A man looks at a work of art in the Museum Brandhorst in Munich

Munich people looking at pictures: Basquiat

Abstract realism

In the past, our author has been a graffiti artist himself. He is looking at “Untitled” by Jean-Michel Basquiat for us.

At first, I only notice the painting out of the corner of my eye. And my initial thought is: I know that picture. I have seen it somewhere before. Jean-Michel Basquiat must have copied it from somewhere: the doodles, the bright colours, the childlike writing, the strange heads. That says something to me: but what?

I go closer to the picture. There are two works by Jean-Michel Basquiat hanging on the ground floor of the permanent exhibition at the Museum Brandhorst. I can’t tear myself away from “Untitled” from 1983. And when I take a closer look at the picture, a memory suddenly comes back to me: Zurich, around 2004, art school. My classmate Giacomo had stuck a picture to the wall of the illustration classroom. He did this with a careless gesture: the picture, his picture did not seem to be particularly important to him. But for me, then aged 20, a lot changed. His picture affected me. It would have been beyond my ability to describe why that was the case at that moment.

Until that Giacomo moment, I had confined my love for art to the painters to which my mother had introduced to me: the French impressionists such as Degas, Matisse or Monet. These are my mother’s favourites, which is why we had their art books on our bookshelves – and postcards of their paintings on the fridge. At the same time, I was fascinated by the graffiti that we saw on Zurich’s streets at that time. This generally took the form of simple block capitals: “STR”, “VTO” or “UFO”: Sometimes in colour, sometimes in chrome.

To be honest, I had never really grappled with him. But today, he suddenly seems very close to me. Because the picture reminds me of my time at art school. Because it calls up scenes and feelings in me that I have long forgotten.

This rebellious, typographical approach also inspired me, much to the concern of my parents. What I really loved about Giacomo’s drawing was that he combined the elements that I liked so much in his own way. Letters, graphic shapes, figures and the interplay of colours. Abstractly drawn crowns were also repeatedly found in his works. Sometimes above the heads of the characters. Sometimes above words that appear particularly important. This made the biggest impression on me. In the graffiti scene, it is the official symbol of being the underground king of a city.

After this, I began to draw in a similar way to Giacomo: similar heads and figures that intended to appear significant, along with words that I considered to be profound and meaningful at the time: names or sentences from Hermann Hesse books or lines from songs that I found groundbreaking. Looking back, I probably just copied Giacomo. But I have no problem admitting that today. Art emerges from inspiration, from many different impressions, which you then, ideally, combine to form your own style.

And, of course, Giacomo also had his source of inspiration, even if it took me fifteen years and a visit to the Brandhorst collection to understand that. “Untitled” was created in the year of my birth, 1983. The work consists of three upright panels that are arranged next to one another. Curators or other show-offs call such an installation a triptych.

The museum writes that the imagery is restless. The woman’s body on the left panel is a reference to a painting of Picasso. It goes on to say that the picture demonstrates Basquiat’s artistic horizon. From European culture to Afro-American counter-culture. The museum also writes that he assimilated white cultural history and marked his own place in it as an artist of colour. I stand in front of the painting for ten minutes and am overcome by a slight feeling of melancholy.

I can see so many elements in it that I loved and in Giacomo’s work and imitated. The names Marco Polo and Miles Davis are there, for example. Both crossed out. Giacomo also crossed out words, just different ones. I don’t think that Basquiat wanted to express that he didn’t like the people in question. For him, it was perhaps more a case of juggling the key words that were important in his universe and his subconscious. This crossing out simply means playing with them, giving them a personal context. Perhaps even underlining them. I read through all the words and I think that he wanted to produce an overall impression, rather than make a concrete statement. To some extent, Basquiat also used a technique that is typical of hip-hop. This is sampling – copying, imitating bringing together completely different things, although they do not belong together, and combining them to form something completely new.

To some extent, Basquiat also used a technique that is typical of hip-hop. This is sampling – copying, imitating bringing together completely different things, although they do not belong together, and combining them to form something completely new.

Basquiat was born in 1960 in New York. His mother came from Puerto Rico, his father from Haiti. Basquiat is referred to as a US American graffiti artist, painter and drawer. Although he himself claimed not to be a graffiti artist. Whether that is the case or not remains to be seen. The fact is that, together with a school friend, he formed a graffiti duo called SAMO© at the age of 17, which draw attention to itself in the gallery district Soho with sprayed phrases: “SAMO© as an end to playing art” or “SAMO© as an end to mindwash religion, stop running around with the radical chic playing art with daddy’s dollars.” A little later, at the age of 21, he got to know Andy Warhol and soon belonged to his established circle. At the same time, he sold his first works and was allowed to exhibit at documenta in Kassel, as the youngest artist to date. He quickly became famous, but unfortunately didn’t reach old age. He died in New York on 12th August 1988 of an overdose.

The museum’s alarm system suddenly turns on. I can hear loud beeps around me. A member of the museum staff informs me that I have come much too close to the picture. I just wanted to study the picture from close quarters and to take a closer look at the application of oil chalk and acryllic on the primed canvas. I have never made much of Basquiat. To be honest, I had never really grappled with him. But today, he suddenly seems very close to me. Because the picture reminds me of my time at art school. Because it calls up scenes and feelings in me that I have long forgotten.

The naïve veneration that I felt at that time probably only comes when you are young, I think. Nevertheless, that time has had a profound impact on me. I still love graffitied suburban trains today. As an Art Director, I no longer scribble quotes by Hesse on oil paintings, but I still like playing around with various typographies, experimenting with writing and images, combining classic and modern styles, being rough and delicate at the same time and, in this way, ideally surprising the beholder or even dazzling them a little. In this sense, I have learnt a lot from Giacomo – and thus, indirectly, a little from Basquiat.

 

 

Text: Alexis Zurflüh; Photos: Frank Stolle; Jean-Michel Basquiat: © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020; Bruce Nauman © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020.

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