Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art

Printed Matters

Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art

By Anton Stuebner October 7, 2014

From artists' monographs to beach reads, "Printed Matters" offers a monthly take by a rotating group of contributors on visual art through the printed word.

It’s a story that owes much to clichés of the artist as tragic hero

The mythology around Jean-Michel Basquiat continues to proliferate in the twenty-six years since his death. The standard-issue biography of his life reads like a cautionary tale on the perils of success: the early years in the graffiti movement; the street art produced with classmate Al Diaz under the tag SAMO; the sudden media attention on the East Village art scene; the transition into formal painting and the overnight success of shows with Annina Nosei and Mary Boone; the highly publicized friendship with Andy Warhol; the meteoric rise of auction and gallery sales; the heroin addiction; the self-destruction at a preternaturally young age. It’s a story that owes much to clichés of the artist as tragic hero, reduced in equal parts through simplification and fabrication. It is also a story that sells art, and at record prices. 

Basquiat’s work is invariably tied to the market booms of the 1980s, and like his contemporaries Keith Haring and Julian Schnabel, he redefined the perception of the artist as celebrity, making frequent appearances in print periodicals like The New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair. This celebrity status is still growing. His art appears on high-fashion street wear and luxury knits. Documentary and narrative films have been made about his life. And market prices for his paintings continue to soar. His canvas Dustheads (1982) sold for $48.8 million during Christie’s record-breaking contemporary art auction in 2013.1 In January 2014, former Interview magazine editor Paige Powell organized a show at Suzanne Geiss Company that featured black-and-white nude photographs of Basquiat, snapshots taken while Powell was dating the artist.2 Shortly thereafter, a second sale at Christie’s was postponed after an injunction from Basquiat’s family over the authenticity of the pieces at auction.3

Cover image for Jordana Moore Saggese, Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

Basquiat’s estate is increasingly becoming a highly valuable and branded commodity. Amid the auction receipts and sales records, however, it is easy to forget about Basquiat the painter. Aside from the occasional catalogue essays and retrospective appraisal, little scholarship exists on Basquiat’s work. This absence of critical discourse makes Jordana Moore Saggese’s new monograph, Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art (University of California Press, 2014), all the more remarkable. The first single-author, book-length study of the artist’s work, Reading Basquiat does not eschew discussion of the celebrity politics that helped to make Basquiat famous, acknowledging that the explicitly commercial art markets of the 1980s fostered artists who were not only “profit- and career-oriented” but also willing to self-promote themselves as larger-than-life personalities.4 In doing so, however, Saggese argues that the market-driven attention and publicity afforded to Basquiat’s work has overshadowed the formal innovations of the artist’s drawings and canvases. Reading Basquiat, conversely, offers a compelling analysis that reveals and elucidates the complex language systems and cultural discourses at play in Basquiat’s work.

The basic supposition of the book—that the pictorial and text-based elements in Basquiat’s paintings convey far more complicated meanings than existing critical accounts suggest—is simple enough. Saggese, however, not only identifies these formal elements but also documents and explains the multiple interpretations suggested by these individual motifs, often in painstaking detail. Utilizing a methodology indebted to both historicism and visual analysis, Saggese unpacks the specific and implied socio-historical references of various symbols in Basquiat’s canvases. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat. Charles the First, 1982; acrylic and oil paintstick on canvas; three panels, 78 x 65 in. Courtesy of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

An example of this close reading is her explanation of the three-point crown that recurs throughout Basquiat’s work and features prominently in the painting Charles the First (1982). Saggese remarks, “the crown motif that pervades Basquiat’s work…is often interpreted as an assertion of the artist’s power.”5 In Charles the First, this crown sits in the upper left corner of the canvas, enclosed in a roughly drawn square above the name “Thor.” As Saggese argues, the symbolic alignment of these two signs—the crown and the name “Thor”—could be read as a declaration of artistic authority, one that is rendered godlike through equivalency. A paragraph later, however, Saggese explains that the crown also references existing hierarchies within New York’s graffiti movement:

Graffiti artists of the late 1970s and early 1980s also used the crown motif to establish a system of power and ranking among their peers. Graffiti writers who admired the work of others would express their respect for a piece by painting a simple, often three-pointed crown next to the work. Accordingly, certain artists were made “kings” (as in king of the whole subway car or king of the wall).6

Saggese uses this additional historical context to expand the range of possible interpretations, continuing that the crown could also refer to the notions of “kingship” in jazz culture (and the “crowning” of especially talented and expert performers, such as Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole), yet another system of hierarchy and naming derived from street culture—in this case the street-music culture of the 1920s where many popular jazz artists began. This investigation into notions of kingship not only enhances the potential ways in which the crown can be read as a sign, it also establishes a lineage between different historical creative movements that are frequently read as uniquely American and non-white (jazz, graffiti). Then again, Saggese contends, the crown could also be a reference to the end credits of Basquiat’s favorite cartoon, The Little Rascals, which featured a hand-drawn crown above the title card “King World Productions.”7

As with any posthumous critique of an artist’s work, these interpretations are invariably speculative, largely out of necessity. This ambiguity, though, adds complexity to Basquiat’s use of signs. If these icons generate seemingly disparate “meanings,” Saggese argues that this disparateness represents “a challenge to social, historical, and artistic hierarchies” that define different disciplines and modes of expression.8 By extension, the crown as a motif evokes entire histories of gendered, racial, and class privilege that these concepts of lineage and creative histories bring to the fore.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. Hollywood Africans in Front of the Chinese Theater with Footprints of Movie Stars, 1983; acrylic and oil paintstick on canvas mounted on wood supports; 35½ x 81½ in. Courtesy of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

These motifs engage multiple discourses all at once, and Saggese suggests that all of these readings can exist simultaneously. At the same time, part of what makes Basquiat’s work so consistently fascinating—and even frustrating—is the lack of a one-to-one correspondence between symbols and predetermined values. In the constant search for authorship and empirical meaning, Saggese sees a critical imperative to decode every gesture and mark in painting as a possible sign unlocking larger contexts and narratives not readily apparent on the surface. She suggests that this interpretive work is invariably what drives any viewer to keep looking. But if the first two chapters rely on historicism and visual analysis, the third and concluding chapter forms a mode of interpretation that relies less on conventional understandings of pictorial analysis and more on “reading” techniques from literary theory. 

That lack of conclusiveness is entirely the point

As with earlier contextual notes on Basquiat’s citation of traditions and histories in jazz and graffiti, Saggese traces the artist’s free-form approach to language to his admiration for Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous prose and William S. Burroughs’ cut-up poetry. In examining Basquiat’s use of text in his canvases, Saggese argues that the semiotic function of language becomes apparent in the interplay and confusion between pictorial objects and text. Her analysis, for example, of Hollywood Africans in Front of the Chinese Theater with Footprints of Movie Stars (1983) explains how the superimposition of the word “teeth” over the mouth of the figure at the right of the frame challenges ideas of the primitive/modern and black/white binaries inherent in the understanding of language as a threshold. At the same time, the interchangeability of language and image here—the word “teeth” occupying the space where the pictorial representation of teeth should be—also reveals the inherent mutability between presumed binaries of abstraction and representation. As Saggese argues, “the question [is] not one of language versus image, conceptualism versus expressionism, or even intellect versus instinct.”9 Instead, these canvases require viewers to decenter familiar concepts of linearity and empirical meaning and recognize that the boundaries of pictorial representation, like language, can be redefined and reformed.

At 222 pages, Reading Basquiat may be too brief to offer a full survey of the artist’s vast body of work. But that lack of conclusiveness is entirely the point. In advocating for a mode of interpretation that is more free-form, Saggese implores us to recognize these works as continuously evolving and, as such, to find new opportunities for meaning, both within the paintings and ourselves.


  1. Carol Vogel, “Christie’s Contemporary Art Auction Sets Record at $495 Million,” The New York Times online, May 15, 2013,
  2.  “Photography by Paige Powell: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Reclining Nude,” Suzanne Geiss Company,!/exhibitions/?exhibitid=205.
  3.  Patricia Cohen, “Basquiat Auction by Christie’s Is Postponed,” Arts Beat blog, The New York Times online, March 9, 2014,
  4.  Jordana Moore Saggese, Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 2.
  5.  Ibid, 55.
  6.  Ibid, 55.
  7.  Ibid, 55.
  8.  Ibid, 55.
  9. Ibid, 145.

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