Basquiat’s pieces read like a stream of consciousness full of unconnected phrases, illustrations, and color blocks. Elements of his New York upbringing and rise to fame can be traced throughout his paintings. He emphasizes lesser known moments of history and creates a conversation around the Black experience. Through his paintings, the artist reveals his relationship with the world he found himself in.
In Boxer Rebellion, Basquiat obscures the viewer while simultaneously cluing them in. For non-Chinese speakers, the print requires literal translation. Spotlight is given to two boxing figures at the center of the painting, one of which is named as American boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson. Basquiat is known to cast Black figures and celebrities in the focus of his work, as he felt they weren’t given the recognition they deserved. The seemingly random themes are given context by the “Chinese Boxer Rebellion” scrawled in the bottom right corner. The violent uprising took place in China in the early 1900s as a campaign against foreign influence. Thus the addition of multiple languages (including Spanish, a call-out to Basquiat’s Puerto Rican heritage) is a provocative jab at the xenophibic sentiment that sparked the movement. Boxer Rebellion is a prime example of Basquiat retracing historical events with pigments of his life.
Hollywood Africans In Front Of The Chinese Theater With Footprints Of Movie Stars frames Basquiat (right) and friends, Toxic (left) and Rammellzee (center), in the notoriously white space of Hollywood celebrities. Cartoonish figures of themselves are juxtaposed with bold lettering and elements taken from educational texts, such as boxes, captions, and figures. Basquiat blends comments on the marginalization of Black people in the arts and entertainment world by blending stereotypes with the unexpected. Hollywood Africans shows Basquiat’s perspective on his own fame and the dichotomy between popularity and belonging.
Untitled Dog Leg Study showcases Basquiat’s fascination with anatomy and medical science, an interest honed from reading and memorizing Grey’s Anatomy as a child. Various bones and body parts are illustrated with accuracy. Many critics would describe Basquiat’s work as “primitive” and fixate on his street art background. He considered this racially motivated, as he grew up visiting museums, studying the masters, and was well-educated in art and academics. His understanding of the human body and art training shines through and while many of his figures are exaggerated, it’s a deliberate choice by the artist. Basquiat creates a juxtaposition of crude sketches and more detailed anatomical figures in Untitled Dog Leg Study, adding to the collaged nature of the piece.
Cabeza shows a more focused, color-heavy side of Basquiat’s work. Unlike his scattered compositions, Cabeza features a single figure with only one visible word – ”Aopkhes.” The word itself has no known meaning, but is repeatedly used by Basquiat in his pieces. The painting shows a fragmented individual in strong contrast to their colorful background. Basquiat’s pieces commonly examined his Black roots and identity, but he was often tokenized as such by a community whose meaning it was not intended for. Painted at the height of his fame, Cabeza could show the isolation and misunderstanding the young artist was facing.
More than any interview or historical text, Basquiat’s pieces speak for themselves. They have the power to draw interest even without context, but understanding his life as an artist brings a new appreciation to the pieces. Basquiat was undoubtedly famous, but felt like he was not well-known. Decoding his pieces is the best way to get acquainted with the person behind them.