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Basquiat Fractured Art’s Canon in ‘…Crossing Lines’

Basquiat in Studio

MAKE-ART-NOT-WAR to express the human experience seems timely with the Russian invasion into Ukraine, and in light of their cultural sites being bombed.

In 2020, The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) exhibited ‘Keith Haring/Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines’. The catalog (same name) is critiqued in this essay. Although Haring was not Black, he was stigmatized as a homosexual, and like Basquiat, died young. Both artists became famous by challenging the Western art canon and forcing it to envelop street artists, who were considered criminals, scribbling on vacant buildings and the tunnels and cars of public transportation. According to Jonathan Franklin, “Every February, the US honors the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans who have shaped the nation (NPR, Franklin, 2/1/22).” Black art/culture is finally being recognized for not only helping to narrate the American story, non-white artists (and all women) are finally being acknowledged for their aesthetic talents—albeit snail’s-pace! February’s Black History Month is over; however honoring non-white and all women artists should be ongoing.

NGV director Tony Ellwood writes, “The ‘New York’ of the 1980s is rightly regarded as the epicentre of groundbreaking art of the time. The city pulsated with an atmosphere of enormous creativity and energy; all the while, barriers between society’s elite and street culture were being broken down. Among many of the key figures to come out of that place and period were two who are now considered iconic: Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) and Keith Haring (1958-90) (1X).” Since this column recently featured Haring’s subway works, the Sleuth’s spotlight will be on Basquiat, though both are well documented in the book ‘…Crossing Lines’.

Seascape, 1983

Jean-Michel Basquiat grew up in Brooklyn and Puerto Rico. He was predominantly raised by his Port-au-Prince father. At age eight, Basquiat was hospitalized after being hit by a car. His Puerto Rican mother bought him ‘Gray’s Anatomy.’ It is thought that the skeletal heads in his drawings reflect what he drew during confinement. Gifted in Romance languages, he attended multiple alternative New York public schools before hanging out in Greenwich Village/ SoHo rendering Graffiti, making/selling postcards, designing clothing, having small shows, and regrettably acquiring a drug habit. He made Graffiti under the pseudonym, ‘SAMO’, which meant ‘same old shit’. The catalog ‘…Crossing Lines’ states, “ He developed his own style using the oilstick; he was freed from classical techniques of drawing….With the movement of his hands, Basquiat made drawing a performance: the stick gliding across the picture support, the rhythm of the simple forms and the repetition of letters such as A,O or I....He left his mark on the objects of everyday life among which he lived, and things that he found by chance. In this way, the objects from public space always remained metonymically tied to their place of origin…the street as a concept and space of association remained an artistic subject (11-13).”

In 1980, Basquiat’s art appeared in the ‘Times Square Show’. In 1982, he became the youngest artist at Kassel’s Documenta and in 1983, the youngest at the Whitney Biennial, with ‘Art in America’ and ‘Artforum’ critiquing Basquiat’s progress. He also played with his band ‘Gray’ at the Mudd Club in TriBeCa (121). He and girlfriend, then unknown Madonna, frequented this counter culture club named for the doctor who treated Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

Today Basquiat’s art is worth millions and keeps climbing, while the debate continues whether street art should be acknowledged with canonized masterworks. Basquiat himself remains an enigma. To some his behavior was the sport of hoodlums. To others he was a genius daring to break down aesthetic and societal walls, pushing art out of stuffy institutions and into the street where the masses could enjoy art of their time and culture. According to the book ‘….Crossing Lines’, “Basquiat, with his symbol-laden, often furious images, dedicated himself with great intensity to the struggle against capitalism, inequality and racism (21).” Below are three Basquiat acrylic and oilstick paintings.

Basquiat, Untitled,1982

‘Hollywood Africans in Front of the Chinese Theater with Footprints of Movie Stars’1983: depicts Basquiat heads outlined in black with minimal brown and yellow hues, along with black lettering. The word ‘teeth’ replaces one of the head’s enamels. Of note: There are over two thousand celebratory imprints on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and only about forty are of Black artists. Art should reflect the times we live, no matter who makes it.

‘Seascape’, 1983: resembles a postcard of an ocean beach. Basquiat painted the words—SEASCAPE 28 x 40, telling viewers the work measures 28x40 inches or feet--who knows? This information does not usually appear on the front of flat works. The drawing of a jaw replaces postage franking, while undulating lines (as if to say blah-blah-blah) replace an unknown address. Both front and back of the postcard-painting are shown in the same plane much like what the Egyptians stylized. Famous waterfront resorts were originally/exclusively for the well-to-do white population, and not for poor blacks.

Haring-Basquiat Cover

‘Untitled’, 1982: shows a robot-esque human staring at onlookers. His bent legs, bare feet, and uber-dilated eyes feel the figure is nightclub gyrating. With a golden crown and bared teeth it suggests—confidence, defiance, inebriation or all? Why is the right arm made only of bones, while the left is fleshy? To the upper right of the orange-pink foreground and the turquoise background a dark figure sits in a scribbled chair facing away from viewers—why? There appear to be similarities or perhaps an homage to Ab-Ex painter Willem de Kooning (1904-97).

Hollywood Africans in Front of the Chinese Theater with Footprints of Movie Stars, 1983

By the mid-Eighties Basquiat was earning over a million yearly, painting in Armani suits, collaborating with Warhol, and sadly succumbing to a cocaine overdose in 1988-- at age 27! Basquiat’s Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn gravesite is a popular fan mecca. Of note: A play, ‘The Collaboration’ about the relationship between Basquiat and Warhol just opened at London’s Young Vic (NYT, Wolf, 2/25/22).

Mini Sleuth: Quotes from--‘Keith Haring/Jean Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines’ by Dieter Buchhart is at Amazon. Thank you, Jodi Price at Princeton University Press. Articles used: and

Jean Bundy, mfa, phd is a writer/painter in Anchorage. She serves as a VP for AICA-International and on Governance for Pictor Gallery NYC, showing her own works.


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