Basquiat facing his heroes

May 18, 2022

By Corinne Timsit and Léa Hippolyte

This essay examines some of the drawings of his studio from 1982 and how they drew inspiration from individuals, his very friends, contemporary heroes, or art masters especially Picasso. By bringing forward and updating this unique creative ensemble of Basquiat’s 40” x 32” Head drawings on from his most decisive period, we thus aim to rejuvenate the intensity of his draughtsmanship genius.

Haunting his body of works, modern icons and heroic figures have been part of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s subjects, as they epitomize individuals who gained through their own accomplishment international recognition and triumph in the modern world “He despised people who were impressed by fame. (…) He was interested in the people.” (Annina Nosei)1 He symbolically clung to personal role models he deeply identified with, those who made history and who were held in high public esteem thanks to the expression of their passion and creativity. He found in their pictorial representation the ideas of self empowerment, commemoration of himself and future self, and homage to his contemporary references. In 1982 Basquiat was in his most productive year creatively, especially given the richness of his frenetic artistic production of seminal paintings, from his first postcards to works on paper and then to large canvases. Professionally, it was an artistic shift where he had come to identify the style and language of his painting practice. It was a turning point for him as well personally, as he was still transitioning in his identity as a major studio artist, gaining recognition from the art collectors as well as his own family. 

This Untitled series of heads and bust portraits was created from the same paper and the same technique of “acrylic and oil stick on paper” tempera. They are all the same size of approximately 40” x 32”, dating from the year 1982, except one from 1983 (Figure 7). Our research selection may not be exhaustive, and other portraits of this size and paper can possibly exist, as Basquiat continued working consistently on simple mediums such as paper of great quality throughout his career. Perhaps, essentially, Basquiat’s intention when buying the paper book was to work on them for portraits that would rely on simplified motions thanks to the immediacy of the paper medium. Paper was his most intimate support and the original support of his career. « The paper itself, which bears its history so lightly, with dust and footprints from the studio visible throughout, insists on the performative element of Basquiat’s practice.”2. It symbolized Basquiat’s relationship to his art, in the most pure and sensitive form, as well as the freest space of creation where he could express his messages and his essence, like the Gray’s Anatomy book or Leonardo da Vinci drawings. By bringing forward and updating this unique creative ensemble of Basquiat’s 40” x 32” paper drawings works from his most decisive period, we thus aim to rejuvenate the intensity of his draughtsmanship genius.

In the presented non exhaustive series of drawings, Basquiat invited himself into a direct dialogue with his own heros. On Figure 2, done when the artist was living at 151 Crosby Street in Soho, the curator and art dealer Jeffrey Deitch recalled, “Jean-Michel showed us the drawings that he was working on. There was no drawing table and no neat stack of finished work. The drawings were scattered all over the floor, walked on like they were part of the linoleum. … There did not seem to be any separation between life and art.”3. Thus, we have decided to portray the artist – centered through a self portrait – and its various representations as an open round table conversation with his inspiration and friends.

«Heads are among the most significant themes in Basquiat’s work. Sometimes signifying a portrait of one of the artist’s heroes, other times referencing Christ or the Devil, at other times the head signifies an anonymous doppelganger for the everyman, or a self-portrait.»4

The human head works were executed at a crucial moment in the artist’s meteoric rise to fame and are among Basquiat’s most symbolic subjects of his obsessive artistic exploration during the pivotal year of 1982. As enigmatic as they may be, his heads are endowed with a vital presence, vibrate from every line and definitely hold a particular importance. The dialogue they create with each other calls attention to the intertextuality of his emotional understanding of art. All together they form a conversation and those depicted characters are evocative of Basquiat’s world of cross-references and multivocality, as the collectors Mera and Don Rubell5 reminisce: “We met him at Annina Nosei’s gallery. He lived and worked there. The day we met him, he was holding a book by Cy Twombly (…) We talked about Twombly and about art history. He was really an artist who had something to say. He wasn’t copying Twombly, he was conversing with him…“.

This essay examines more specifically some of the drawings of his studio and how they drew inspiration from individual people, his very friends, contemporary heroes, or art masters. Those interpretative homages to his « heroes » could have taken their source from photographs, Basquiat’s everyday environment or artists’ artworks. Some of the Head drawings distinctly confront us with recognizable subjects like his John Lurie portrait head (Figure 4) after the acclaimed painter and musician. Some appear to us as enigmatic individual portraits, mostly sportsmen, with an ambiguous narrative; while some are displaying Basquiat himself such as Figure 5 (Untitled, 1982) with his recognizable headscarf, described by Christie’s as “a deeply poignant self-portrait”….

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