Posted: March 24th, 2023

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Artworks


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In the introduction, one of the art movements that emerged from the 1960s and onwards, Neo-Expressionism is discussed. The movement or art style was a part of the Postmodernist style. The movement emerged during the 1960s, with a new crop of artists emerging that could not work with these conventions of the preceding style. Fine art painting was one of the areas of art that drove the Neo-Expressionism movement. The artists favored extremely unfashionable practices which the postmodernists had challenged as “dead.” The movement was meant to express emotions, figuration, narrative, and symbolism (Mayer 49).

One of the artists who emerged during this time was Jean-Michel Basquiat. In fact, this is the artist whose work is the focus of the analysis. Basquiat was an American painter who started with graffiti painting and progressed to become a conventional painter whose paintings were exhibited in major museums and galleries. His paintings illuminated the Neo-Expressionist ideas of the time. His work fitted into the movement because of the evident “suggestive dichotomies” contrast between two realities life realities, surface vs. deeper experiences, scarcity vs. affluence, and isolation vs. integration among others areas. His work reveals a critical use of social commentary revealing major realities of life and of those who lived it (Braziel 174). His work is evident of his feelings about the power structures that operated at the time informing issues such as class struggle and racism.

The analysis focuses on three of his influential works, Per Capita (1981), St. Joe Louis Surrounded by Snakes (1982), and Untitled (1981). In this case, the analysis is aimed at shedding light on the style he used within the Neo-Expressionist movement and his strong sense of composition and color to communicate the social realities that he expressed (Braziel 174).

Per Capita was painted by Basquiat in 1981 advancing the ideals of Neo-Expressionism. Some of the characteristics of the painting include figurative aspect and painted in acrylic, crayon, and canvas. The painting contains racial imagery as well as the evidence of capitalism (Geldzahler 34). The sign of the dollar and the signage appearing on the currency denotes the racially‐charged models. Per Capita combines image and text and the states in the country listed alphabetically, with their per capita revealing inequality. Characterization used, in this case, a high-flying black figure, is potentially a boxer because he wore a boxing short with the brand, EVERLAST. Indeed, this is one of the common images in Basquiat’s work. The model supports the heroic view of the painter of the black athletes (Sirmans 91).

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The other painting that is explored is St. Joe Louis Surrounded by Snakes, which was created in 1982. Just like Per Capita, the painting depicts a haloed boxer. It is another one of the images that fit into the Neo-Expressionism movement. It is also in a figurative genre and painted in acrylic, crayon, canvas, and graphite (Sirmans 91). The image is a strong reflection of the world of the artist. The hero of the story, just like in Per Capita is subjected to exploitation as the image shows his figure being enclosed by insatiable managers and trainers (Hoffman 130). On the St. Joe Louis’ head there is the same halo and the same on the unknown prisoner’s head in Untitled. The halo symbolizes the view of the figures by the artist, as holy and martyr (Caprile 117). The figures come out as sacrificial lambs for the sins of others in the exploitive society.

In Untitled, another one of his paintings created in 1981, belongs to figurative genre and is a representative of the Neo-Expressionism style. The painting, like others, communicates the reality of racism and the plight of the blacks in a society with institutionalized racism (Geldzahler 35). The element is the bleak and minimalist design is obvious from the painting. The insipid colors of the painting create a reality of gloom showing the plight of the subject of the painting and those that he represents. The painting communicates a message of entrapment with the prisoner being seen edged by two men in uniform (Hoffman 131). The painting presents a palpable contrast between the police officers and the imprisoned man. Just like the boxer in the other two paintings, the imprisoned man in this image is black. The same halo as in the other two is evident in the Untitled. The urban setting is also evident.

In summary, from all the paintings, it is possible that the painter is a witness to the things he communicates, such as the arrest of the black man by the two police officers. From his history, it is obvious that he was subjected to discrimination as well as racial profiling. He went through various forms of discrimination, some of which he has expressed in his artwork. The social reality of the artist is revealed in the Untitled and most of his other paintings. There is evident based on the raw and edgy work of Basquiat, set within the city of New York where he spent a better part of his life.

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