2015 UC Press First Book Award, PEN American Center
Reading Jean-Michel Basquiat
In February 1985, a twenty-four-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine alongside the caption "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist" (plate 1).1 Just a few years earlier the artist had been unknown, living on the charity of friends and writing in spray paint on the walls of lower Manhattan. By 1985 he had become one of the most famous American artists of the 1980s, selling paintings for upward of twenty-five thousand dollars. He was also a close friend of Andy Warhol and worked collaboratively with him. But more important, Basquiat had come to reflect growing anxieties about American art. Wearing a dark Armani suit-an emblem of his financial success-in this photo the young Basquiat made the connections between the contemporary artist and the art market visible. This was not the starving artist the public was accustomed to seeing. But something else was different here as well. Basquiat appeared barefoot; his expensive suit was splattered with paint. He appeared, in the words of Dick Hebdige, as "a poor boy plucked from obscurity. . . . Here was a Messiah suited to the New World of the Eighties: a Picasso in blackface."2 Almost thirty years later, this image continues to provoke questions about the roles that commodification and race have played in the artistic legacy of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
During the 1980s, an increasingly intimate relationship developed between art and commerce. As Wall Street boomed from 1983 to 1987, the careers of Basquiat and his contemporaries Kenny Scharf, Julian Schnabel, and Keith Haring soared.3 These artists' neo-expressionist painting contrasted sharply with the aesthetic traditions of the conceptual artists, their immediate predecessors; the bold colors, the figuration, the gestural qualities, and the emotionality of these neo-expressionists' canvases emphasized their materiality. There was, in the words of one writer, a marked shift in neo-expressionist art "from the cool and cerebral to the volatile and passionate."4 The neo-expressionists also diverged from the critical perspectives of the conceptualists, who had openly rejected capitalism and the culture industry. Hans Haacke (b. 1936), for example, made a career out of critiquing the capitalist dimensions of the art world. Piero Manzoni (1933-63) cynically commented on the symbiotic relationship between artists and collectors, selling cans of bodily waste that he priced according to the current market value of gold. Other works rejected the collector completely; the large earthworks constructed in remote locations by artists throughout the 1970s were not easily transported or displayed elsewhere. Basquiat and his fellow artists, by contrast, were profit- and career-oriented. Their work sold for unprecedented sums. Julian Schnabel's Notre Dame, for example, was bought for just over ninety-three thousand dollars at his auction debut in 1983, although it had sold only three years earlier for thirty-five hundred dollars.5 These artists were public celebrities courted by galleries and major businesses alike. References to successful young artists were ubiquitous in popular media coverage; they appeared in spreads in Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines.6
The tenuous relationship between art and commerce was certainly not a new development, but in the 1980s it became more explicit. As art critic Lisbet Nilson described it in 1985, the New York art world of this period was "less a business than an industry."7 As unprecedented amounts of money flooded the art market, prices climbed precipitately; as in the case of Schnabel, the price of a single work could increase by hundreds of percentage points in just a few years. In response, artists made more work, and they made it bigger; dealers began to organize two-gallery exhibitions to keep up with demand.8 Large banks (and even some auction houses) began to facilitate loans for art purchases; financial institutions began to accept fine art as collateral against loans. In 1979 Citibank founded its art advisory service, offering clients assistance with building and maintaining large art collections. The gallery scene likewise exploded with greater numbers of private art dealers; in 1970, for example, the Art Now: New York Gallery Guide listed 73 galleries, but by 1985 that listing climbed to almost 450.9 Exhibitions sold out for extraordinary sums even before they opened.10 This art industry was complete with a cadre of new professionals to service the system, including corporate curators and advisers, art lawyers, tax experts, public-relations consultants, and artists' agents. Critic Robert Hughes found fault with this new art environment, calling it in one 1983 article for Time magazine a "'post-modernist' image machine, that powerful contraption which, modeled on corporate p.r. lines, has transformed the very nature of reputation in the art world over the last five years."11 In an earlier essay for the New York Times Review of Books, Hughes drew on the historical example of Andy Warhol to encourage debate on whether an artist could be both commercially successful and a true member of the avant-garde.12
Jean-Michel Basquiat (along with Keith Haring) was of particular interest in this overhyped art market because of his early association with the graffiti movement and the East Village art scene-both of which were suddenly thrust to the center of the financially driven New York art world in the early 1980s.13 According to New York Times art critic Grace Glueck, the move from street to gallery was "bound to happen, given the art world's relentless search for new amusements and investments. And it did. After a long and scurrilous underground career," she lamented, "graffiti has surfaced on the chaste white walls of galleries and museums."14 Basquiat, along with his high school classmate Al Diaz, first became known for street writings signed with the name SAMO-an acronym for "same old shit."15 Beginning in May 1978, two years before Basquiat's first exhibition, he and Diaz (as SAMO) wrote maxims, jokes, and prophecies in marker and spray paint on subway trains throughout New York City (particularly the "D" train that took him from downtown Manhattan home to Brooklyn),16 as well as in lower Manhattan on the walls, buildings, and sidewalks around the School of the Visual Arts and in the SoHo and Tribeca neighborhoods, where there were many prominent art galleries. Diaz and Basquiat's phrases critiqued consumer culture:
SAMO AS AN END 2 NINE-2-FIVE
WASTIN' YOUR LIFE
2 MAKE ENDS MEET . . . TO GO HOME
AT NIGHT TO YOUR
COLOR T.V. . . .
These phrases at times positioned SAMO as an alternative to the commercial art world: "SAMO as an end to playing art," "SAMO as an end to all this mediocre art," "SAMO for the so-called avant-garde."17 Others were more poetic: "My mouth/ Therefore an error.(c)"18 SAMO, however, was short-lived. Just six months after they started, Basquiat and Diaz relinquished their anonymity in a December 1978 issue of the Village Voice, parting ways soon after.19 The epitaph "SAMO is dead," appeared on walls throughout lower Manhattan.
Basquiat capitalized on his newfound notoriety as SAMO, moving from the street to the studio. He appeared regularly on Glenn O'Brien's public access television show, TV Party; he even exhibited his work on canvas, under the name SAMO, at the Times Square Show, an exhibition in June 1980 of more than fifty young artists that marked the genesis of the eighties art movement. In his review of the exhibition the art dealer Jeffrey Deitch drew special attention to the work Basquiat (still known as SAMO) exhibited, calling it "a knockout combination of de Kooning and subway scribbles."20 Basquiat, because he had achieved some recognition in the East Village scene, was later invited to exhibit in New York/New Wave, a group show of sixteen hundred works by 119 artists that opened at P.S. 1 on Valentine's Day in 1981. He was an immediate success. Christophe de Menil, a major collector, and Henry Geldzahler, the commissioner of cultural affairs for New York City, bought pieces from the show. Almost immediately after, Basquiat was invited to exhibit in his first solo show, in Modena, Italy. An essay published in Artforum's December issue in 1981 gained the artist even more attention. The author compared Basquiat with master European painters, provocatively declaring, "If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby, and gave it up for adoption, it would be Jean-Michel."21 The gallerist Annina Nosei, who showed the more established artists David Salle and Richard Prince, agreed to represent Basquiat, who had a one-man show at her SoHo gallery in 1982. That same year, he also had exhibitions in Los Angeles, Zurich, Rome, and Rotterdam and became the youngest artist ever invited to participate in Dokumenta 7 in Kassel, Germany.
Basquiat's early success led some critics to accuse the media of exploiting East Village artists based on their own primitivist fantasies.22 In 1982 Hal Foster commented on the strange inversion by which graffiti ceased to be subversive and became celebrated; he named Basquiat's work specifically as an example. In an essay published in Art in America he observed, "In a March show, the stylish street-artist SAMO became Jean-Michel Basquiat, the new art-world primitive."23 Transplanting Basquiat into the gallery represented a larger problem to Foster, because it entailed declaring as mainstream art what had been an act of resistance. Foster assumed that promoting graffiti artists was tantamount to economic and cultural exploitation-an example of the marketplace's fetishizing of aesthetically naive, poor, or nonindustrialized cultures. Although opinions like Foster's were in the minority, they further strained the tenuous boundary between art and commerce.24
A major focus of this book is the persistent and lingering effect that Basquiat's so-called origins in the graffiti scene have had on his reception as an American artist. Basquiat was caught between the street and the studio. Early critics and historians of his work used the same stereotypes by which they judged many other African American painters. Basquiat was read as just another untrained, nonwhite artist. In a review of Dokumenta 7, for example, the critics Noel Frackman and Ruth Kaufmann referred to Basquiat as "a true primitive."25 His beginnings as the street writer SAMO fed into the mythology of the untrained, African American naive artist, which was well established in the interwar period.26 In an obituary following the artist's death in 1988 Robert Hughes attributed Basquiat's success to the art world's "need to refresh itself with a touch of the 'primitive.'"27 Basquiat's reported relations to graffiti culture were cursory at best, but early and brief associations were extrapolated into the false legend of an artist "who misspent his youth spraying graffiti on subway trains."28
Basquiat made several public attempts to break away from the implicit racism of such narrow readings, once telling an interviewer: "My work has nothing to do with graffiti. It's painting, it always has been. I've always painted. Well before painting was in fashion."29 Nevertheless, a primitivist model has persisted in much of the scholarship on this artist, threatening his place in art history. Such scholarship seems a logical extension, given that the artist often chose to confront the stereotypes of the (overwhelmingly white) art world by self-consciously conforming to primitive notions.30 The quick brushstrokes, jagged lines, rough textures, and seemingly chaotic compositions of his canvases speak directly to the stereotype. He appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine dressed in a fashionable European suit but with bare feet and dreadlocks.
In the history of modern art, visual expressions of the primitive are traditionally associated with premodern society. A primitive artist exists only in opposition to the civilized, to which he or she must have limited exposure. But Basquiat, growing up in New York, frequented the Brooklyn Museum of Art and other prominent museums with his mother, Mathilde.31 As a high-school student, he was encouraged to explore the many cultural venues of New York City, and Basquiat continued to visit museums throughout his life. In a 1985 interview the artist recalled seeing Picasso's Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art as a particularly formative experience.32 He even calls attention to his exposure to the global collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in his drawing Untitled from 1987 (plate 2); the images labeled "Augustus Saint Gaudens" and "Girl with pigeons" both refer to works in that museum's collection.33 Although he received no formal artistic training, Basquiat's interests in art were nurtured at an early age. Mathilde encouraged her son to copy drawings from an illustrated Bible at home, and copying from books and comics became part of his established practice.34 When he attended school, Jean-Michel rebelled by spending his time drawing, painting, and creating comic strips.
As a consequence of Basquiat's early reception as a primitive or graffiti artist, critics and historians have often attempted to legitimate him in the larger fields of modern European and American art. Analyses of his work in comparison to European modernism and American abstraction are ubiquitous. Early publications, such as that essay by Rene Ricard that claimed Basquiat as the forsaken child of Twombly and Dubuffet, sensationalized his similarities to European painters.35 When Basquiat received one of his first exhibition reviews, for the show at the Annina Nosei Gallery in 1982, mentioned earlier, it was loaded with Eurocentric references. The reviewer Lisa Liebmann wrote, "The speed lines and notations bear some relation to automatic drawing. . . . Basquiat's art suggests that particularly French aesthetic that is rooted in language and linguistic signs. It is an esthetic that the Surrealists codified, that later artists such as Dubuffet improvised upon."36 Without a doubt, Basquiat engaged the history of Western art; he explicitly refers to the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly within many compositions. To read Basquiat's work solely in this limited frame, however, is a mistake. Despite all attempts to look at Basquiat's work from within the existing frames of art history-modernism, expressionism, surrealism, and so on-these paintings resist such clean categorization and remain inscrutable. This has provoked a major problem in scholarship on this artist: while he may be stylistically "European," his subject matter is not. As bell hooks wrote in her review of the artist's posthumous retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1992, "Even when Basquiat can be placed stylistically in the exclusive, white male art club that denies entry to most black artists, his subject matter-his content-always separates him once again, and defamiliarizes him."37
Throughout this book, I reframe the protocols Basquiat employed as a working artist and reconsider his grossly underestimated contribution to the history of American art, as well as the challenges this artist and his work present to the discipline. Before his death in 1988 Basquiat created approximately seven hundred large-format paintings on canvas, one thousand works on paper, and thirty sculptural works.38 Most take the form of mixed-media collage in which the artist combined paper, acrylic paint, oil paintstick, crayon, charcoal, graphite, and even found objects. The resulting compositions combine words, symbols, photocopies, and gestural brushstrokes. Visual and textual references to ancient history, comic books, popular music, television, mythology, anatomy, politics, and fine art intermingle. There is already a rich body of material that traces the origins of the images, symbols, and phrases in these works.
In his essay for the Whitney retrospective, Richard Marshall traced many of Basquiat's lists, dates, and symbols to publications in the artist's library.39 Other published interviews with and essays by the artist's close friends and family also focus on the source of Basquiat's personal iconography. An essay by Basquiat's father, Gérard, in a 2006 exhibition catalog is loaded with such attributions. "I think the multiple A's that populate Jean-Michel's early work," he explains, "refer to Hank Aaron the baseball player." He continues with the crown that appears throughout many of Basquiat's compositions, claiming "the crown meant that he was from royalty."40 In this same catalog, an essay by artist's longtime girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, seems to contradict Gérard's reading, claiming that the crown was instead a reference to a favorite television show. "At the end of The Little Rascals," she writes, "there is a crown-sketched on the screen, and a title: King World Productions. That's where the crown came from."41 But the isolated, iconographic emphasis on specific symbols and icons in Basquiat's paintings and drawings cannot account for the meaning of the works in which they appear or what they may reveal about Basquiat's own artistic concerns.
This study addresses larger questions of composition and narrative in Basquiat's painting practice. While his work may inspire viewers to decode its particular representations, it also invites them to discover the possibilities for representation.42 I view his works not as a closed system but as multivocal.43 Because they offer multiple levels of reference and perception in the words and images on the surfaces, these paintings and drawings highlight the dynamic process of looking. My aim is to understand the interactions of the references in Basquiat's paintings and drawings, to discover not only what these signs and symbols represent but also how they generate meaning.
In both his artistic and personal lives, the artist cultivated what art historian Henry Drewal has called "multiconsciousness"-that is, "the capacity to negotiate multiple evolving personas in social terrains where others attempt to impose identities (and therefore possibilities) in struggles of self-assertion."44 This is a step beyond DuBoisian "double consciousness" and allows for the complexity inherent in the lives of people moving within the African diasporas and in the postmodern world.45 Basquiat explored a range of artistic interests and practices during his life-in the visual arts, literature, and music. In undertaking this study, I wanted to examine the connections between these disciplines, taking into account the artist's continuing engagement with each. What inspired his interest in jazz from the 1940s, references to which can be seen in multiple drawings and paintings? Does the proliferation of text on Basquiat's canvases mean that we should read these works as poetry, paintings, or something in between?
The work of Jean-Michel Basquiat requires a methodology outside the boundaries of traditional art history. As Mieke Bal writes, such "disciplinary boundaries can be confining, and thus fail to let the subject of the discipline, the visual image, speak."46 This work exists at the intersection of language and image. Because of this, I argue that language and the according methods of linguistic analysis are useful to a study of Basquiat's visual practice. When asked how he found the subjects for his paintings and drawings, Basquiat explained, "I get my background from studying books. I put what I like from them in my paintings."47 In fact, as I will discuss throughout the book, Basquiat constructed large parts of his identity-as a black man, as a musician, as a painter, and as a writer-via the manipulation of texts in his own library.
Basquiat's work is concerned with the production of meaning rather than with the isolation of specific icons or texts. A semiotic approach to the work, rather than a strictly formalist one, is much more appropriate in this case. According to Mieke Bal, semiotics as a theoretical model "takes art out of a formalist and autonomist idealization and takes the work as dynamic." It "privileges meaning and the ways in which meaning is produced, considering aspects and details as signs rather than forms or material elements only."48 Semiotics allows for intersubjective analysis and interpretation in that it relies on the idea that the mental image (interpretant) that we produce in response to a work of art (sign), and the object (referent) to which that interpretant points, is always determined by the viewer. Moreover, that interpretant is always shifting in the process of semiosis.49
For example, Basquiat's 1983 composition Jesse (plate 3) includes several references to the life of the late jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker (1920-55). The words "KOKO" and "CHEROKEE"-the titles of two popular compositions by Parker-appear above and to the right of the word "Chan," the nickname of Parker's second wife, in the upper left corner of the composition.50 Nearby on the canvas, the phrases "CRISPUS ATTUCKS HIGH," "LINCOLN HIGH SCHOOL," and "ALONZO LEWIS" also appear-all references to Parker's early education. Parker attended Crispus Attucks Elementary School and Lincoln High School while growing up in Kansas City, Missouri. Alonzo Lewis was a high school music teacher who influenced Parker's pursuit of music as a profession.51 Basquiat must have known these details of Parker's life; but as Basquiat was consistently attentive to the possibilities for multiple meanings and referents in the images and texts he included in his works, the significance of the three phrases "Crispus Attucks High," "Lincoln High School," and "Alonzo Lewis" can be considered in the context of other signs and symbols on the canvas as well.
Crispus Attucks (c. 1723-70) and Alonzo Lewis (1794-1861) were well-known abolitionists in the state of Massachusetts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By including their names in relation to Parker's life, Basquiat made a double historical reference. Moreover, in positioning Attucks and Lewis within a canvas that referred to both Parker and the Olympian Jesse Owens-in the upper-right corner of the composition we can read the words "NEGRO ATHLETE" at the bottom of a section that also contains "JESSE OWENS" and two swastikas-Basquiat positions both Parker and Owens as heroic, historical figures by association.
Similarly, "KYPTON"-the name of a chemical compound written in red at the top of the canvas-and "PERRY WHITE" are linked by way of the Superman series of comic books. Perry White was the editor-in-chief of the fictional newspaper the Daily Planet, while Krypton was the comic hero's home planet. The underlined name "JIMMY OLSEN," directly below "PERRY WHITE," is that of a young reporter and photographer for the Daily Planet. The word "KRYPTONITE"-a mineral from the planet Krypton, and the only element that could diminish Superman's power-appears near the upper-right corner of the canvas. Here, Basquiat alludes to Superman instead of explicitly naming him.52 In all these examples the words and phrases carry meaning because they interact with each other in a context outside of the canvas as well as within it. Basquiat made his compositions intentionally difficult, relying on viewers to recognize the unspoken links between them. Only those viewers who know the breadth of the artist's interests can understand this operation clearly. As in his response to the primitive model, Basquiat subverted the relationship between artist, object, and viewer by creating a nonlinear narrative of painting.
I argue throughout this book that Basquiat's deliberate ambiguity and confusion in both language and image mirror his attempts to evade binaries-primitive/modern, black/white, original/reproduction, signifier/signified, or conceptualist/expressionist-in both his life and practice. Chapter 1 considers the implications of reading race into Basquiat's production-specifically the tension this work exhibits between the tendency to read black artists in terms of subject matter and white artists in terms of their aesthetic strategies.53 The oeuvre of Jean-Michel Basquiat-born to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York-grapples with a much larger set of cultural and artistic traditions that gives it deep roots in both black and predominantly white Western practices. In the years following Basquiat's death, the fields of identity politics and politico-aesthetic discourse have continued to expand. Part of my objective is to reevaluate this work from a critical perspective, building on this more recent scholarship. I am working here from hooks's claim that"Basquiat was grappling with both the pull of a genealogy that is fundamentally 'black' (rooted in African diasporic . . . traditions) and a fascination with white Western traditions" (my emphasis).54
By looking more closely at the discourses around blackness, created both within and outside of Basquiat's work, we can get closer to understanding the place of this artist within a (now revised) black arts tradition. Chapter 1 considers the references to Africa and African art in the work of Basquiat as a way to move beyond the binary of formalism versus content. I argue that the artist mobilizes and negotiates the history of Africa in search of his own place in the contemporary art world, considering specifically the artist's knowledge of and familiarity with the syncretic nature of Yoruba culture and history. I examine the interaction and the overlap between African and American in his work, where he places the histories of the continents in parallel on his canvases. Most important, Basquiat's access to Africa was consistently filtered through and influenced by the texts of the American art historian Robert Farris Thompson, who provided the artist with a model of productive ambiguity that lies at the heart of both African diaspora culture and Basquiat's own practice. Drawing on sources from Africa, Basquiat probes the boundaries of blackness but also those of American art. As a product of the African diaspora, and standing at the crossroads of several cultures, the work of this artist highlights the heterogeneity and diversity of American art practice.
In the chapters that follow, I further expand the parameters of aesthetic discourse to consider the impact of Basquiat's musical and literary interests on his working protocols as a painter, connecting his practices as a painter, a musician, and a writer. Furthermore, both music and literature provide models and vocabularies for considering the improvisational nature of Basquiat's work, as well as his preference for appropriation and collage, which are missing from an exclusively visual analysis. Underlying this approach is the idea that, in true postmodernist fashion, Basquiat himself saw connections, rather than disjuncture, between these disciplines. The inextricability of text, music, and painting is evident in the artist's own description of his process. When asked during an interview in the fall of 1982 how he selected words for his canvases, Basquiat casually replied, "When I'm working I hear them. You know? I just throw them down."55
Chapter 2 examines the parallels between the compositional methods of Basquiat and those found in music-a lifelong interest of the artist. Basquiat was exposed to music at an early age; his father, Gérard, loved both jazz and classical music and constantly played records at home.56 The artist's maternal grandfather, Juan, led a small Latino band in New York, and young Jean-Michel often watched him play the guitar.57 As an adult, he became involved with the underground punk movement, sporting a blond Mohawk and hanging out at the Mudd Club-an epicenter of the underground downtown art and rock scene. And in 1979, Basquiat, along with his friends Nick Taylor, Michael Holman, and Wayne Dawson, formed a noise-band called Gray, a name possibly derived from the nineteenth-century textbook Gray's Anatomy-a gift from his mother when the artist was hospitalized as a child.58 Basquiat led the group, playing a synthesizer, bell, and clarinet alternately during the band's performances. He also performed the lyrics to some of the songs, sometimes lying on the floor of the stage with the microphone and at other times playing recorded voices from a small tape deck.59 The band became popular and performed frequently at the Mudd Club and other downtown venues, including Hurrah, Tier Three, Max's Kansas City, CBGB, and the Rock Lounge, before breaking up in 1981, shortly before Basquiat found fame in the art world.
Basquiat also became interested in hip-hop after meeting the musician and artist Fred Braithwaite, known professionally as Fab 5 Freddy, at a party in 1978.60 Braithwaite, who is popularly credited with spreading rap beyond the Bronx, introduced Basquiat to early hip-hop culture by playing mix tapes of underground groups.61 Soon after meeting Braithwaite, Basquiat expanded his circle of friends to include several other graffiti and hip-hop artists, including Rammellzee, Toxic, and A-1. In late 1982 Basquiat, along with Fab 5 Freddy, Toxic, A-1, Al Diaz, and Rammellzee, produced a hip-hop single featuring the lyrics of Rammellzee and K-Rob.62 Titled Beat-Bop, this record was used in the soundtrack of Henry Chalfant's film Style Wars-a 1983 documentary of the New York graffiti and music scene. Beat-Bop was the first (and only) release of the artist's Tartown Record Company.63
Scholars have argued that Basquiat personified hip-hop's methods of appropriation and sampling because he often referenced historical painting styles in his work.64 The second chapter of this book looks more closely at Basquiat's relationship to jazz, considering specifically the structural effects of the music on Basquiat's painting process. Basquiat himself recognized hip-hop's connections to jazz; his title for the 1983 single Beat-Bop refers playfully to the predominant "beat" of rap music, and the "bop" style of jazz.65 Most important, the layering of sources and sounds in hip-hop connects Basquiat's interest in jazz to his performances with Gray. Chapter 2 starts with the figure of the bebop musician Charlie Parker, whom Basquiat painted frequently-both in metaphorical references and in direct representations. Parker functioned for Basquiat as more than a cultural hero, in the traditions of the black athletes or other historical figures that the artist painted and drew. He represented for Basquiat a methodology that the artist then incorporated into his own visual practice. I compare Parker's and Basquiat's techniques of improvisation and appropriation in order to refine our perspective on spontaneity in visual art as something both deliberate and complex.
My final chapter looks at Basquiat's deep interest in text and writing as part of his larger investigation into the very foundations of identity, language, and art history. After the "death" of SAMO, Basquiat's interest in poetry and language persisted. Writing seeped into his paintings and drawings, sometimes in the form of word games, logos, and cryptic messages. And in his private notebooks he continually experimented with text.66 Richard Marshall has published one of the few analyses of Basquiat's use of language in his catalog essay for the exhibition In Word Only at the Cheim & Read Gallery in New York in 2005. In his essay Marshall notes that "by 1982 Basquiat was obsessed with words, and they appeared everywhere, often as the sole visual content of a work."67 Chapter 3 examines Basquiat's connections to the literary strategies of the Beat writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. Certain similarities between the biographies of these authors and Basquiat's life exist, but I focus here on the ways in which Kerouac and Burroughs provided models of spontaneity and collage, and negotiated identity in ways that Basquiat could not have found exclusively in his visual sources. I look to Basquiat's own writings, from a compilation of the artist's notebooks, to connect his impulses in collage and concrete poetry to his work as a painter. My analysis also includes an examination of key texts by Kerouac and Burroughs, as well as the interpretations of their methods in literary scholarship. Both authors demonstrated sensitivity to the shifting boundaries between art, music, and literature, a sensitivity with which Basquiat identified. The Beat writers provided a model of literary innovation and textual experimentation that was also believed to be authentically expressive. In other words, it was through an interest in Beat literature that Basquiat found resolution for the tension between his conceptual and expressionist tendencies.
Exploring the connections between disciplines, Basquiat discovered modes of composition that an exclusively visual analysis overlooks. I demonstrate throughout the book that theories of language and theories of the diaspora in turn provide methodologies for the interpretation of these disjunctive images, which challenge the ideas of a singular narrative, unified aesthetics, and binaries of iconography. This is perhaps most emphatic in the artist's manipulation of several strands of cultural discourse (from modernism to primitivism), his intertwining of multiple voices and perspectives (African and American), his questioning of hierarchies (between real and reproduced, or between signifier and signified), and his crossing of critical and art historical boundaries (from conceptualism to expressionism).
Finally, I must note that this is a discourse constantly in flux. One considerable challenge in undertaking a monographic study of this artist is that, despite Basquiat's death in 1988, his oeuvre continues to expand. As I write this introduction, the news of the discovery of a trove of some sixty of the artist's early drawings, documentary footage, and even an unpublished screenplay has just emerged. Without a doubt these revelations will provide even more evidence for future scholarship on the artist and will allow an even deeper understanding of some of the themes-especially the role of writing-that this study addresses. Rather than position this book as absolute, I hope my study of Basquiat will help future scholars as they continue to open this work to interpretation.