Jean-Michel Basquiat –“Famous Negro Athletes.”

Thomas McManus
Oct 11, 2015 · 3 min read
Tuxedo, 1982–83

An unusually tall man stooped down to study a drawing in the Jean-Michel Basquiat show at the Brooklyn Museum. A mesomorph shadowed him protectively while a camera crew filmed, trailing like ducklings. The towering art lover? A famous basketball player — couldn’t pin down his name. After taking his picture and asking the gallery guard who he was, the guard answered with a question, “You don’t know?”

Untitled (Leonardo Da Vinci) 1982 Acrylic and oilstick on paper

An artist’s notebook is an incubator for work, a rehearsal space for ideas. ‘The Codex Arundel’ by Leonardo Da Vinci is the most famous example. Da Vinci’s name pops up in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s notebooks several times. He even has a drawing named after the Renaissance master. Whereas Da Vinci uses diagrams, sketches, and texts for scientific inquiry, Basquiat uses them for irony. But Basquiat has different ambitions for his notebooks. He uses the pages from them as a background for his paintings. They form a platform where expressionistic art acts as a counterpoint to the pseudo “scientific” content of the grid-like structures underneath.

It’s worth pointing out that Basquiat uses sarcasm to point out the injustice of prejudice. Instead of a cold Duchampian indifference, irony sets the stage for a seething anger expressed with tortured faces. The only cure for postmodernism is Romanticism, and Basquiat delivers.

Famous Negro Athletes, 1981 Oilstick on paper

‘Famous Negro Athletes’ epitomizes the artist’s aesthetic. The athletes may be famous, but from his drawings, we can’t identify them — a racist observation that all black people look the same. The portraits have the emotional impact of a Giacometti. But instead of an existential visage of dread, we’re confronted with bitter ‘portraits’ of people who suffer prejudice. Basquiat doesn’t use irony for smug cynicism. Instead, he uses it as an instrument for expression. How ironic it that?

With the torment of racism served up as a cold dish, Basquiat rises above the rest of the artists of his generation. He eschews the bombastic, sentimental and faux suffering of his fellow 80s artists and their obsession with ‘bad’ painting. His vernacular proves authentic; he grew up with it — it is graffiti. While the millionaire emotional fraudsters of his generation painted ‘suffering,’ Basquiat lived it.

As for the identity of that famous basketball player? After showing the picture to a friend who loves sports, he said, “That’s Kevin Durant!”

Kevin Durant

Thomas McManus

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Associate Professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology