Jean-Michel Basquiat is a legend of the eighties, with everything that implies: boom times for the art market drove up the economic value of his work, turned artists into the centres of celebrity and modernity, and propitiated a return to the legendary vision of the artist who has to bear the weight of a tormented life. And all of that took place in connection with the re-emergence of painting in its figurative and expressive guise. Nevertheless, Basquiat’s work cannot simply be explained as an uncontainable fury poured out onto the paper; behind the expressiveness and fierce use of colour in his paintings, more complex strategies are at work, along with a host of references to art, literature, popular culture and African-American tradition. Beast is a painting based on the immediacy of the brushstroke and the high-speed representation that characterises graffiti. On a flat ground of grey and pink, seemingly hiding or covering other figures, an enormous, stylised black face appears, which could also be a black mask. The audacity of Basquiat is that with his graffiti-based technique, he could work out images that are both gestural and part of popular culture. In other words, they are heirs to Jackson Pollock—in his attempt to represent totemic figures of universal value—or Jean Dubuffet—when he drew inspiration from the way children and mad people drew—as much as to the premises of Pop Art, with its interest in icons, popular images and representation. Beast is all those things in one: it is a gestural painting, it represents an icon, and it is Pop. But what is most important is that the iconic figure represents a black man. A black man—like Basquiat himself—whom the artist calls “beast”. Perhaps we should think of the re-emergence of painting in the eighties—at least in Basquiat’s case—not as a break with the Conceptual Art of the seventies, but as a return to the image in the Expressionist tradition with a Conceptual background. At the same time as Basquiat, and taking part in the same group exhibitions, artists like Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer made socio-political reflections denouncing the sexism and racism of our society their central theme. In his gestural painting, Basquiat might have taken up Pop Art’s interest in popular icons, but at the same time, he introduced a sociological twist in which he reflected on the image of the black man. In some pieces, he told the stories of illustrious black men whereas in others he turned to sarcasm to critically reflect on how our society associates the image of the black man with the idea of the beast. This sarcasm, however, also contains a strong self-affirmation of his identity.
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