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the broad

Beef Ribs Longhorn

Jean‐Michel Basquiat
1982
acrylic, oilstick, and paper collage on canvas mounted on tied wood supports
60 x 60 in. (152.4 x 152.4 cm)

My name is Thomas Houseago.

Beef Ribs Longhorn, by Jean‐Michel Basquiat from 1982. You know, America in the '80s, it's pop, and he's coming from a world of graffiti, of street art that is in some ways reacting to and starting to break down the hard-edged removal of the hand, removal of the person that pop had become. That it was printing, it was mass reproduction, it was MTV, it was advertising. In a way, Basquiat is part of a generation that's, again, resisting this, and playing with it in a different way that, say, Andy Warhol did, then went to Jeff Koons, and went to this side where its heart is pop. Its heart is the mass reproduction. Its heart is the machine-made image. Basquiat is twisting and turning that. He's bending it. He's showing its human soul in a way.

This language of pop, this language of graffiti, this language of street culture that has been taken and turned into a selling point, or its own kind of industry in a way, this painting stands as a warning against that, as a refusal, again, to enter a simplistic reading of where the figure is, or where the reading of how we are as humans, how we're dealing with our world, it doesn't sit comfortably. You start to look at this longhorn livestock, and suddenly it's this monstrous image of this animal, and this almost sick, almost terrifying dream, that nightmarish vision. It's a beast, and a demon, and an animal, and a human without a doubt. These things get jumbled and pulled together.

Still, it is a stand-in. It is a really terrifying ... Within it is this huge complexity of livestock, of something being born, of something being doomed. You feel it in that piece, but you also feel there's something demonic about that creature, that it will have its revenge somehow, right?

In the late 1970s, brief, cryptic messages began to appear on the streets of Manhattan, all signed SAMO. These subversive, sometimes menacing statements, “Playing Art with Daddy’s Money,” “9 to 5 Clone,” and “Plush Safe…He Think,” piqued the curiosity of viewers around New York and soon gained notoriety in the art world. The works of SAMO, a tag calling up associations like “Sambo,” “Samson,” or “Same Old Shit,” eventually became known as the poetic defacements of Jean-Michel Basquiat, with partner Al Diaz.

Born in Brooklyn to middle-class Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, Basquiat left home as a teenager to live in lower Manhattan, playing in a noise band, painting, and supporting himself with odd jobs. Around 1980, Basquiat’s work began to attract attention from the art world, particularly after a group of artists from the punk and graffiti underground held the Times Square Show in an abandoned massage parlor. A wall covered with the spray paint and brushwork of SAMO received favorable notices in the press and Basquiat started selling his paintings out of his tenement apartment.

Many of Basquiat’s paintings are in some way autobiographical and Untitled, 1981 is largely considered a form of self-portraiture. The skull here exists somewhere between life and death. The eyes are listless, the face is sunken in, and the head looks lobotomized and subdued. Yet, there are wild colors and spirited marks that suggest a surfeit of internal activity. Developing his own personal iconography, in this early work, Basquiat both alludes to modernist appropriation of African masks and employs the mask as a means of exploring identity. Basquiat labored over this painting for months—evident in the worked surface and imagery—while most of his pieces were completed with bursts of energy over a few days. Presented at his debut solo gallery exhibition in New York City, the intensity of the painting may also represent Basquiat’s anxieties surrounding the pressures of becoming a commercially successful artist.

Two famous men from the history of Jazz appear in Basquiat’s Horn Players, 1983: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In the upper left, Parker, whose nickname was “Bird,” holds his alto saxophone while Gillespie appears on the right with a trumpet. Basquiat’s painting is a tribute to jazz, specifically the bebop of Parker and Gillespie, and makes its tribute known by both rounding up the symbols and visual references of jazz while at the same deploying those references in a way as though to recreate music itself. The three panel work is full of repetition and visual punctuations. Art historian Robert Farris Thompson likens the multiple slashes of white paint across the surfaces to visual music, they “form their own beat, one, two, one-two-three. This is the clave beat, main artery of Afro-Cuban music.”[1] Overall, the painting has the sense of rhythms emerging and then fading away, emerging again and recombining as though demonstrating the improvisation of jazz.

 

[1] Robert Farris Thompson in “Jean-Michel Basquiat,”Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2014, p. 19