Reading ‘Basquiat’ (Book Review)

8 Jun

Reading Basquiat

by Lorette C. Luzajic

Most people either love his work or hate it. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s strange and primitive medleys are either repulsive or compulsively compelling. I think he is a genius, but then, I’ve long held a maudlin fascination with the madness-creativity dichotomy.

There are a number of ways I relate to the work of Basquiat, including our mutual penchant for scribbling and collage and voodoo and the written word and layers of random and personal symbolisms. There is also the sheer enormity of the drive to create. (But for all this commonality, our work itself looks nothing alike.)

If you haven’t heard of Basquiat, the new Hatje Cantz book, Basquiat, edited by Sam Keller and Dieter Buchhart will fix you up fast. Over 300 full-colour illustrations bring alive the enigmatic painter’s massive body of work. The artist created thousands of oeuvres in his short life, which ended abruptly of drug overdose at the age of 27.  The year was 1988.

Theories abound concerning what was behind the frenetic pastiche of drawings and word fragments that form Basquiat’s art. Was his work a statement of African-American protest against white mastery and cultural dominance? Was it an irreverent romp into surrealism, peppered with details culled from pop culture? The editors here skillfully pluck fine tidbits from an array of discourse to guide the reader from one insight to another. The sheer variety helps the uninitiated enter the work. It also gives further layers of depth to old fans, making this book essential for anyone’s art library.

Even so, the vast body of positive and negative criticism that exists surrounding this artist seems, to me, beside the point. When it comes to Basquiat, it seems irrelevant, and indeed, irreverent, to talk about “mastery of form” or compositional prowess or postcolonial deconstructions of one sort or another. The contrived confinement of postmodernist dialogue is not always a suitable narrative. The best is planted in authentic desire for understanding. But the worst is pure drivel, driven by a deluded intelligentsia certain of an intellectual acuity and artistic perception that none of the unwashed masses could possibly share.

This is exactly what happened to Basquiat. One day he was a broke street kid spray painting graffiti on brick walls. The next, in-the-know art stars were throwing mighty sums of money around and quibbling over the precise meanings to be derived from a doodle of bacon and eggs.

Here are some of their glittery gems:

“Basquiat’s images look quite vivid and sharp at first sight, and though from time to time he could bring off an intriguing passage of spiky marks or a brisk clash of blaring colour, the work quickly settles into the visual monotony of arid overstyling.” ~ Robert Hughes

“All that is lacking here, it seems, is an art historical appraisal of Basquiat’s ‘primitivism’ as the authentic product of the African subconscious transmuted through the experience of the African-American diaspora- in contradistinction to the European anthropological fetishism of the surrealists …commentators have consistently focused upon race, in a manner that insists upon the stereotype of the black artist as a kind of metonym for the “dark continent” itself, recalling all the worst clichés of post-Freudean psychoanalysis, as well as centuries of European racism.” ~ Louis Armand

“What is the artist trying to say?” is the hushed and knowing murmur of art theorists everywhere. But artists are often more like channels or conduits. They might work from a state of pure, unadulterated unconsciousness. Of course, work can express a specific emotion or political perspective. And certainly one sees recurring themes in Basquiat’s repetitious marks. But a great deal of artwork, like humanity itself, is just born, not planned. It is spontaneous. “Every line means something,” Basquiat said himself. And his work can indeed be interpreted through a dissection of the layers of dense personal symbolism, meaningful emblems for the artist. Yet the very style of Basquiat’s work is clearly not carefully engineered with strict blueprints.

In Italian

I have written about my theories “uncoding” Basquiat, in Jean Michel Basquiat’s Unquiet Mind, theories which to me seem hardly revelational, yet to my surprise have found little place in the body of discussion. If I may repeat myself verbatim, “It is astonishing that no one has seriously considered severe bipolar or schizophrenia as a solution to the Basquiat ‘puzzle’.  The odds are very high, given his art’s clues and cues, his addictions, his behaviour, and his mother’s mental illness. His manic behaviour, mood swings, disillusioned temperament, impulsivity, compulsive spending, substance abuse, loneliness, strange rituals, poor hygiene, hypersexuality, alternating reeling overconfidence and irritated certainty of persecution are all possible signs of mental illness. Furthermore, it is hereditary. Even the paranoid, hunted feeling that was always part of him reveals this probability, as does his art’s constant use of symbolism, snippets, and magical signs.”


Even a glancing comparison of Basquiat’s work to “outsider art” and to the visual communication of people with schizophrenia make it screamingly obvious to me that Basquiat was not just a drug addict, but also mentally ill. To detractors of this kind of speculation I can only defend myself by saying that it is not impolite to wonder, since there is no shame in schizophrenia. It is far more invalidating to revert to the days of polite silence and hiding our sick cousins in attics.

I may have no real qualifications for such armchair diagnosis, since I am bipolar and not schizophrenic. However, there is great overlap from my experience with mania and as an artist and the speed and processing of cognition and creativity that Basquiat exhibited. Basquiat is remembered by most who worked with him as magnetic yet difficult, as driven yet scattered; as deeply intelligent but erratic and sometimes reclusive or even rude. The work itself has cues in its cryptic tangents and magical ciphers. His life and his work were chaotic, and from some reports, sometimes violent. He was a genius, but at times couldn’t get it together to act appropriately at an art opening.

One Million Yen

Some have concluded that he was an overrated jerk. Others blamed the addiction. I blame the addiction on the innate mental chaos he likely experienced.  I think those occasions where he acted strangely were occasions when he could not cope. Some people affected by mental illness are at times hypersensitive to noise, sounds, crowds. Sometimes my environment becomes way too “busy” to cope with and my mind cannot slow down. At other times, the world is in slow motion and cannot keep up with my own thoughts. Not understanding what is going would only intensify the discomfort. I have no doubts that treatment might have had a chance to save Basquiat, the way it saved me.

Inside this book, some of my favourite plates are of his studio. This is the easiest way to see the enormity of his drive. The studios are empty of almost everything except art supplies. There are massive pieces on the go at any given time. You can feel how enormous that internal pressure and flow must have been. That manicky, panicky pressure is, in my own experience, wonderful, and terrifying, depending. Either way, the only solution is to let it spill out.

While few mention the potential relationship between Basquiat’s creative process and mental illness, I’m not alone in observing the improvisational qualities of his work. Throughout this collection, all manner of things will jump out at you, from hearts and crowns and crosses and eyeballs to Roman numerals and hands and word snippets and gorillas and skulls. There is a repetitive, erratic melody that permeates the work. By improvisation, I don’t just mean, “whatever was on hand or in mind” but actual jazz, too.

There is a quality of random musicality; there are many references to jazz idols and works. And despite the considerable space the editors have allotted to review and dissection, pages that give depth to our experience of Basquiat, they definitely recognize the primacy of spontaneity in the artists’ genius. The Basquiat quote on the back cover reads, “I don’t know how to describe my work…it’s like …asking Miles Davis, ‘How does your horn sound?’”

Basquiat by Dieter Buchhart, Sam Keller and Hatje Cantz 2011 $65.00

Lorette C. Luzajic is an independent artist and writer from Toronto. Visit her at, or check out her art retrospective book, A Heartbreaking World of Staggering Glorious.

1 Response to Reading ‘Basquiat’ (Book Review)


Sam Anders

March 18th, 2014 at 12:12 pm

Why, oh why? I hoped for something different. But this article joins a long tradition of vulgar obsession with Basquiat’s Blackness. First three paragraphs jump straight into “primitive,” “voodoo,” “white mastery.” It’s exactly what the Louis Armand quote criticizes. What about line, colour, media, skill, technique, concept, anything? What about the exclusion of Black artists from American art establishment? To the point that Basquiat is still an anomaly today? I’d be interested to hear this authors thoughts on the white supremacy of American art. That would be fresh.

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