Acrylic and oil stick on paper mounted on canvas, 100 x 70 cm
Yoav Harlap Collection
© Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/Licensed by Artestar, New York
"I wanted to be a cartoonist when I was young ... I was a really lousy artist as a kid. Too abstract expressionist; or I’d draw a big ram’s head, really messy. I’d never win painting contests. I remember losing to a guy who did a perfect Spiderman." —Jean-Michel Basquiat (1)
Regarded after World War I as the capital of art and the epicenter of the new multiculturalism, New York City provided an exceptional environment for Jean-Michel Basquiat (b. 1960, New York; d. 1988, New York). From early childhood, his mother played a fundamental role in his education, taking Basquiat to the city’s museums and helping him learn about art history. At the age of seventeen he started to create graffiti, writing ingenious and provocative messages around New York City in order to address the social and political issues that preoccupied him as a black American man. This experience had a great impact on his artistic development.
Self-Portrait (1984) is a self-portrait by the artist. Although Basquiat claimed he did self-portraits only very occasionally, self-referential elements can be found in most of his work. (2) In both his portraits and self-portraits, he explores his identity as a man belonging to the African American lineage. Despite forming part of New York’s intellectual class and managing to create a place for himself in the difficult and selective art world, Basquiat never forgot his African American origins and identified with all the racial injustices he saw, as well as with the victories of the great black personalities.
This dual identity pervaded Basquiat throughout his career. While he belonged to his environment, New York City, he was also separate from it. This duality was a complex matter that went further than his own identity, touching upon the intricate social, political, and cultural relationships in which the artist is situated between two worlds, the black and the white, in a continuous struggle for equilibrium.
His works treat the idea of duality from different perspectives. Basquiat paired people and objects, and words and images, to show the opposite sides of one and the same reality. He also revised ideas about black and white and light and dark, questioning conventional notions of good and evil.
1. 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), pp. 34 and 46.
2. Dieter Buchhart, ed., Now’s the Time, exh. cat. (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario; Munich, London, and New York: DelMonico Books, Prestel Publications; Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, 2015), p.18.
Ask students to look closely at the artist’s self-portrait and describe the physical features seen in the picture. What is his hair like? What color could his eyes be? What is his mouth like? What could be the shape and size of his nose? What kind of clothes is he wearing? What could the setting be?
Show your students a photograph of Basquiat and observe the similarities and differences with the painting. Photographs of Basquiat can be found at: http://www.basquiat.com/artist.htm
What features of his face has he more or less exaggerated? How do you think the artist felt when he painted this self-portrait?
Most artists have done self-portraits. Why do you think artists are interested in painting their self-portrait? What ideas can be told through a self-portrait? List them. Ask students what they would like to put across about themselves in a self-portrait.
Look at the photograph of Basquiat. What kind of personality would you say Basquiat had? What features of that personality do you think appear in the painting?
Look at the colors used in the composition. What feelings do you relate each of the colors with? List all the colors and give an adjective that might define each one.