Acrylic, oil stick, and collage on paper mounted on canvas, 228.5 x 271.5 cm
© Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/Licensed by Artestar, New York
"I cross out words so you will see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them." —Jean-Michel Basquiat (1)
For Jean-Michel Basquiat (b. 1960, New York; d. 1988, New York), everything around him could potentially become part of his paintings. Taking signs and drawings he found around the city, he would cut them up and reorganize them in order to transform them into something new. Sometimes he also drew images that he found in books on anatomy or prehistoric art.
His interest in art, cultivated from his childhood, made him knowledgeable about the different artistic movements and styles, which he would retrieve and mix, rather like a DJ, to create novel artistic languages. In this way he brought a new sense to the image of Pop art and adapted the gestural freedom of Expressionist language to celebrate African American culture and history.
Eroica (1987) is a work that contains numerous images applied by dense utilization of the collage technique. Basquiat arranged and superimposed various words, phrases, signs, drawings, and photocopies, generating multiple layers that demonstrate his eclectic interest in both street culture and the highest cultural sophistication.
The word EROICA is written repeatedly, forming a list. It is a reference to Beethoven’s Third Symphony, also known by that name. Music was very important for Basquiat, and was a recurrent theme in his work. His musical tastes were very diverse, ranging from classical to jazz to rap.
His use of graffiti during adolescence marked his later artistic interest in uniting text and image in his compositions. He never considered himself a graffiti artist, but he used words to establish a connection with who he was and what he wanted to indicate. Basquiat employed words as if they were brushstrokes. The words, lists, or phrases that formed part of his compositions constituted a fundamental aspect of his art. (2)
Besides painting on paper or stretched canvas, Basquiat often painted on materials he found in the streets, such as windows, doors, or scraps of foam rubber, which he joined together with wooden bars and hinges. He covered the surfaces with paint and pieces of torn and crumpled paper superimposed on top of one another.
By experimenting with new artistic techniques and mixing different methods of expression, Basquiat managed to capture the mix of high and popular culture, giving his works a poetic focus similar to the contemporary spirit of hip hop. (3) The result, characterized by an intense use of graphic marks and words, arouses the viewer’s curiosity with intricate connections that reflect upon the world we live in.
1. Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat. (Lugano, Switzerland: Museo d’Arte Moderna Cittá di Lugano, 2005), p. 87.
2. Henry Geldzahler, “Art: From Subways to SoHo, Jean-Michel Basquiat,” in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat. (Lugano, Switzerland: Museo d’Arte Moderna Cittá di Lugano, 2005), p. 42.
3. Franklin Sirmans, curator.
Show: Eroica (1987)
Look closely at this piece and describe its various elements (drawings, signs, letters, etc.).
What materials were used? Try to imagine what Basquiat’s working process might have been. How do you think he started to paint it? How do you think he progressively applied the words, paint, and pieces of paper? List the actions that can be discerned in the picture.
Ask students to express which part of the work and which drawing, sign, or splash of paint they like most, and why.
Many of the signs we find in Basquiat’s works belonged to the hobos, homeless nomads in the United States who used to leave signs in the streets to communicate among themselves. Do you think these signs and drawings change when they are transferred from the city to the artwork? Why? Look on the Internet for the signs used by hobos and investigate their meaning. Choose a group of signs or drawings that appear in Eroica and draw them on the board. Try to invent meanings similar to those of the hobos, and write them next to each drawing.
Find the written words in the artwork and read them aloud. Try to arrange them into sentences, searching for a possible narrative sense that might contribute to the work’s meaning.
Basquiat has used the word Eroica to make a list with it. How do we normally use lists? Give examples of moments in everyday life when we make lists.
Why do you think some words are crossed out? Besides these crossed-out words, the work also has splashes of paint that prevent us from seeing what is underneath. What do you think there might be under the paint splashes?
What kind of mood does the painting evoke? How did the artist accomplish it?
Music was very important to Basquiat. Besides belonging to a band and occasionally performing as a DJ, he also used music as a source of inspiration for his compositions. What types of music seem most related to his work and why?
Basquiat often used the “cut-up” technique to emulate the writing process of American writer William S. Burroughs (b. 1914, St. Louis, Missouri; d. 1997, Lawrence, Kansas). This consisted of reorganizing a text to produce a new one from it. He drew inspiration from everything around him, mixing materials together, cutting them up, and organizing it again to form new images.
Give each student a photocopy of Eroica (1987). Have them cut out the sign, symbol, or splash of paint that most interests them.
Every cut-out will be stuck on a piece of paper or cloth like a mural, creating a collage and reorganizing the artwork into something new. The students can paint on the glued cut-outs with tempera or acrylic paint to structure the composition.
When they have finished, compare Basquiat’s work with the new one they have created. What fresh contributions or different meanings do they find in the new painting?
From the street to the artwork
Organize an outing with your students. Go with them through an area of your town or city in search of signs, words, or phrases. Each student should bring a notebook to jot down what they find. They can also take photos.
Back in the classroom, students will make lists with the words and signs they have found. Ask them to invent a symbol for each of the words found, and a meaning for each of the signs.
Make photocopies of the lists that have been formed and their symbols, and ask the students to cut them up.
Ask students to find pieces of used wood or cardboard to act as a support for a painting. Each student will prepare their support by painting it with acrylic paint. Then they will stick and superimpose on it the photocopied words individually or as phrases, together with the drawings and symbols related to them. Encourage students to add strokes of paint and other drawings suited to the theme emerging from the work. Use acrylic paint, paintbrushes of different widths, crayons, felt-tip pens, glue, etc.
When they have finished, organize an exhibition to observe the results. Think about the connections they find between the artworks and the city or town they live in.
Choose three different songs or pieces of music for your students: one classical piece, another jazz, and the third rap.
Without revealing the titles, ask students to draw or paint something inspired by each one as they are listening to it. Encourage them to paint abstract forms and use colors to express feelings and emotions.
Put the drawings on a classroom wall grouped by the different pieces of music, and try to find possible connections within each group. Generate potential stories by revealing the musical titles.
Mix up the paintings and drawings from the different pieces of music and try to find new sensations that could emerge from the mixture.
Which of all the responses do they find most interesting? Have them discuss their opinions.
Collage: An artistic technique consisting of adhering different fragments of materials to a surface. The technique was invented by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque when they started to stick pieces of paper to parts of their compositions.
Expressionism: Art that emphasizes the extreme expressive properties of pictorial form in order to explore subjective emotions and inner psychological truths.
Graffiti: A usually anonymous inscription, painting, or drawing, generally critical in content, written or painted on walls in public places.
Hip hop: An artistic movement that emerged in the United States in the late 1960s, particularly among the African American and Latin American communities of New York boroughs such as the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. It is associated with alternative art forms like break dancing and graffiti.
Pop art: Artistic movement that bases techniques, style, and imagery on certain aspects of mass reproduction, the media, and consumer society. These artists took inspiration from advertising, pulp magazines, billboards, movies, television, comic strips, and shop windows. These images, presented with (and sometimes transformed by) humor, wit, and irony, can be seen as both a celebration and a critique of popular culture.