Share

Painting Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a formidable storyteller. Last year alone, six major exhibitions of his works took visitors on a discovery journey. Access to rarely seen works, sketches, photographs and footage showcased his talent as a graffiti artist, painter, graphic designer, poet, musician, DJ, actor and performance artist. Thirty years after his death, audiences world-wide re-discovered him as the embodiment of our present culture.

Basquiat Collage

JMB was a magpie. Physically surrounding himself with a wide variety of sources, he would constantly sample material from books, music, comics and the television. He would grab it and own it. This aspect of his practice strikes a cord especially with the younger audience who has just discovered him.

In our digital age, accessibility of information and simultaneity are taken for granted. They supply us with a wealth of indirect experience that we assimilate and weave into the fabric of our lives. The effortless coexistence of past, present and immediate future, the mix of historical soundbites and pop-culture and the unique lexicon of his works are incredibly contemporary and acutely relevant. He explored the same issues around race, identity, power and white privilege that we are addressing now.

With many recurring elements of his works being adopted by successive generations of artists, the angular crown in primis, there was no question that also his iconic image would become a symbol associated with a lot more than just his physical appearance. Six different artists who painted portraits of JMB tell us about his enduring appeal.

TIM FOWLER

Tim Fowler

What motivated you to choose Jean Michel Basquiat as a subject for a portrait?

The inspiration to paint this portrait of JMB came from two major experiences that affected me as an artist. The first happened when I was still at school. I enjoyed art, but I was never really interested in it outside of lessons. One evening I came back home and switched the TV on. They were showing the film 'Basquiat'. It totally changed my entire idea of what art and the art world was like. Until that point, I had only ever heard of old, dead white painters like Picasso and Van Gogh. To see this young black guy, who looked like me, painting and being able to live a rock star lifestyle just from painting blew me away. The idea of going to a studio and painting what I wanted all day, then selling it for thousands of pounds, confirmed in my head that it was what I wanted to do in life. I always took it as fate that at that point in my life I randomly saw that film and it had such an impact on me and the decisions I went on to make. The second and main reason why I painted this particular image of him is the exhibition Boom for Real at the Barbican. Seeing his works in the flesh was obviously amazing, but more importantly, it gave a real insight into him as a person. The interviews with him, having access to his sketchbooks, the interviews with people who knew him and a clear timeline of his career is what really interested me. I based my painting on the image for the poster of the exhibition because it was very current and a lot of young people who had just discovered his works would instantly recognise it.

A way of looking at Basquiat’s body of work is through the mix of contrasting elements: wealth and poverty, past and present, words and images, paint and collage, scholarly references and graffiti, inclusion and segregation. Is this something that resonates with you as an artist? 

In some ways, it does with regards to influences. I studied contemporary fine art at Sheffield Hallam which was very much focused on the conceptual 'high brow' forms of art and artists. Learning to use the right art language to discuss and critique art. At the same time, the whole street art movement was already starting to cross over into the white wall gallery world. Graffiti artist, once considered low brow, were some of the most popular, sought after names. This meant I had two strong influences coming through from opposite ends of the art world spectrum. This affected my style and the use of materials. I was competent with acrylics and a brush, but then started to incorporate spray paints and graffiti paints/inks into my practice. Basquiat used a lot of oil sticks, which is why I also started using them. The wealth and poverty contrast isn't apparent in my work. but it is something that is part of the business/networking side of being an artist. Most artists I know come from working class or humble backgrounds. If your career takes off, you spend more time dealing with upper class, very wealthy people. Speaking and dealing with people and galleries who spend thousands of pounds on artworks seemingly without any concern is very overwhelming at first.

Why do you think he is still so popular and relevant in pop culture circles?

I think his whole life story means he will always be relevant. His rapid rise to fame, his relationships and his early tragic death make him a cemented icon. Another big factor which keeps him relevant is again the rise of street art and artists in the commercial art world. This opens up a whole new audience to his work. His style influences a lot of other contemporary artists which are easily recognisable as 'Basquiatesque’. It’s almost a genre of its own. Last year the exhibition at the Barbican increased his popularity immensely. Also, the fact that Bansky painted a piece on the side of the building paying homage to him gained masses of media attention. His work affected pop culture as a whole. You can see his influence not just on art, but fashion and advertising too.

If you could own one of his works, which one would you choose and why?

If I could own any Basquiat painting my instinctive reaction would be to pick something big and colourful, like the Untitled (Skull) piece that was recently sold at auction for a record-breaking sum. However, when I was younger, I got his Sugar Ray Robinson piece tattooed on my tricep. It is a small simple piece that has a lot more sentimental value. Actually no, scrap that! I'm going with the big piece. The thought of being able to wake up each day and having that beautiful, colourful monster of a painting hanging on my wall is too hard to resist. Also to see the textures in real life and not just on a screen is too tempting. 

www.timjfowler.co.uk

www.instagram.com/timjfowler/

 

RENÉ ALVAREZ MÄKELÄ

René Alvarez Mäkelä

What motivated you to choose Jean Michel Basquiat as a subject for a portrait?

I love his art, what it meant at the time he did it and how he changed the rules of the game in the art world. Also his personality and his authenticity, he was very different from the rest. His paintings right now have the same meaning as at the time he painted them. He was so ahead of his time.

A way of looking at Basquiat’s body of work is through the mix of contrasting elements: wealth and poverty, past and present, words and images, paint and collage, scholarly references and graffiti, inclusion and segregation. Is this something that resonates with you as an artist? 

Yes, I think a lot of artists have Basquiat’s influence. I for once write a lot of words and sentences in my paintings and I try to mix realism with expressionism, using lots of colours and different materials.

Why do you think he is still so popular and relevant in pop culture circles?

As I said in my answer to the first question, he treated subjects like racism, social inequalities, violence, the power of wealthy people, capitalism. These are issues that are still very present in our society. 

He was this kind of cool guy with a cool look possibly born twenty years too early.

The colours, the technique, the textures of his work were so different and powerful that today people are still constantly discovering him.

If you could own one of his works, which one would you choose and why?

Definitely Untitled (Skull) 1981.

www.renemakela.com

www.instagram.com/makelismos/

 

MISHOU SANCHEZ

Mishou Sanchez

What motivated you to choose Jean Michel Basquiat as a subject for a portrait?

I did a portrait series of (6) artists who were a huge influence to me and who were transformative icons in art history. Basquiat was an influence who broke all the moulds; he was not born of the elite but was highly skilled and hugely knowledgeable on the subject of art. Yes, he was a street kid but, he was one who had spent countless hours in galleries and museums, studying the greats and his contemporaries. Because of his background, I believe that his legacy continues not just because of his titan skills but also because of his rise above his meagre beginnings. The art world has not been the same since the '80s and he is truly one of the last artists to get to the top of the game without being born with a trust fund.   

A way of looking at Basquiat’s body of work is through the mix of contrasting elements: wealth and poverty, past and present, words and images, paint and collage, scholarly references and graffiti, inclusion and segregation. Is this something that resonates with you as an artist? 

As artists, we visualise the art around us. Basquiat had this unbelievable ability to translate his world into complex images that were multi-platform and beautifully imperfect, raw and so right. His brilliantly executed perspective was fresh, new, real and exciting. He took the art world to fearless new heights. He knew his art history well and that is why he was able to be so playful and revolutionary. He was identifiable because people wanted to be him or saw a little of themselves in him. 

Why do you think he is still so popular and relevant in pop culture circles?

His work is still popular and relevant because it was so revolutionary, his personality was intriguing, his work exhilarating and his story was triumphant. Coming out of 1980's New York is also very romanticised. It was a period in history which saw an explosion of culture, much like Paris in the '20s. 

If you could own one of his works, which one would you choose and why?

Santo 2 (1982) at The Broad Museum in Los Angeles. It's cryptic, unapologetic, expressive, boundless, transformative and personal. 

www.mishousanchez.com

www.instagram.com/mishousanchez/

 

ADAM CALDWELL

Adam Caldwell

What motivated you to choose Jean Michel Basquiat as a subject for a portrait?

This was originally for a show about Warhol and his contemporaries. It had fragments of a Warhol/Basquiat painting in the background. I later decided to refine the portrait and paint out the background. I would have done this painting anyway since Basquiat is a hero of mine and a big influence. Anyone who paints in an Armani suit deserves our respect and admiration.

A way of looking at Basquiat’s body of work is through the mix of contrasting elements: wealth and poverty, past and present, words and images, paint and collage, scholarly references and graffiti, inclusion and segregation. Is this something that resonates with you as an artist? 

Absolutely. I am coming from a very different background artistically and culturally, but have always been fascinated by drawing and painting mixed together and the combination of words and images. I do paint more “realistically”, but the collaged feeling, the references to history, and the layers of mark making are a big part of my work.

Why do you think he is still so popular and relevant in pop culture circles?

Because his work is so Badass. Its so raw and fresh and vibrant and cuts through so much crap.

Sadly, our culture worships those who die young: James Dean, Kurt Cobain, Bruce Lee. They can never age or disappoint us. They become untouchable, iconic and frozen in a nostalgic moment of perfect youth.

If you could own one of his works, which one would you choose and why?

Notary. I’ve always loved the central figure and the writing. The large black shapes are so graphic and cool.

www.adamhuntercaldwell.com/

www.instagram.com/ahuntercaldwell/

 

PURE EVIL

Pure Evil

What motivated you to choose Jean Michel Basquiat as a subject for a portrait?

I love his whole story and his attitude and also I grew up with his art. My father was a big fan of his work so he was one of the first to show Jean-Michel’s work

A way of looking at Basquiat’s body of work is through the mix of contrasting elements: wealth and poverty, past and present, words and images, paint and collage, scholarly references and graffiti, inclusion and segregation. Is this something that resonates with you as an artist?

Not really I’m a privileged white middle-class guy so it doesn’t really hit me quite the same way. I haven’t really had the struggle he had.

I am Welsh though and I grew up the only kid in the village into dressing like a new romantic, but it’s nothing like growing up Black in the USA in the ’70s. Let’s face it :)

Why do you think he is still so popular and relevant in pop culture circles?

He was just the right artist for the right time and the right place and he broke down barriers with his explosive imagery.

If you could own one of his works, which one would you choose and why?

I own one of his drawings and I’m happy with that one. It’s a drawing of a van and a skelly game, it’s pretty awesome.

www.pureevilgallery.com

www.instagram.com/pureevilgallery/

 

ANIKA MANUEL

Anika Manuel

What motivated you to choose Jean Michel Basquiat as a subject for a portrait?

Last year I decided to create a series of portraits with the subject being artists that had inspired me growing up. The first in that series was Jean-Michel Basquiat. While I was at college, we had to do projects based on various artists and from all of the ones we studied, the work of Basquiat really resonated with me, so much so that I was drawn to pay homage to him many years later by painting his portrait. I read 'Widow Basquiat' a memoir by Jennifer Clement, about the artist's tortured love affair with his first great love, Suzanne Mallouk, while painting Jean-Michel Basquiat's portrait for the first time. This insight into the sort of man he was resonated with me so, that I was compelled to paint him for a second time. And I feel I will continue to return to him, again and again.

A way of looking at Basquiat’s body of work is through the mix of contrasting elements: wealth and poverty, past and present, words and images, paint and collage, scholarly references and graffiti, inclusion and segregation. Is this something that resonates with you as an artist?

The contrasting elements of painting offer a good insight into the way I work as an artist. While a lot of the time I create bright, hopefully optimistic images, there is always something much darker lurking behind them, some subtle melancholy that I can't seem to evade. I think contrast is key to creating exciting work. The work of Basquiat is a stark contrast to mine, while at college we had to create paintings in the style of his and I loved the expressive freedom I had with painting every thought that was in my mind at the time, crossing it out, being angry, sad, writing text, crossing that out, but I guess the point is that it wasn't my work, it was in the style of his and while I enjoyed the brief insight into the energy that he must have needed to create, my work has quickly evolved into something that is precise and controlled; I'm afraid of the consequences sometimes of being so expressive, so honest.

I think I was drawn to Basquiat the person at a young age precisely because his life was outwardly so different from mine, my quiet upbringing in Cornwall, England couldn't have been happier and without incident, and yet as I've grown and life has presented obstacles and challenges, I feel a real sense of empathy towards Basquiat and would have loved to have known him, although I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have liked me.

Why do you think he is still so popular and relevant in pop culture circles?

I think over time Basquiat has become an icon, a beacon for every artist everywhere that doesn't feel like part of the establishment. This is something I've always had difficulty with, perhaps because I'm a female artist, or perhaps it's the sort of person I am but I've always felt like an outsider, and it is in that feeling of being 'other' that we find an ally in Basquiat. Also, I believe his work is so popular because it addresses many of the broader issues affecting us still such as wealth and poverty, the commodity, power structures and social commentary and in him, we find an artist who breaks it all down into a basic truth.

If you could own one of his works, which one would you choose and why?

If I could own one of his works it would be 'Notary', painted in March 1983 in New York. Not only am I drawn to the figurative imagery, this painting concerns itself with the darker aspects of our human existence. He uses references to Greek mythology, African tribal culture and Roman history and draws figures with text such as 'parasites' and 'leeches' who will feed off of the flesh of the male torso; comparable with the artist's own challenges and energy being diminished in that period of his life. Painted at a time where he was notorious and successful as an artist, this piece reveals the depth of his own pathos, and that is why I am drawn to it.

www.anikamanuel.com

www.instagram.com/anikamanuelart/

All images are copyright of the artists.

Share