Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flyboy in the Buttermilk

“He was the most financially suc­cessful Black visual artist in history and — depending on whether you listened to his admirers or detractors — either a genius, an idiot savant, or an overblown, overpriced fraud.”


Nobody Loves a Genius Child

I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension… I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness… The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.

— Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself, 1845

In these scant lines, Frederick Douglass succinctly describes the ongoing crisis of the Black intellectual, that star-crossed figure on the American scene forever charged with explaining Black folks to white folks and with explaining Black people to themselves — often from the perspectives of a distance refracted by double alienation. If you want to hide something from a negro put it in a book. Douglass knew from experience the compound oppression of being poorly fed and poorly read, but also of having to stand Black and proud in isolated situations where nobody else Black was around to have your back. When the windchill factor plummets that low, all that can steady you is the spine of cultural confidence and personal integrity.

This business of speaking for Black culture and your own Black ass from outside the culture’s communal surrounds and the comforting consensus of what critic Lisa Kennedy once described as “the Black familiar” has taken many a brilliant Black mind down to the cross­roads and left it quite beside itself, undecided between suicide, sticking it to the man, or selling its soul to the devil. The ones who keep up the good fight with a scintilla of sanity are the ones who know how to beat the devil out of a dollar while maintaining a Black agenda and to keep an ear out for the next dope house party set to go down in Brooklyn, Sugar Hill, or the Boogie Down Bronx.

Dull unwashed windows of eyes
and buildings of industry. What
industry do I practice? A slick
colored boy, 12 miles from his
home. I practice no industry.
I am no longer a credit
to my race. I read a little,
scratch against silence slow spring


To read the tribe astutely you some­times have to leave the tribe ambitiously, and should you come home again, it’s not always to sing hosannas or a song the tribe necessarily has any desire to hear. Among the Senegambian societies of the West Africa savannah, the role of praise singer and historian is given to a person known as the griot. Inscribed in his (al­ways a him) function is the condition of being born a social outcast and pariah. The highest price exacted from the griot for knowing where the bodies are buried is the denial of a burial plot in the com­munal graveyard. Griots, it is decreed, are to be left to rot in hollow trees way on the outskirts of town. With that wisdom typi­cal of African cosmologies, these messen­gers are guaranteed freedom of speech in exchange for a marginality that extends to the grave.

The circumscribed avenues for recogni­tion and reward available in the Black community for Black artists and intellec­tuals working in the avant-garde tradi­tion of the West established the precon­ditions for a Black bohemia, or a Blackened bohemia, or a white bohemia dotted with Black question marks. Re­markable in the history of these errant Sphinxes is certainly Jean-Michel Bas­quiat, posthumously the benefactor of a loving and roomy retrospective at Vrej Baghoomian gallery. When Basquiat died last year at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose he was the most financially suc­cessful Black visual artist in history and, depending on whether you listened to his admirers or detractors, either a genius, an idiot savant, or an overblown, overpriced fraud. Besides affording an opportunity for reappraisal of Basquiat’s heady and eye-popping oeuvre, the exhibition in­vites another consideration of the Black artist as bicultural refugee, spinning be­twixt and between worlds. When the fire starts to burn, where you gonna run to? To a well without water?

Given the past and present state of race relations in the U.S., the idea that any Black person would choose exile into “the white world” over the company and strength in numbers of the Black commu­nity not only seems insane to some of us, but hints at spiritual compromise as well. To be a race-identified race-refugee is to tap-dance on a tightrope, making your precarious existence a question of bal­ance and to whom you concede a mort­gage on your mind and body and lien on your soul. Will it be the white, privileged, and learned or the Black, (un)lettered, and disenfranchised?

When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to
black people. May they pick me apart and take the
useful parts, the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave
the bitter bullshit rotten white parts alone.

—LeRoi Jones, “leroy,” from Black Art

Spooked, dispossessed, split asunder by his education, his alienation, and his evolving race-politics, Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) sought to perform an exorcism on the learning he’d done at the laps of white men, vaccinate himself against the infectious anxiety of influence that came with investment in that knowl­edge he’d codified as Western. But we can say that African history and the history of border crossings made by Black artists and intellectuals from this country’s ear­liest founding to the present have blurred, blotted out, and disrupted any proprietary claims the Eurocentrists among us would care to make on the languages of ethics, aesthetics, and logic. In light of the mounting evidence of anthropologists and archaeologists and the revisionist scholarship of peoples of color, there is no province more in danger of dwindling to a vanishing point than that of “white knowledge.” Increasing the store of human knowledge has been everybody’s project since the beginning of womankind. The idea that the human brain first began functioning in Europe now appears about as bright as Frankenstein’s monster.

What remains, however, is the en­trenched racism of white-supremacist in­stitutions bent on perpetuating, until their dying breaths, that popular fantasy of slaveholders and imperialists that the white man represents the most intelligent form of life on the planet.

No area of modern intellectual life has been more resistant to recognizing and authorizing people of color than the world of the “serious” visual arts. To this day it remains a bastion of white suprem­acy, a sconce of the wealthy whose high-­walled barricades are matched only by Wall Street and the White House and whose exclusionary practices are enforced 24-7-365. It is easier for a rich white man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a Black abstract and/or Conceptual artist to get a one-woman show in lower Man­hattan, or a feature in the pages of Art­forum, Art in America, or The Village Voice. The prospect that such an artist could become a bona fide art-world celebrity (and at the beginning of her career no less) was, until the advent of Jean­-Michel Basquiat, something of a fucking joke.

My maternal grandfather used to say, Son, no matter where you go in this world and no matter what you find, somewhere up in there you will find a Negro. Experience has yet to prove him wrong, especially where the avant-garde is concerned. In Wilfredo Lam we had our Cubist adventurer. Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, and LeRoi Jones bopped heads with the Beats. The British Invasion got vamped on by Jimi Hendrix while Arthur Lee and Sly Stone were spear-chucking protopunk and funk into San Francisco’s psychedelic Summer of Love. Bad Brains reclaimed Rasta and hardcore rock and roll from the punks. And we won’t even get into separating the Black aesthetic inspirations for all these movements, or raising up the counterhegemonic monu­ment that is Black cultural difference.

What’s often as exceptional as the artistic talents of the aforementioned Black crossover acts is their genius for cultural politics, the confidence and cunning with which they established supportive bases for themselves in white circles of knowl­edge, power, and authority. Nobody loves a genius-child? Basquiat, lonesome fly­boy in the buttermilk of the ’80s Down­town art boom, was hands down this cen­tury’s most gifted Black purveyor of art­-world politics. He not only knew how the game of securing patronage was played, but played it with ambition, nerve, and delight. Like Jimi Hendrix he had enor­mously prodigious gifts and sexual cha­risma on his side. He was also, to boot, another beneficiary of being the right Black man in the right place at the right time. Eric Clapton attributed Hendrix’s whirlwind ascendancy in the English rock scene to his arriving just when the scene was in desperate need of some new blood. The blues and soul boom was decaying. Hendrix, Black and from the birthplace of blues, soul, and rock, was extraordinarily fluent in all three styles, could whip up a frenzy from the stage like Dionysus on a tear, and was a preternatural innovator besides. The question with Hendrix is never why him, but how could the British rockers resist?

There is a sickness to the black man living in white town. Either he is white
or he hates white, but even in hating, he
reflects, the dead image of his surrounding…
There is a sickness to the black man in white town, because
he begins to believe he can beat everybody’s ass, and he can,
down there, where each man is an island, and the heaviest bomber,
throwing down tnt can establish some conditional manhood in the land
of the dead, in the country of the blind.

— Ameer Baraka, “Poem for Religious Fanatics,” from Target Studies

The period of ferment that produced Basquiat began on British soil and was then transplanted stateside. 1981 the number, another summer, sound of the harmolodic drummer! Let’s go back to postpunk lower Manhattan, no-wave New York, where loft jazz, white noise, and Black funk commune to momentarily desegregate the Downtown rock scene, and hip-hop’s train-writing graffiti cults pull into the station carrying the return of representation, figuration, expression­ism, Pop-artism, the investment in canvas painting, and the idea of the master­piece. Whether the writers presaged or inspired the market forces to all this art­-commodity fetishism and anti-Conceptu­alist material is a question still up for grabs. But just as the classic blues, rock, and soul cats were the romanticized fig­ures who made the very idea of a Hendrix seductive to the Mods, it was the invigo­rating folk culture of the graffiti writ­ers — operating at a subterranean remove from the art world that made them all the more mysterious, manageable, and ulti­mately dismissable — that set the salon stages and sex parlors of the postmods up to be bedazzled by Basquiat. Phase II, Daze, Crash, Lee, Blade, Futura 2000, Lady Pink, Fab Five Freddy, and Ramm-­El-Zee. These writers and others might have tunneled their style wars out of “Afrerica” (© Vernon Reid) and into the gallery affairs of the snooty, the elite, and la bohème, but it would be the Haitian boy-aristocrat with the properly French name who’d get to set their monkey-ass world on fire.

Jean-Michel is the one they told you must draw it this way and call it black man folk art, when it was really white man folk art that he was doing. That’s what he draw… white man folk art. He does not draw black man folk art because they told him what to draw… They called us graffiti but they wouldn’t call him graffiti. And he gets as close to it as the word means scribble-scrabble. Un­readable. Crosses out words, doesn’t spell them right, doesn’t even write the damn thing right. He doesn’t even paint well. You don’t draw a building so that it will fall down and that’s what he draws, bro­ken-down imagery.

— Ramm-El-Zee, B. Culture, No. 1

I just love the houses in the South, the way they built them. That Negritude ar­chitecture. I really love to watch the way Black people make things, houses or mag­azine stands in Harlem, for instance. Just the way we use carpentry. Nothing fits, but everything works. The door closes, it keeps things from coming through. But it doesn’t have that neatness about it, the way white people put things together; ev­erything is a 32nd of an inch off.

— David Hammons to Kellie Jones in Real Life, No. 16

Negative gesture can be just as impor­tant as positive thrust. Indeed I got a richer sense of this characteristic of his work when I showed Basquiat a quick sketch I made of one of his works, Unre­vised Undiscovered Genius of the Missis­sippi Delta, a painting of Southern Im­ages, and all he would say was, “You forgot to cross out CATFISH.”
— Robert Farris Thompson, catalogue essay for Basquiat’s 1985 Mary Boone exhibition

Clearly, Basquiat’s conception of mak­ing it in the Western art world transcend­ed those of the train-writers. To Bas­quiat, making it did not just mean getting a gallery exhibition, a dealer, or even col­lecting big bank off his work. Making it to him meant going down in history, ranked beside the Great White Fathers of Western painting in the eyes of the major critics, museum curators, and art histori­ans who ultimately determine such things. What he got for his grasping for immortality from the gaping mouths of these godheads was a shitload of rejec­tion, (mis)apprehension, and arcane or inconclusive interpretations. That he re­fused to let the issue of his genius die on the spent pyre of his accumulated earn­ings reminds me of some cautionary ad­vice I was given by filmmaker Haile Ger­ima: “Whenever white people praise you, never let it be enough. Never become satisfied with their praise, because the same power you give them to build you up is the same power they can use to tear you down.”

By all accounts Basquiat certainly tried to give as much as he got from the Amer­ican art dealers, critics, and doyens, most effectively in the end by his sustained levels of production, excellence, and irre­ducible complexity. Though we can cer­tainly point to racism for the refusal in certain quarters to consider Basquiat a serious painter, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that Basquiat, like Rauschenberg and Warhol, his brothers in canvas­-bound iconoclasm, made paintings that were unrepentantly about American cul­ture. There is a strain of Europhilia among our art historians and critics that is as uncomfortable with American art­ists looking to this culture for subject matter and vernacular as they are with artists holding the celebrity of household names. Looking to the uncertainty and reticence that abounded — and still abounds — in so much writing about Stu­art Davis on down through Robert Rauschenberg, Bob Thompson, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Romare Bearden, Red Grooms, Betye Saar, David Hammons, Alison Saar, and Jeff Koons, it seems that the surest way to be con­signed dilettante-hick status, ruining your chances for fawning art-historical hagiography, is to act as if you thought the United States was spilling over with the stuff of Art.

That Basquiat, like Bearden, made work that was unmistakably and vehe­mently about being a Black American male did not help matters any. Basquiat was as visually fascinated as anybody in our culture by cartoons, coon art, high-­tech, and the idea of private ownership. References to these elements are con­stants in his work, sometimes framed critically and other times as a stream-of­-conscious shopping list, pointing up our daily overdose of mass culture’s effluvia. But he also gave equal attention to ex­huming, exposing, and cutting up the nation’s deep-sixed racial history, in all its nightmarish, Neo-Expressionist gory. If you’re Black and historically informed there’s no way you can look at Basquiat’s work and not get beat up by his obsession with the Black male body’s history as property, pulverized meat, and popular entertainment. No way not to be remind­ed that lynchings and minstrelsy still vie in the white supremacist imagination for the Black male body’s proper place. (Any­one doubting the currency of this opinion need only look to the hero’s welcome Spike Lee got in see-a-nigger-shoot-his-­ass Bensonhurst or to Robert Hughes’s New Republic “review” of Basquiat’s death in which he defames the brother by calling him the art world’s answer to Ed­die Murphy.)

In the rush to reduce the word games found in Basquiat works to mere mimicry of Cy Twombly’s cursive scrawls, we’re expected to forget that Basquiat comes from a people once forbidden literacy by law on the grounds that it would make for rebellious slaves. Expected to over­look as well that among those same peo­ple words are considered a crucial means to magical powers, and virtuosic word­play pulls rank as a measure of one’s personal prowess. From the perspective of this split-screen worldview, where learning carries the weight of a revolu­tionary act and linguistic skills are as prized as having a knockout punch, there are no such things as empty signifiers, only misapprehended ones.

Basquiat’s exhausting lists of weights, measures, numbers, anatomical parts, cuisine, and pop icons function as autop­sies on forms of knowledge, reading the historical entrails of literacy and numer­acy for traces of their culpability in the subjugation and degradation of Black people. In so many paintings it seems Basquiat is on a mission of retribution against the Anglos’ precious and allegedly value-free banks of information, here gutting the store of numbers for racking up the surplus-labor of human chattel, there looting the warehouse of words for legis­lating the difference between slaveholder and savage. Similar abstract historicizing can be found in the work of Basquiat contemporaries, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, Conceptualist photographer Lorna Simpson, and performance art collabora­tors Alva Rogers and Lisa Jones.

All of which is one way of reading Bas­quiat’s wordiness. But remember that this is also an artist who began his public career, roughly around 1978, as SAMO©, a street-level graffiti writer of non sequi­turs. The tag, spoken twice, is Black slang for “the same old shit” but also invites the cruel and punning to identify the writer as Sambo. Poised there at the historical moment when Conceptualism is about to fall before the rise of the neoprimitive upsurge, Basquiat gets the last word and the last laugh during ’70s conceptualism’s last gasp, pronouncing the brute shape of things to come by way of the ironic, sardonic slur he’d chosen for a name. Having a voice, giving a name to new things, multiplying and refracting meaning were always a part of Basquiat’s survival game and image-making procedures.

So Basquiat enters the field as a poet. Truly, many of his paintings not only aspire to the condition of poetry, but invite us to experience them as broken-­down bluesy and neo-hoodoofied Symbol­ist poems. Often the cerebral pleasures of his work are derived from sussing out the exquisite corpses he’s conjured up through provocative conjunctions of words and images. One painting entitled Catharsis is a triptych whose left panel abounds with symbols of power drawn on what appears to be the inside of a subway door: a crown, a clenched Black fist, a circus strongman’s barbells, a model of an atom, and the word Radium. On this last we find the vowels scratched out to pro­duce the Jamaican patois term Ridim or rhythm, another radioactive source of energy. The middle panel lumps the words liver and spleen with throat and positions the term il mano, Italian for “the hand,” between the thumb and forefinger of a limp and possibly blood-­drained hand.

Things get more active again in the ­right panel. The top left half is dominat­ed by a leg with a dotted line cutting across the base of the foot, over which reads Suicide Attempt, an inscription that invokes race memories of the risks undertaken by runaway slaves as well as the tragedy of urban dance-floor guerillas without feet to fly their escapist maneu­vers. (Much has been made of Basquiat’s ruder street-connections, but his links with hip-hop are high-handed deploy­ments of scratchnoise, sampling, freestyle coloring, and bombing the canvas.) Named and labeled throughout the rest of the panel is a plethora of other de­tached or phantom limbs, four left paws, two thumbs — a dissection chart whose mix-matched labels for animal and hu­man body parts speak to the fate of the captive Black body as much as the energy sources surging through the first panel allude to the Black body in motion, bion­ic and liberated.

Just as diagrammatic and zig-zag with meanings is Wicker, where the scratched-­up name of Black boxer Henry Arm­strong is boxed into a rectangle crowned by the words buzzer and bell. Nearby hovers a Romanesque figure with exposed intestines and a tag indicating its bladder. The boxing anecdote forms a parenthesis around a text all about the bestial body work done to the image of Black men. On one side of the painting a speared elephant is being levitated, his (he has tusks ) physique branded with a black band like that used on TV reports to keep the interviewee’s identity protect­ed and disguised. Implanted into the elephant’s hide is a tacky Instamatic cam­era. Floating around the right side is one of Basquiat’s patented Black-ghost fig­ures, this one materializing out of the urbanized jungle of a willowy potted plant in a wicker basket.

In juxtaposition these images hit us as loaded symbols: of Western man haunt­ing the wild with his voyeuristic technol­ogy, and of Black spooks haunting the living spaces of the privileged with their irrescindable presences.

The one thing Vladimir Nabokov said that left a lasting impression on me was that the only thing a writer has to leave behind is her style. When people ask Miles Davis what he wants from a musi­cian, he usually croaks, “Somebody who can play a style,” by which I’ve always thought he meant a musician with a unique sound and a personal way of turn­ing a phrase. The best contemporary mu­sicians to come through the academy of Miles have developed styles that enfold emotion and intellect into a captivating species of lyricism. Like any of those mu­sicians, or like Baraka’s poetry in his Dead Lecturer, what’s finally so compel­ling about the Basquiat corpus is the in­divisible meshing of style and statement in his sui generis tones and attacks.

Initially lumped with the graffiti art­ists, then the Neo-Expressionists, then the Neo-Popsters, in the end Basquiat’s work evades the grasp of every camp be­cause his originality can’t be reduced to the sum of his inspirations, his associa­tions, or his generation. For all his refer­ences to pop America and the gestural vocabulary of the late-modern American Abstract Expressionists, Basquiat’s signature strokes dispossess themselves of any value but that of being in a Basquiat painting. He has consumed his influences and overwhelmed them with his inten­tions, leaving everything in his work a map of his imagination and intellect. In the same way that the music made by Miles’s bands always sounds like orches­trations of Miles’s trumpet-persona, Bas­quiat’s paintings read as hieroglyphic en­sembles that glow with the touch of his hands and the unmistakable sign lan­guage that evolved out of his free-floating psyche.

But can’t you understand that nothing is free! Even the floating strangeness of the poet’s head? The crafted visions of intellect, named, controlled, beat and erected to struggle under the heavy fin­gers of Art.
 LeRoi Jones, “Green Lantern’s Solo,” from The Dead Lecturer

You are the only very successful black artist…
I don’t know if the fact that I’m black has something to do with my success. I don’t believe that I should be compared to black artists but rather to all artists.
— Basquiat to interviewer Isabelle Graw

In the November issue of Elle there’s a Peter Schjeldahl essay about Basquiat and the Baghoomian retrospective in which the critic attributes Basquiat’s sig­nificance to his difference from other Black artists: “Most work by non-whites in the New York mainstream has been marked by a tendency, mordantly popu­larized by Spike Lee in School Daze as ‘wannabe’: a diffident emulation of estab­lished modes, whether already academic or supposedly avant-garde. So I would not have expected from a black artist Basquiat’s vastly self-assured grasp of New York’s big-painting esthetics — gen­erally, the presentation of mark-making activities as images of themselves in an enveloping field… I would have antici­pated a well-schooled, very original white hipster behind the tantalizing pictures.”

In a recent Sunday Times essay about African-American artist Martin Pur­year’s first-place award in the São Paulo Bienal, Michael Brenson asks, “Why is he [Puryear] the first black American artist to be singled out for international attention?” To Brenson’s mind the an­swer boils down to Puryear’s difference from other Black artists: “Part of what distinguishes Puryear from many other minority artists is his lack of defensive­ness about mainstream American art. He remains something of an outsider, with one foot outside the mainstream, but he has one foot comfortably within it as well. Many blacks feel too alienated from the mainstream, or too angry at it be­cause of its continuing failure to make room for black artists.”

Taken together these two opinions pre­sent us with quite a conundrum. Whom can we trust? Schjeldahl, who believes that Black artists can’t make the grade because they’re trying too hard to be white, or Brenson, who thinks they’re too busy being Black, mad, and marginalized to take notes during art history class or keep up with the “mainstream” (read white, male, upper-middle-class) art world? But of course I’m being much too coy and polite.

What’s wrong with these patronizing and patriarchal pictures is their arrogance and presumptions. Most of the se­rious Black artists I am familiar with know as much about art as any of their white contemporaries but would certainly have no interest in proving their Black­ness to satisfy Schjeldahl or in taking a quiz from Brenson. In trying to help oth­er white men figure out by what freakish woogie magic Basquiat and Puryear made it out of Coontown and into Cracker Heaven, Brenson and Schjeldahl regurgi­tate two very old and very tired ploys. Divide-and-Conquer is what we call one, One-Nigger-at-a-Time-Puh-Leeze names the other.

The cold fax is this: the reason that Puryear’s work came before the judges in São Paulo, and thereby under Brenson’s scrutiny, is because of Kellie Jones, the first Black female curator with the un­precedented clout to nominate a Puryear and have it mean something to the art world’s powers that be. Before we can even began to appraise Puryear’s excep­tional talents we need to recognize the political struggles that positioned Jones in her exceptional historical position.

In every arena where we can point to Black underdevelopment or an absence of Black competitiveness there can logically be only two explanations: either Black folks aren’t as smart as white boys or, racism. If the past 20 years of affirmative action have proven anything it’s that whatever some white boy can do, any number of Black persons can do as good, or, given the hoops a Black person has to jump to get in the game, any number of times better. Sorry, Mr. Charlie, but the visual arts are no different. Black visual culture suffers less from a lack of devel­oped artists than a need for popular criti­cism, academically supported scholar­ship, and more adventurous collecting and exhibiting.

During the furor that arose around Donald Newman’s “Nigger Drawings,” I recall hearing talk in the art world de­manding to know why Black people should expect to be exceptional at any­thing else just because they were so good at music. If the Eurocentric wing of the art world wants to remain a stronghold of straight-up white-boyism, one has to sus­pect it’s because the white-boyists want something they can call their own. This might be understandable if they didn’t already own every fucking thing under the sun and made no bones of dehuman­izing the rest of us to maintain hegemony.

The bottom line for people of color is that we don’t need any more Basquiats becoming human sacrifices in order to succeed. We don’t need any more heroic Black painters making hara-kiri drip can­vases of their lives to prove that a Black man or woman can do more with a tar brush than be tainted by it. What we need is a Black MOMA, or, Barr-ing that, a bumrushing Black MOMA-fucker. ■


This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 29, 2019