Horn Players exemplifies many of the qualities now characteristic of Basquiat’s oeuvre, from his interest in contemporary African American culture, to his unique style of painting, scattered with words, figures and an array of mark making techniques. In this article, Singulart takes a closer look at the artist’s life and work and discusses the meaning of his masterpiece Horn Players.
Who was Jean-Michel Basquiat?
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) was an African-American artist who reinvigorated the New York art scene of the 1980’s with his neo-expressionist paintings and drawings. Born in Brooklyn, New York, his passion for art blossomed at a young age and he was encouraged by his mother, who enrolled him as a junior member at the Brooklyn Museum of Art at the age of six. He was hit by a car at eight years old, and while he was recovering, his mother bought him a copy of the medical textbook Gray’s Anatomy which was eye-opening for Basquiat and influential to his autodidactic artistic education. He was a very intelligent child, fluent in French, Spanish and English by the age of eleven, and in 1967 he began attending Saint Ann’s, a private school specializing in the arts. When he was thirteen, his mother was committed to a mental institution, which led to much of the instability and unrest in Basquiat’s childhood. At fifteen, he ran away from home for a week, then dropped out of high school at seventeen to attend the alternative arts school known as “City-As-School”. His father kicked him out of the house for dropping out of high school, from which point Basquiat lived between friends’ houses in Brooklyn and supported himself selling homemade t-shirts and postcards. However, his transition to renowned artist did not take long, and by 1980 he was selling paintings for upwards of $25,000.
Basquiat’s rapid rise to fame
Basquiat’s rise to fame can be traced to 1976, when he began to graffiti buildings with his friend Al Diaz under the pseudonym “SAMO”. The pair sprayed enigmatic tags onto the walls on the Lower East Side, mixing street art with music culture. From here, he went on to make a name for himself as an artist in his own right, exhibiting in “The Times Square Show” in June 1980, where he caught the attention of several art critics and curators. After seeing the exhibition, the Italian gallerist Emilio Mazzoli invited Basquiat to Modena for his first solo show in 1981. In the same year, Artforum published an article about Basquiat entitled “The Radiant Child”. He had his second exhibition in Modena in March 1982 before moving to Venice, California to work in Larry Gagosian’s studio space. Here he worked on paintings for his exhibition in 1983 at Gagosian Gallery in West Hollywood, accompanied by his girlfriend at the time, the then unknown, Madonna. During this time he was inspired by the work of Robert Rauschenberg, whom he visited often while he was working at Gemini G.E.L in West Hollywood, and Rauschenberg’s influence can be seen in Basquiat’s use of found objects such as discarded doors in the place of a canvas. He also exhibited with Annina Nosei, alongside artists such as Keith Haring and Barbara Kruger before his first one man show in America with the gallery in 1982.
At this time, Basquiat also met and became close friends with Andy Warhol and the pair collaborated on works between 1983 and 1985, with Warhol helping to boost Basquiat into the art “establishment” of the time, and Basquiat helping to rejuvenate Warhol’s image. His success continued until his premature death, at the age of 27, from a heroin overdose. Despite relative commercial success during his short life-time, his work was still often rejected by many institutions until after his death, with his first retrospective being held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1992. The prejudices of the art establishment as well as the many reasons for Basquiat’s exclusion from it, are among the many themes that traverse his works.
The style & themes of Jean-Michel Basquiat
Basquiat did not have traditional artistic training and stated:
“I never went to art school. I failed the art courses that I did take in school. I just looked at a lot of things. And that’s how I learnt about art, by looking at it.”
Consequently, most of the themes in Basquiat’s work come from his contemporary culture. Regarding the inspiration behind his works, he stated: “I don’t think about art while I work, I try to think about life.” Indeed he often painted to jazz music, with the TV on and the windows open, surrounding himself with the noises and influences of his present day New York. Basquiat’s artistic approach resulted in a focus on “suggestive dichotomies” around themes such as mortality, race and self identity.
Basquiat appropriated references and symbols from a wide range of sources, from music to history and religion, providing a political and social commentary of his personal experience as an African American in society. His very unique, personal style was a similarly varied mix, combining influences from his street art debut to neo-expressionism and often mixed recurrent symbols such as heads or crowns with textured scribbles, colors and words.
What’s happening in Horn Players?
In Horn Players, Basquiat pays homage to two of the great jazz players: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. To the left is a half length portrait of Parker and his saxophone, and to the right is a portrait of Gillespie and his trumpet. Jazz music was a common theme in Basquiat’s art, as he himself was a musician and a jazz fan and often painted to jazz music. It can also be said that his particular style of painting was similar to the improvisational quality of jazz.
Horn Players combines many of Basquiat’s most well known painterly traits, from the subject matter of jazz to his style. The painting is organized as a triptych across three panels. Against a black background are the two portraits of the musicians and their instruments, musical notes in red and pink, another face in the center of the composition, swathes of thick white paint, and words scratched into the canvas. The restricted color palette, including brown, yellow, pink, blue, white and red serves to emphasize the black background.
Many of the words, although they appear random, serve to enhance the meaning of the composition. Most of them relate to jazz and to Parker and Gillespie’s histories. Their names are etched into the central panel of the composition, and to the left, words like “ear”, “soap” and “feet” appear along with “ornithology” and “pree”. “Ornithology” (the study of birds) is a reference to a composition by Parker from 1946 of the same title. “Pree” and “Chan” also reference the names of Parker’s wife and daughter. The “Doh Shoo de Obee” written next to the portrait of Gillespie refers to his tendency to improvise on stage, and the word “alchemy” is repeated several times below perhaps in reference to the process of jazz.
Horn Players exemplifies Basquiat’s unique style, with his combination of words used like brushstrokes, his interest in contemporary culture, specifically contemporary African-American culture and the people at the heart of it.