Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 23, 2015
Franklin Sirmans, Robert Farris Thompson, and Robert O'Meally Basquiat and the Bayou Exh. cat. New York: Prestel, 2014. 112 pp.; 58 color ills. Cloth $34.95 (9783791354040)
Exhibition schedule: Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, October 25, 2014–January 25, 2015

Basquiat and the Bayou is a catalogue accompanying the exhibition of ten works by Jean-Michel Basquiat held at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. Its contributors attempt to expand an understanding of Basquiat’s art by locating it within an African diasporic identity via interpretations of a selection of his Southern-themed works.

Curator Franklin Sirmans’s essay, also titled “Basquiat and the Bayou,” is essentially an exhibition review. It describes works that reference the Mississippi River, religion, jazz, and zydeco, implying a thematic relationship among them that he does not fully detail. Sirmans visualizes Basquiat “meditating on the Mississippi River and its delta as a physical and cultural conduit for Africans in the New World” (24). He categorizes the works exhibited and others illustrated in the catalogue as explorations of geography, history, and cultural legacy. Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta (1983), Revised Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta (1983), Mississippi (1982), Jim Crow (1986) and Natchez (1985) were created before Basquiat made his only visit to New Orleans in 1988 to attend the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The South that occurs in these pieces is not one that Basquiat had actually experienced, but rather one he perceived from his studies. Sirmans suggests that Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta and Revised Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta may be key to comprehending Basquiat’s Southern-inspired works. He attaches significance to the text included in the paintings—Deep South, Mississippi, Mark Twain, Negroes, and catfish—but does not investigate further the stereotypes to which they refer. Whereas Deep South, Mississippi, Mark Twain, and Negroes are obvious references to the Old South, in 1983 catfish referenced the New South and the expanding catfish industry that was supplanting cotton fields in the Mississippi Delta. Was this a comparison Basquiat intended? Sirmans points to the frequent inclusion of Mississippi as text in the Undiscovered Genius panels, Mississippi, and Jim Crow, thereby implying that the word invokes a certain power. Mississippi is both river and state. Which does Basquiat reference? Although the state of Mississippi in the Old South was often feared, dreaded, and even despised, the river was routinely called mighty, admired for its awesome power. Sirmans concludes that Basquiat “remained ambivalent about, even fearful of, the American South” (24).

Sirmans links Basquiat’s painting Exu (1988), of a figure in Brazilian Candomblé who is called by other names in Santería and Vodou; Crisis X (1982), which has a cross-shaped stretcher; and Untitled (Cadmium) (1984), in which he identified sacred hearts, to the artist’s interest in Southern religion. He might have expanded this discussion to support his contention that Basquiat was a New World African, syncretic in his use of symbols, blending Christian and African religious imagery. Overall, Sirmans’s essay is heavy on description, leaving the reader to discern just how Basquiat’s vision of the South evolved.

In “Three Works by Basquiat,” Robert Farris Thompson’s combination of a retelling of his introduction to Basquiat with an examination and analysis of Basquiat’s works reveals just how much context contributes to an understanding and appreciation of the artist and his style. The visual image Thompson paints of being plied with food and drink in Basquiat’s studio while the artist entertained patrons, clients, the media, and workmen brings a sense of immediacy to the reader. Thompson’s exposition of Basquiat’s artistic borrowing of text and image from his book Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1983) reveals the artist’s objectives. “He compared the texts that appeared in his paintings to listings on a menu: you were invited to savor, with the artist, words and phrases and lists of names of famous persons (often black)” (32). Later visits with the artist informed Thompson how graffiti, music, and self-study were fused to make Basquiat’s signature works. Two untitled works that Thompson analyzes are dated 1985. The third is Zydeco (1984). Untitled #1 is a drawing that includes a terra-cotta head, a yam, and the phrase “color of a yam,” which is from Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit: “Yoruba assess everything aesthetically, from the taste and color of a yam to the qualities of a dye” (32). In this way Basquiat added maxims to his work. The Yoruba words àshe, associated with God and “the power to make things happen,” “amewa—literally, ‘knower of beauty,’” and “iwontúnwonsi (‘beauty seen in the mean’)” appear in red in Untitled #1 (32–33). Thompson traced the migration and variations of àshe from Nigeria to Benin, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and the United States. Untitled #2 combines text and figures focusing on entertainers, musicians, and a Kongo figure, another fusion that pays homage to the place of musicians and thinkers in black civilizations, both African and in the diaspora, as Thompson suggests. He struggles to explain Zydeco beyond linking it to Basquiat’s musical influences and Louisiana and wondering if it could somehow be connected to Yoruba concepts of coolness, beauty, and correctness.

In “‘King of the Zulu’: Basquiat, Bearden, Armstrong,” Robert G. O’Meally argues that tone is the contrast he sees between the generations of Romare Bearden, Louis Armstrong, and Basquiat. O’Meally classifies as subtle and witty the tone in the art and music of Bearden and Armstrong, who came of age in segregated America, in contrast to Basquiat’s, born in 1960, sense of confrontation, even when humorous. Inspired by Toni Morrison’s “Going Home With Bitterness and Joy: Review of South to a Very Old Place by Albert Murray” (New York Times Book Review, January 2, 1972) and her own Tar Baby (New York: Knopf, 1981), O’Meally claims Basquiat, Africa, and the African diaspora, including the Deep South, Up South, the Caribbean, South America, and even Europe as Southern and international, “the broadband international South” (39). O’Meally argues his case for Basquiat’s internationality by pointing to his Haitian father, Puerto Rican mother, the presence of Afro-Cubans, Jamaicans, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans in New York City during the artist’s lifetime, and to his consumption of books, music, and media. He finds international influences unavoidable even if Basquiat “as a kid . . . started out every morning from home in Brooklyn, went to school in Brooklyn, and returned home to Brooklyn” (39). O’Meally categorizes Basquiat’s Southern-themed works as map-pictures, suggesting they map “a black American cultural terrain” (39).

Noting that Bearden, Armstrong, and Basquiat all created visual portraits of Armstrong, O’Meally traces Armstrong’s use of collage, image, and text to decorate cardboard boxes in which he stored audio tapes. “One of Satchmo’s favorite pastimes,” O’Meally writes, was “using a lot of scotch tape . . . to pick out different things during what I read and piece them together and making a little story of my own” (42–43). He compares these collages to Armstrong’s correspondence, articles, and book drafts, which “do suggest a kind of word collage,” and his trumpet and vocal solos, which he calls musical collages (43). Citing jazz history as inspiration for Bearden and Basquiat, O’Meally observes that Bearden’s Untitled (Riverboat Musicians) (ca. 1980), “Like several of Basquiat’s Bayou works . . . seems to borrow from key sourcebooks of iconic jazz photographs and other images such as George S. Rosenthal and Frank Zachary’s Jazzways (1946), Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer, Jr.’s Pictorial History of Jazz: People and Places from New Orleans to the Sixties (1955), and especially Frank Driggs’ and Harris Lewine’s Black Beauty, White Heat: A Pictorial History of Classic Jazz, 1920–1950 (1982)” (46). O’Meally extensively compares figures in Basquiat’s King Zulu (1986) to photographs in Driggs and Lewine’s book, but it remains unclear how Basquiat might have known it. O’Meally also neglects to remind the reader that Bearden had direct contact with jazz greats who were frequent visitors in his childhood home. Stylistically, O’Meally ties Bearden’s and Basquiat’s jam-packed compositions and improvisation to Armstrong’s jazz, stating that Armstrong’s “aesthetic, musical and otherwise, was collage-like” (43).

Although visual similarities are apparent between Armstrong’s collaged scrapbook pages titled Hail King Zulu (1952) and Basquiat’s text and image works, how many people know Armstrong made collages? The value in O’Meally’s analysis of Armstrong’s collages is in what they reveal about Armstrong, not in any particular influence they may have had on Basquiat. Better to just acknowledge that both Armstrong and Basquiat drew inspiration from “Armstrong’s 1949 reign as king of Zulu, the New Orleans social aid and pleasure club” (44).

O’Meally implies that some parts of Bearden and Basquiat should be comparable since both infused works with jazz, had Caribbean connections, used collage, and died in 1988. But the comparisons do not quite add up. Whereas Bearden was cosmopolitan, having lived in Europe and the Caribbean, Basquiat was strongly New York based. “‘I grew up in a pretty typical American vacuum—television mostly,’ he told the art historian Marc H. Miller in November 1982” (39). Stylistically, O’Meally declares, “Both artists were capable of making works that seemed to stem from an impatience to fill the whole frame, every inch of it” (47). But is this jam-packing mere coincidence or deliberate influence? O’Meally’s essay does not elucidate.

The strength of the catalogue is in its reminder of just how important context is to an understanding of Basquiat and his works. Moreover, the sharp clarity of the reproductions allows the reader to decipher almost every word. The questions raised by the essayists push us to seek our own understanding of these works, and even to find empathy with the artist who came of age in a time of transition as he moved from grafitero to mainstream artist.

Betty J. Crouther
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Mississippi