Jean-Michel Basquiat: Flash Portfolio
The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat recently announced the release of a new portfolio of four hand-pulled screenprints, Riddle Me This, A Panel of Experts, Piano Lesson, and Flash In Naples. Originally created between 1982-87, the prints are a compilation of Basquiat’s prominent works featuring a variety of American superheroes.
Flash In Naples paints superhero, the Flash, in two larger-than-life figures. Originally made in 1983, the piece is celebrated for its vibrant color pallette and intensely painted surface. Basquiat frequently observed and exaggerated the human body in much of his work. The gridded background and varying scale of the portraits pushes the figures to the forefront. In the upper-righthand corner, one can see the word “emblem” has been scrawled and scratched over. This is an intentional device used by Basquiat. He explains, “I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.” Flash In Naples shows the dynamic mix of chaos and composition signature to the artist.
Piano Lesson (for Chiara) was originally painted by Basquiat in 1983. Batman and Robin are drafted into one of the artist’s sketches amidst a number of anatomical drawings. Basquiat frequently integrated the symbols of childhood and juvenile popular culture with his own real and imagined experiences. Piano Lesson is a perfect portrayal of the complexity that made up Basquiat’s style. Batman’s suit is marked in a grid of acrylic and oil-stick lattice – a pattern that repeats across the canvas. By mixing simple illustrations with symbols of popular Western culture, he creates subtle moments of more artistic decisions and mark-making.
Like many of his other works, A Panel of Experts shows a glimpse into Basquiat’s personal life and psyche. On the importance of this piece, the MMFA writes, “it embodies many of Basquiat’s characteristic subjects and techniques, and also refers to a specific event in the artist’s personal life. The fistfight at the top of the left rectangle is a stick-figure representation of an actual encounter between two women in a New York nightclub: Basquiat’s girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk (nicknamed Venus) and his lover the singer Madonna, who, despite the copyright symbol beside her name, was not yet a celebrity.” True to his private nature, it also appears much of the scene has been redacted.
Basquiat created Riddle Me This, Batman in 1987 – a year before his death. The piece embodies the chaotic nature of the artist’s later years. Batman faces The Riddler and The Joker, scattered with cryptic words and symbols. As in the original material, the supervillains possess a twisted sense of humor. In the comics, The Riddler often poses riddles to Batman, at one point asking, “riddle me this, riddle me that, who’s afraid of the big black bat?” Basquiat takes the idea of the “big black bat” and creates one-eyed depictions of the Bat Signal. The Riddler can be seen clutching a bottle of alcohol, possibly alluding to Basquiat’s worsening dependence. The Joker looms to the right, surrounded by maniacal laughter. In ways, this piece can be seen as autobiographical. Basquiat offered a breath of fresh air in the art world at the time. Like Batman, he became a cultural icon, but his rise to status did not come without loss.