A time of masterpieces, a time of creation, colour, and drama, the ’80s brought a lot to the table. The ’80s was a roaring time for art and aesthetics; it was a poignant moment to create a difference, to create, period; this time saw Basquiat rise as a star. Jean-Michel Basquiat was a true example of metamorphosis, and his journey is truly breathtaking. People glorify the dead, and more so if that person consists of a semblance of artistic talent and vibrant persona. 

Jean-Michel was a walking contradiction to all those who knew him or his art, he has always been on the two extremes of the scale, but one thing that remains unchanged is that he was special.

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Jean-Michel Basquiat_©www.Jean-Michel-Basquiat.org 2020

1. Untitled (Black Skull) 1982 | Jean-Michel Basquiat

Location: The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat
Medium: Acrylic, oil stick, and spray paint on canvas.
Style: Neo-Expressionism

This piece of art, set in a theme extracted from Basquiat’s African heritage and outlined in the style of Neo-Expressionist, thickly applied confident strokes detail a much deeper context to the painting. The painting paints several images, the skull representing ‘Momento Mori‘ and the scales of injustice towards the black men. It is set against a starkness of ebony paint with a prominent white skull that strikes bright and piquant in the painting. 

Glancing upon this masterpiece makes the strokes look effortless, but upon closer introspection, it showcases the artist’s intense thought process and ability of symbolism.

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Black Skull,1982_©Basquiat, J.-M. 1982c

2. Untitled (History Of Black People) 1983

Location: The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat
Medium: Acrylic paint and oil paint stick on panel.
Style: Neo-Expressionism, Street Art

This multi-panel painting represents a lot to the artist and the black community; it is a story of racial diaspora among the community, their struggle with slavery, resistance, and clarity. Jean’s portrayal of the truth of the history of Egypt, its whitewashed facade brought forth due to the invasion of western civilization, and the tie between Egypt and the black community is at the forefront of this painting. 

The other several nuances throughout this piece are the journey of the artist’s arrival on the shore of the American continent, the subtle representation of slavery, a reconciliation with his African heritage, and music through a wide range of re Renaissance in religion.

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History Of Black People, 1983_©Basquiat, J.-M. (1983)

3. Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper) 1986-87 | Jean-Michel Basquiat

Location: The Andy Warhol Museum
Medium: Acrylic and oil stick on punching bags.
Style: Neo-Expressionism

This religious masterpiece inspired by the famous painting created by Leonardo da Vinci in collaboration with Andy Warhol creates a good contrast compared to the original work. The artwork is done on white punching bags with Jesus in the forefront with the word judge written across each bag multiple times. The bags being a metaphor for the emotional and physical torment Christ undertook for his people. 

The two varied styles of the artists are visible through Warhol’s carefully created colour composition and Basquiats’s chaotic and expressive renderings of Jesus and the motifs surrounding it.

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Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper), 1986_©Basquiat, J.-M. and Warhol, A. (1986)

4. Riding With Death 1988

Location: Private Collection
Medium: Acrylic and Crayon, on canvas.
Style: Neo-Expressionism, Street Art

Basquiat was never shy in representing and putting forth the injustice towards his ancestors and his communities through his paintings. This sombre and foreboding painting depicts what could only be Basquiat’s last few days of struggle and control. The painting of the African skeleton rider atop a white skeleton set against the backgrounds of brown, sprawling meadows is more introspective of the artist himself and his experience as a black man in 1980s’ racially backward America. 

The painting creates a notion of a black disarrayed skeleton closer to his moment of death than anticipated while having no control over it, as the painter’s rise in addiction towards ‘heroin’ abuse. This painting like most others is representative of many things Basquiat held close to his heart and is the cleanest of the others, a contrast to the chaos ensuing in his mind.

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Riding with Death, 1988_©Basquiat, J.-M. (1988)

5. Death Of Michael Stewart (Defacement) 1983 | Jean-Michel Basquiat

Location: Collection of Nina Clemente
Medium: Acrylic and Marker on Wood.
Style: Neo-Expressionism

The death of Michael Stewart, a young, talented artist, at the hands of racial stigma and police brutality hits home for the artist. The painting is almost a memoir of the many lives lost due to the rising police brutality in America in the ’80s, but what makes this painting see a new light is the relevance it still has on the current landscape of America. 

Looking at the colour composition, the rough chaotic strokes and density of meticulous forethought make it seem like Basquiat just finished painting it a year ago. The subdued figure in black, with no discernable features, makes it related to every life lost due to a hate crime, while the figures in blue shown along with a star, are symbolic of authority and power. 

This piece first painted in rage and anguish on the wall of Keith Haring’s studio a week after Stewart’s death and sets forth an exploration of Basquiat’s Black identity and thirst for empowerment.

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Jean-Michel Basquiat – Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), 1983._©Allison Chipak/Collection of Nina Clemente, New York

6. Tuxedo 1982

Location: Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York City, New York, USA
Medium: Acrylic, oil paint stick, and silkscreen on canvas.
Style: Neo-Expressionism, Street Art

Tuxedo is a compilation of 16 of Basquiat’s artworks into one silkscreen, achieved photographically reversing the colour scheme. The mere transition of the new artwork from the original separate pieces was not just an aesthetic choice, nothing ever is when considering Basquiat’s brilliant brain. It is no mystery that Jean-Michel Basquiat challenged and provoked societal norms and the artwork he produced, although seemingly easy, consisted of complex layers, intricate deliberation, and self-reflection. 

This silkscreen piece questions certain social and cultural constructs with identity at the forefront of the discussion. The Tuxedo, like the ‘Monarch’s Crown’ is symbolic of authority, and thus the rise of power imbalances and injustices in society. 

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Tuxedo, 1982_©Basquiat, J.-M. (1982b)

7. Obnoxious Liberals 1982

Location: Board, Los Angeles, California, USA
Medium: Acrylic and Crayon on canvas.
Style: Neo-Expressionism, Street-Art

Basquiat was born in New York in the ’60s in a family of immigrants, the racial bias he saw on a day-to-day basis enraged him to the point of rebelling against the system and its brutal way of treating the people of colour. Obnoxious Liberals is a work of art that depicts the monstrosities of capitalism and the powerless victims of society. 

The victim’s dark skin and chains around his wrist depict the oppressive waves of injustice towards the African-Americans, while the dollar signs, insignia, and words highlight the puppets of mainstream White American culture. This painting, like many others, has layers of carefully concocted symbolic statements, phrases, and colour balance to put forth a message to the public.

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Obnoxious Liberals, 1982_©Basquiat, J.-M. (1982a)

8. God, Law 1981

Location: NA
Medium: Pencil on Paper
Style: Neo-Expressionism, Street Art

Law and God is often a coinciding subject, as we hold the law as the next highest authority to take up accountability when dishing out a suitable verdict of rights and wrongs. This piece is part of street art painted around Manhattan, and the other is a symbolic cohesion of neo-expressionism. 

The assimilation of various symbols in this work is bold and attention-grabbing using simplistic strokes of pencil across the paper to divert the viewers’ attention towards pressing issues in the fractured fabric of the judicial and religious system, where money is a tell-all in a corrupt, materialistic world.

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Irony of Negro Policemen, 1981_©Basquiat, J.-M. (1981a)

9. Untitled (Football Helmet) 1981

Location: Private Collection
Medium: Sculpture with Acrylic and human hair on a football helmet.
Style: Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Dada

This unique descriptive sculpture was an exhibit piece in Andy Warhol’s exhibition. This piece isn’t exceptional due to their artistic collaboration, or Basquiat’s young, new talent, but because of the underlying message, it portrays. The black football helmet; with haphazardly splashed white, and African-American hair on it, is symbolic to the black football players in America. 

The human hair used on the helmet was the artist’s hair and is performative of the stardom and power of the black footballers in America. It is a testament to their standing in society and the sport while hinting at the vulnerable stance they held due to their race and colour.

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Untitled (Football Helmet), 1981_©Basquiat, J.-M. (1981c)

10. Irony Of Negro Policemen 1981

Location: Private Collection
Medium: Acrylic and Crayon on Canvas.
Style: Neo-Expressionism, Street Art

The Irony of a Negro Policemen is a retrospective observation made by Basquiat, as an African-American growing up with a predominantly whitewashed, unjust law enforcement. His illustrations and bold statements on canvas are put together in a way to mock the system rather than the policemen in the painting. 

This painting is a depiction of a black policeman in a white supremacist police force that works against the betterment of his community and people. The policeman has an almost clown-like, cartoonish, mocking appearance with a cage-like hat; highlighting that despite the policeman being in a place of power will always be the puppet of his white peers and easy to dispose of.

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Basquiat, Irony of Negro Policemen, 1981_©Basquiat, J.-M

References | Jean-Michel Basquiat

Art Basel. (n.d.). Jean-Michel Basquiat | Untitled (Football Helmet), 1981. [online] Available at: https://artbasel.com/catalog/artwork/74728/Jean-Michel-Basquiat-Untitled-Football-Helmet [Accessed 22 Jun. 2021].

Guggenheim. (2018). Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story. [online] Available at: https://www.guggenheim.org/exhibition/basquiats-defacement-the-untold-story.

McClinton, D. (2019). Defacement: the tragic story of Basquiat’s most personal painting. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/jun/28/defacement-the-tragic-story-of-basquiats-most-personal-painting.

The Art Story. (n.d.). Basquiat Artworks & Famous Paintings. [online] Available at: https://www.theartstory.org/artist/basquiat-jean-michel/artworks/.

www.jean-michel-basquiat.org. (n.d.). Jean-Michel Basquiat Biography. [online] Available at: http://www.jean-michel-basquiat.org/biography/.

www.wikiart.org. (n.d.). Jean-Michel Basquiat – 156 artworks – painting. [online] Available at: https://www.wikiart.org/en/jean-michel-basquiat/all-works# [Accessed 22 Jun. 2021]

Author

Ketaki Lohar is an architecture graduate who is passionate about expressing the art in architecture through words. She is a perpetual daydreamer who works best as a night owl and a wistful bibliophile who is fierce about eco-architecture, clean practices, and taking notes from history.

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