 17 or 800,000 – it’s 5. Because I’ve chosen 5 examples of modern artists who’ve inspired skateboarding culture. Or how skateboarding culture has influenced 5 modern artists. I don’t think the order really matters so let’s check them out.
One word: Obey. It’s primarily a verb but it’s synonymous with Shepard Fairey, the street artist who turned it into a clothing brand, based on his iconic André the Giant Has a Posse artwork. Fairey played a pivotal role in bringing skateboarding culture into the popular scene through art and clothing thanks to OBEY. His 2009 work Alva Frontside portrays skateboarder Tony Alva.
Robert Rauschenberg was an artist who pioneered the “Combine painting” style involving the mix of painted canvases and objects. He was also seen as a forefather of pop art alongside Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. Much like Basquiat, he never worked directly with skate decks but they were posthumously printed onto a series of decks including his works Doubleluck, Watermelon Medley, and Sri Lanka VI.
If you don’t already know Takashi Murakami for his solo art efforts, you might know him for his collaboration with Kanye West on his Graduation album artwork. The Japanese artist is more postmodern than modern but his style looks incredible on skate decks. They’re unique, vibrant, and exhilarating – just what you need for board used on death-defying air tricks, right?
The final artist in this list is Jim Houser. Born in Philadelphia in 1973, Houserʼs is well known in his city as well as galleries in Italy, France, Brazil, and Australia. Enjoi teamed up with Jim Houser to create a series of decks, showing a more whimsical side of skateboard culture compared to other artists. He also created a piece called The Line Up involving a collage of skateboards painted on a panel to complete the skate culture cycle.
Of course, there are way more than 5 artists involved with skateboarding culture in some way: Mark Gonzales, Skip Engblom, Banksy, and Keith Haring to name a few. Many had art printed on boards after death but the opposite was also true, as in their art depicted board life, whether it was on wheels or on the waves.
Postwar modern art, as it transformed into postmodern art, was the perfect aesthetic for youth culture to express itself. Skateboarding was just one such pastime that did the same. Graffiti played a part too. So it was only a matter of time before they all came together in some form and evolved through one another.
The impact of skateboarding on the arts and culture and vice versa is how countercultures thrive. Skate culture is for everyone, not just the men. It’s all about how far you can go before you land something big that’ll change the world.
Basquiat’s “Flats Fix” from 1981 was the re-imagining of Autobody shops signs in Brooklyn. Of that, his father said:
“It is one of the things he remembered well and extracted multiple meanings from. He always used simple symbolism to explain complex situations.” In this case, it was the culture of his native Brooklyn and his identity as a black man within it.
So much of Basquiat’s work focussed on black identity. The way he burst onto the high brow scene literally from the streets was remarkable in its own way. Many black artists have tried to follow suit but never retained the same level of black integrity that Basquiat did, until his untimely death in 1988.
My favourite piece of advice from the editorial has to be “remix your references”. That’s my primary ethos whenever I create. When asked about a method of working, Basquiat said:
“I’m usually in front of the television. I have to have some source material around me to work off.”
He liked to immerse himself in multimedia while he created it. For others, this would have been the ultimate distraction. For Basquiat, it was essential.
That’s the line I’m going with anyway. I won’t pretend I knew about him for years. He was a name I’d heard but not explored further than occasional utterances. Then I went to see his Boom For Real exhibition at the Barbican in London and everything changed. His bodies of work (and that pun was intentional) were the true definition of expressionism. He flew by the seat of his pants when it came to life and art, neither discipline far from each other nor mutually exclusive.
“I cross out words so you will see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”
He proclaimed himself a legend and nobody can take that status away from him.