Riding with Death is one of the last paintings Jean Michel Basquiat painted before his death in 1988. This fact, coupled with its disturbing imagery suggests it represents his opinion on the state of the world. In this article, Singulart takes a closer look at Basquiat’s life, career and the meaning behind Riding with Death.
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 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 aged eight and while he was recovering his mother bought him a copy of the medical textbook, Gray’s Anatomy, which proved eye-opening to 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 Basquait 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 solo 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 a traditional artistic training and he stated that: “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 the society of this time. 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 Riding with Death?
Riding with Death is one of Basquiat’s final paintings, completed before his death in 1988. In a relatively sparse and simple composition compared to the frenetic, colorful explosions he is most known for, he depicted an African-American figure riding a white skeleton against a textured beige background. As with all of Basquiat’s works, this relatively simple composition is layered with symbolism and references to culture, history and society.
Against a flat, brown background, Basquiat has painted a dark-skinned male figure, who sits on top of a skeleton on all fours. The skeleton’s head is turned to the viewer and its empty, crossed out eyes seem to pierce straight through us. The figure on top seems to be decomposing, part outline, part stick figure, in agitated movement.
This unsettling image is full of racial undercurrents, social references and sarcasm. The composition itself is thought to be inspired by a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci titled Illustration for his thoughts on Virtue and Envy in which he depicted a naked woman sat on a skeleton on all fours. Basquiat’s style was often described as “primitive” and “naive” by critics and here he seems to be playing to the stereotype by creating an image that resembles cave paintings or African tribal art more than the Western definition of figurative painting. In doing so he fills this painting with nuanced references to race, racism and society, opening up a dialogue between the historical and the contemporary. By placing the figure on top, whose skin color suggests it could be an autobiographical reference, he creates an image of a reversal of power structures. However, by placing this figure on top of a skeleton, an image of death, he seems to also suggest a sense of doom or disappointment and a lack of optimism for the future of the society in which he lives. The disturbing effect of this work is only enhanced by the knowledge that this is one of the last works Basquiat painted before he committed suicide and thus seems to suggest a strong link with his personal outlook on life and the state of the world he lived in.