"To Whites every Black holds a potential knife behind the back, and to every Black the White is concealing a whip." - René Ricard, "The Radiant Child," 1984Do you remember the moment in your childhood when you woke up to the dangers and injustices of the adult world? In the life Jean-Michel Basquiat, an American artist of Haitian/Puerto-Rican descent, that moment -- in which he glimpsed the hidden knives and whips -- stretched from his troubled early teens until his death at the age of twenty-seven in 1988. Money, fame and drugs never dimmed the visions of racial injustice and historical abuses of power that both haunted him and fueled his imagination. Jean's sustained adolescent rage became the engine of his bracingly original art.
To cope, and to assert his individualism, Basquiat developed an aesthetic parallel universe with its own impenetrable language of words, signs and symbols. In the words of Marc Mayer, the Director of the National Gallery of Canada, Basquiat "...speaks articulately while dodging the full impact of clarity like a matador." An auto-didact whose work parodies and subverts education and history, Jean-Michel Basquiat was the greatest outsider artist of the Twentieth Century.
Since his death, the art market has increasingly anointed him as one of its greatest insiders. Thousands of artists, would-be-artists, and poseurs have tried to emulate his trenchant precocity, and the results have been predictably lame. Basquiat's prickly intelligence is hard to match, and the esoteric poesia of his finest works is impossible to imitate.
The title of the work offers viewers a suggestion -- that the painting is "In Italian" -- but there are several languages required to "read" the image. Basquiat often included words in his paintings and "In Italian" does have a single Italian word "SANGUE," (blood) which has been crossed out and replaced by its Latin counterpart:"SANGRE." There are also phrases and words in English, a mangled Italian name - is it Paulo? - and one word each in Spanish (AGUA) and Dutch (HOEK). So, inquiring visitors to Gagosian Gallery might start by asking: "Why the reference to Italian?"
Basquiat, who did not keep track of how many works he gave to Mazzoli, later told friends that the dealer had gotten a "bulk deal" and had ripped him off. On his second trip to Italy some years later Basquiat was detained by Italian customs officials before his departure, as the much wiser artist was carrying roughly $100k in cash, a sum they couldn't believe a young black visitor had earned simply by selling paintings.
Of course the title "In Italian" may not have anything to do with Jean's experiences in Italy. It may simply be a way of saying that the painting is in a graffiti style. The term "graffiti" was first coined to describe the inscriptions and drawings found on the walls of ancient Roman ruins and later evolved to take on the connotation of vandalism.
In the left panel, the carefully labeled "DIAGRAM OF THE HEART PUMPING BLOOD" might be a reference to the "Sacred Heart," a symbolic representation of Christ's love for humanity, and also an emblem for many Roman Catholic institutions. It should be mentioned that although Jean did attend a Catholic high school -- where religious images must have made an impression -- he used religious imagery in a free-wheeling and personal way, hybridizing and personalizing European and African forms and rites.
Added to this Voudou/Catholic mix of esoterica are two images of Washington quarters, both dated 1951. Is it possible that the year 1951 refers to the beginnings of the American Civil Rights movement? It was, after all, the year that the father of an 8-year old African American sued the Kansas State School Board so that his daughter could attend an all-white school. That may or may not be the case, but in the left panel of "In Italian" LIBERTY is suspiciously crossed out and "IN GOD WE TRUST" is reduced to a sarcastic scrawl. Also, George Washington's right eye stares directly at the viewer, giving gallery-goers the creepy "mirada fuerte" (strong gaze) found in many Picasso portraits. The quarter on the right panel has been succinctly de-valued with the text "TEN CENTS." A forever de-contextualized date range -- 1594-1752 -- floats above.
The best way to understand "In Italian" is to keep in mind what Basquiat once said about his art in general: "It's about 80% anger."
I'd say that the other 20% is mystery.
February 7 - April 6, 2013
555 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10011