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A Critique Of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Paintings

Jean Michel Basquiat had a consistent methodology when creating his artwork. No matter what his art consist of, each piece seemed to have the same technique. When he painted human faces, the majorities have the same skeleton representational face. His work looks like detailed and colorful graffiti that is sold for millions. Some believe he was untalented, repetitious, and that his work had no message. However, others believe he had a true gift and used his personal history as a motivation for his work.

Some critics find his art to be nothing worth millions. Hilton Kramer says, “He was essentially a talentless hustler, street-smart but otherwise invincibly ignorant, who used his youth, his looks, his skin colour and his abundant sex appeal to win an overnight fame that proved to be his undoing”. She believes his fame only came from catching the attention of a well-known artist, Andy Warhol, who “was always on the lookout for young collaborators and acolytes”. However, there were people like Priscilla Frank who found it “hard to imagine a more talented, passionate and mercurial lover- with better hair- than Jean-Michel Basquiat”. While Kramer saw Basquiats work as “daubs and scribbles”, Frank believed he created canvases that “jumbled Abstract Expressionism, graffiti, medical jargon and classical mythology, sprinkling in clues of his personal history all in screaming bright colors”.

In Basquiats work, “Untitled (Boxer)”, it looks like a black man with broad shoulders, a thin hip, boxing gloves, big helmet, and a white background with random colored lines doodled on and around him. His work seems like he was doodling around a piece of paper but somehow the final piece turns out exceptional. One can stare at this painting for hours analyzing it because it is filled with so many different parts. It doesn’t seem to be telling a story yet it is easy to create one. He seems to do that often with his work.

In his other piece, “Ashes”, it shows a brown man with a prisoners outfit that’s labeled “101490” holding a broom, a barrel labeled “ASHES”, random letters next to the mans face, and what looks like a ladder with random lines next to it. Once again, the face of the man looks like a skeleton. It’s hard to gather exactly what Basquiat’s is trying to say in this artwork. Yet, its so interesting that you can stare at all the different pieces he incorporated in it and create your own message. That seemed to be Basquiats purpose. When creating his work, maybe with some motivation from his personal life, he seemed to add unrelated pieces together but then depended on the viewer to make sense of it when viewing the piece as one.

According to Jennifer Clement, Basquiats work “Untitled (Boxer)” resembled how he liked all sorts of people, disregarding their color or size, as long as they were clever. She says, “They could be boys, girls, thick, fat, pretty, ugly. It was, I think, driven by intelligence”. This fits well with the painting as the person drawn has broad shoulders, yet a skinny waist and skinny arms, representing the insignificance of someone’s size. As well as, on top of the head, what seemed like a big helmet could be interpreted as a big brain, signifying intelligence. The painting also includes a mixture of numerous of colors, representing diversity.

In Basquiat’s painting, “Untitled (Two Heads on Gold)”, there is what seems to be two stick figures with, once again, skeleton representation faces. One has a dark background, the other has a light background, and both figures have, what seems to be, a headband with long pieces of a material attached to it. According to Clement, this was Basquiat’s way of representing how he was “made for the night, like a mole. The daylight hurts, the sun hurts, but at night he is transformed into a magician. In daylight he looks for his shadow and crawls up inside it”. That’s the story Clement decided Basquiat was telling in this piece of art. However, Nadiah Fellah had a different idea. She believed Basquiat was using “idiosyncratic dreadlocks” to represent empowerment, since they were similar to crowns that would repeatedly appear in his work. She continued, “it was a particularly dual-purpose motif for Basquiat, in that it alluded to majestic and kingly qualities he attributed to himself” (Fellah). Both critics appreciate Basquiat’s work but they each interpreted a different message from his painting.

As both, Clement and Fellah, both praised Basquiat’s work and saw within his talent, there was still some who believed he was “ignorant about art” (Kramer). Kramer didn’t see any message or any value within Basquiat’s paintings. She thought his painting were “distinguished only by the fact that he has learned how to apply its alphabet of primitive signs and symbols to a prepared canvas rather than to the defacement of public buildings” (Kramer).

When viewing one of Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings, viewers created their own theories about the story he was trying to tell. By naming some of his work “Untitled”, it seems that he didn’t want viewers to be lead in any specific direction when critiquing his work. He wanted viewers to create their own message and use their own thoughts and personal history to put the painting together as a whole.

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