The Dingoes That Park Their Brains with Their Gum

Marc Mayer, ed., Basquiat (London/New York: Merrell/Brooklyn Museum, 2005).

"From Hollywood Africans to Gold Griot and Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta, purveyors of the word are beatifically elevated in paint and often crowned. Surrounding these figures are Basquiat's trademark list of words spat in paint, visually stuttered, repeated and often crossed out, to be read as incantations with a pause for thought and breath: in other words, beats that control the flow of the composition." (Franklin Sirmans, "In the Cipher: Basquiat and Hip-Hop Culture")

"Basquiat's 'mother tongue' is Spanish. Not necessarily in the sense that he grew up in Puerto Rico or Brooklyn speaking it exclusively, but in the sense that his mother, Matilde Basquiat, was a black Puerto Rican woman. The majority of words he uses in his art, of family, food, and community, are ones that link him back to that world of intimacy; they create a link with the Spanish-speaking world, and the realm of the mother. If we want to speculate on what might constitute some female forces in Basquiat's work, it would be the continuous chatter en español." (Kellie Jones, "Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the [Re]Mix")


To start off, I should mention that this show continues the commodification of Jean-Michel Basquiat's art, with JPMorganChase prominently displayed on the catalogue's opening pages. The same commodification and corporate sponsoring that one could argue killed Basquiat's work very early in his brief career. But this is a given today and I'm not concerned with that topic here.

What kept me in the museum for almost three hours on Sunday were the magnificent paintings and poems. Their massive scale and chronological grouping in several rooms and two floors make me want to return before the show closes in June. Basquiat was an artist I understood, heard and related to almost immediately when I first encountered his work. But having only seen a handful of his pieces in person over the years, I hadn't realized how important size was to reading his "stanzas." Most of the paintings in this show towered over the crowds that filtered through the rooms at the Brooklyn Museum. Standing in front of "Hollywood Africans" (1983), for instance, I was immersed in that painting's yellow currents, almost hearing Rammelzee's high pitched nasal rhymes while the counterpoint of "GANGSTERISM" in white oilstick over grey/black on the lower left corner clicked on repeat. A warning or a prophecy of where hip-hop might stray. The clarity and force of Basquiat's choices of certain words and phrases were enhanced by the paintings' large scale. Words, phrases and shapes were often repeated over several years, long-term motifs and favorite samples that jab at the viewer.

Basquiat's lucid critique of white America (in its relation to black and Latino America) remains relevant and effective today, despite the inevitable commodification of his work. I would say Basquiat clearly identifies our own American-specific struggle with a more global and historicized perspective of oppression. In paintings like "Natives Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari" (1982) or "Price of Gasoline in the Third World" (1982) there's an explicit concern with historical timelines in relation to present difficulties.

For me, this exhibit was primarily about pleasure. From the cherry blossoms blooming over the benches in front of the museum to the labyrinthine sculptures created from his brushstrokes, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Basquiat's poem-paintings embody his line: "NO MUNDANE OPTIONS."


One final note on the group of paintings from 1988 in this show. Several of these, including "The Dingoes That Park Their Brains with Their Gum," "Eroica I" and "II" and "Exu" seem to be making very clear apocalyptic, or fatalistic, statements. Part of this feeling has to do with how Basquiat has pared the canvas down to solid blocks of color and minimal action or figures. In the "Eroica" diptych, Basquiat maintains the frenzied crowding of words and colors of his previous work but he's also breaking his narrative down to a single theme.

Two of these later paintings invoke specific African deities whose realms and powers are centered around death. In "The Dingoes..." the top-hatted penguin-like figure hovering over seven curving flames and the word "ASHES" could be read as a reference to what the curator Kellie Jones refers to as "Baron Samedi, Vodun's Keeper of cemeteries." She identifies this deity as present in several other paintings by Basquiat.

I spent a long time looking at the last painting on your left before you leave the exhibit, "Exu." The catalogue identifies this African god as a trickster deity who could just as easily help or betray those who invoke his forces. He stands at the crossroads of futurity, offering guidance on how to outwit, postpone or understand death. Basquiat has reduced this painting down to a wolf-like figure who stands upright and is surrounded by a cloud of eyes that seem to be spinning around him. The paint is applied in a way that emphasizes a centrifugal gyre threatening to dissolve the viewer's attempt to identify, or even see, the god.

I could easily point out Basquiat's self-destructive methods, the hype that he nurtured and often dispensed, along with a whole list of technical or conceptual flaws in his work. But having seen this group of paintings all in one setting was exciting and inspirational. In the sense that Basquiat offers valuable lessons in narrative, lyric and epic techniques in poetry and painting. His sensibility as a DJ is impeccable, knowing what the viewer needs to see and when.

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