Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Childlike Exploration among A Panel of Experts


Fig. 1. Jean-Michel Basquiat, A Panel of Experts, 1982, acrylic and oil pastel on paper mounted on canvas, 152.5 x 152 cm, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Originally a graffiti artist in New York City, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) created artworks exploring his own life alongside socio-political issues such as racism, sexism, violence, and drug addiction. He drew inspiration from every day, whether it be popular culture or his black heritage. Basquiat’s career can be divided into three periods marked by changes in his artistic style. The first, from 1980 to early 1982, is when Basquiat transferred his expertise in graffiti into gestural paintings with a focus on skeletal figures and death. The second, from late 1982 to 1985, involved multi-paneled paintings with exposed stretcher bars, disparate imagery, and strong attention to his ethnic identity. Lastly, from 1986 to 1988, Basquiat, under the increasing influence of drugs and as a result of his friendship with Andy Warhol (1928–1987), created distinctive painterly figures on plain backgrounds.


Basquiat’s A Panel of Experts (1982) belongs to the second phase, when the artist developed a unique and large handmade structure for his paintings, tying together pieces of wood with twine to form a base for his stretched canvas. The painting demonstrates several key features of a Basquiat painting. The piece has an autobiographical quality to it, resembling a page out of a journal, a characteristic present throughout the artist’s body of work. The strong contrast between black and white draws attention to the text and imagery, as well as to the accents of primary colors. Basquiat combines acrylic paint and oil pastel in a layered manner, with several coats painted one on top of the other. He begins by sketching figures, and then he applies a black background, which overlaps some of the drawings. Finally, he writes the text. Basquiat’s method of representing subject matter evokes a sense of innocence. This comes from the artist's use of flattened, two-dimensional, stick-like figures, and the elimination of perspective to create a flat-planed narrative reminiscent of child art. This aesthetic dimension is cleverly juxtaposed with the mature content of his visual imagery.



In his simulation of child art, Basquiat followed in the footsteps of modern artists such as Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985). In Dubuffet’s painting Pépiniériste (Nurseryman) (1944), for example, the artist portrays stick-like figures surrounded by a field of flattened greenery. Dubuffet playfully represents the “Nurseryman” situated in the window frame of what appears to be his workspace.

Jean Dubuffet, Pépiniériste, 1944, oil on canvas, Philbrook Museum of Art

The grid-like depiction of the space resembles a child’s take on visualizing a cityscape. Similar to Basquiat, Dubuffet incorporates the technique of layering into his work, demonstrated in the piling of colors, followed by lines and, in some areas, the introduction of new layers of colors on top of those lines. The two male figures seem to have been added last. The artist’s use of black lines as a means of separating elements from each other results in the creation of units, some of which contain unmixed color, variations of green, orange, and subtle yellow, applied in a pulsating manner. The resultant gritty and the textured surface became a recurring characteristic of Dubuffet's work, leading to a new style the artist called "Hourloupe" in the 1960s. Dubuffet wanted to stay away from conformist mainstream culture by adopting a style that was not affiliated with artistic trends or movements. The seemingly unlearned and spontaneous quality of Dubuffet’s paintings displays an innovative method of personal expression in modern art.


Children depict the familiar and the invisible, giving life to emotions in their drawings through the use of basic shapes and colors. These characteristics can be visually compelling when revived within the context of a work of art. The pure freedom associated with childhood can be captured through an openness to the power of mark-making. As a result, modern artists indebted to child art, including Dubuffet as well as Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Paul Klee (1879–1940), Mikhail Larionov (1881–1964), and Joan Miró (1893–1983), to name only a few, play with the notion of learning to unlearn, allowing themselves to favor simple shapes, forms, and lines.


Jean-Michel Basquiat in his studio, New York, 1982. Photo by Gianfranco Gorgoni

Child art influenced Basquiat’s practice in several ways. The awkward, childlike way he held his pen or brush when he drew allowed for the lines produced to vary between precision and spontaneity, echoing the developing motor skills of a child. Moreover, he experimented with the process of transmitting an image from mind to paper, ignoring the formal elements of proportion and perspective.

Basquiat focused on various schematic symbols found in children's drawings, cartoons, and comics, such as the duck, bird, cloud, and crown shapes in A Panel of Experts. He devised a personal language with such imagery; for instance, the recurring symbol of the crown has often been construed as a symbol asserting the artist’s power. Basquiat was very much a product of his place and time, affected by the questioning attitudes of postmodernism and interested in new ways of approaching concepts, processes, and forms.


Basquiat’s simplification of form in A Panel of Experts belies its complex content. The focus is shifted away from the formal elements of the work toward the powerful immediacy of the subject. For instance, the words “cartoon,” “sugar” and “sugar-coated corn puffs” are accompanied by a copyright symbol because these are products of consumerism. “Sugar” can be connected to “sugar-coated corn puffs” and “Saturday morning cartooning”—all possibly consumed by a young Basquiat as part of the mundane routine of an American child's Saturday morning. Below these elements, the artist includes the image of a gun firing a bullet, pointed at what looks like a wounded man—perhaps Basquiat’s way of commenting on the violence in New York City. The names “Venus” and “Madonna” (with a copyright icon) in the top left corner of the panel refer to both the public and the personal. At first glance, these names appear to refer to the popular subjects of sacred and profane art. More than likely, however, the artist is referring to the pop star Madonna, with whom he is said to have had a relationship before meeting Suzanna Mullock, a girlfriend who was nicknamed “Venus."


Basquiat on the set of Downtown 81, spray can in hand. Photograph: Alamy

Among the words featured on the canvas, Basquiat scrawls “KRAK” in black on white and in white on black in the center of the painting, and again in smaller red letters next to a figure being struck by a bolt of lightning. The word is perhaps an onomatopoeia about the wounded man, but it is more likely Basquiat's way of calling attention to drugs, a topic he examines on numerous occasions and the cause of his early demise. At the time, drugs containing ketamine possessed the street name “Special K.” Thus, the popular American children’s breakfast cereal takes on a multi-layered meaning in its association with the artist’s cocaine addiction and the exploding drug scene of the 1980s.


Considering many of Basquiat’s works have remained unnamed, the fact that this painting is titled A Panel of Experts raises the question as to who these “experts” are. Perhaps they are the influences that inspired the creation of this canvas panel. Alternatively, the title may refer to the panel of people viewing the work in a formal setting, attempting to make sense of what Basquiat is trying to express as if studying the pages of a journal he has left open for strangers to read. In fact, this analysis of A Panel of Experts is my attempt as an art history student to uncover the meaning of this painting. But I also realize that the power of Basquiat's art, despite its references to the personal and social, lies in its puzzling, unexplainable aspects. Formal elements similar to those in A Panel of Experts appear in Basquiat's Seascape (1983), but the content continues to resist my analysis.


Jean-Michel Basquiat, Seascape, 1983, acrylic and oil pastel on paper mounted on canvas, 92.4 x 91.2 cm, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

I could discuss the artist’s panel structure, use of specific materials and techniques, but as far as the meaning goes, the artist’s motives and the subject matter remain inaccessible to me. Unquestionably, this encourages viewers to experience the work abstractly as a language of shapes, colors, and gestural marks with a degree of independence from visual reality.


Although it may not be evident in all of his artworks, Basquiat's naïve and childlike style draws attention to the complex subject matter he is addressing. Not only does he assert an opinionated reflection on the human condition, but he also creates in his paintings an atmosphere that allows the viewer to try and imagine his point of view, in an attempt to decipher the clues he leaves behind on the canvas.


Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1987, in his New York studio Photo by Tseng Kwong Chi



Written by Emilie Croning



JM Art Management

www.jmartmanagement.com

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