Basquiat's Spasmatic Body Possessed By Media

by on Sep.20, 2010

The spasms I’m interested in is like a disturbance in the image. That’s why I like that part of the Lady Gaga video where Beyonce goes all spasmatic by the phone, and why I see that hotel room being connected to that other hotel room, “The Black Lodge” in Twin Peaks:

Both of them seem to be “about” the image, something that is reflected in the “room-ness” of their rooms – both isolated and connected to other images. The spasms are a kind of disturbance – allowing other signals into the image. Occult connections. They become Joyelle’s “bodies posssessed by media.”

Another example of the spasms of such a body might be Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings. Like in David Lynch (or even more so, Jack Smith) there is in Basquiat’s work a real emphasis on the “tactile” – skin, canvases that feels skin-y, scrawlings that look like blood or other bodily excretions; in some of his last paintings the paint seems blotchy like his skin condition – as well as a sense of the body being possessed by media – everything is copyrighted – even milk, childhood etc – and “fame” seems to be a result of the sense that everything is filmed, everything is art, his suits are splattered with paint as if he walked through his painting.

It seems to me that the spasms of the art – often copied from comic books etc – seems to have this effect of creating grotesque anatomies. But there’s something heroic about these grotesque, spasmatic anatomies (and they are mostly black anatomies, making it hard not to see also the violence perpetuated agianst the black body in our culture), which Basquiat emphasizes by putting halos/crowns on them at times. There is an interesting tension between the hierarchical/conventional figure of the crown and these leaky, contorted, spasmodic bodies. Perhaps it’s carnivalesque art (he did paint a ferris wheel once), which transforms the beaten to the beatific, the lowly to the ruler.


Also: I wonder about the costant reference to Basquiat as a “child”…. It seems belittling since his visual vocabulary is highly sophisticated. On the other hand, he does reference childhood frequently, especially the Gray’s Anatomy (my favorite book) that he, according to his myth of origin (a la Joseph Beuys’s plane crash) got when he was in the hospital as a child.

Also… Those few people out there who know a lot about my own writing knows about my “character” of the “Genius Child Orchestra” which is a force in a number of my writings, which I took from Öyvind Fahlström and Langston Hughes… Anyway, was glad to see that in the movie trailer because Basquiat is one of my favorites and seeing his art at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in Soho back in the mid-90s were life-changing experiences for me. I stayed in there for hours on end.

8 comments for this entry:
  1. Angela Genusa

    Basquiat and the spasmodic body, yes! In a large book I have of his work, Mark Mayer writes, “… the satire of copyrighted body parts as if they were the equal partners of the histrionic guignol figures who populate his pictures. There is something fundamentally pure about his closed world…” (like the hotel rooms of Gaga and Lynch). Basquiat took Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific studies of the human body and distorted them into grotesque figures, such as in the work “Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits.” Then there are the many paintings of the huge monstrous heads, which resemble his own. The occult and religious/mythological… he collected West African sculptures and masks, “functional Vodoun and Santeria figurines of his Caribbean roots.” He also adds Charlie Parker, Jackie Robinson, and Joe Louis to the pantheon of saints, Jesus Christ, angels, crowns, halos, devils, and martyrs.

    Great post, Johannes!

  2. Johannes

    What book is that where you got the Mark Mayer quote from?
    yes, I love the charlie parker etc – very ghost-like.

  3. Aaron Apps

    I’ve always loved his work. It is interesting that the skin you describe is composed primarily of things like latex house paint. These beautifully grotesque things are splayed out of (suburban) hardware stores. Do it yourself–agglomerated they. Basquiat undoes.

  4. Joyelle McSweeney

    Johannes, and other J-M B fans, was Basquiat Catholic? I’ve got saints on the brain today. I’m just thinking of his saint iconography and how such visual iconography is like software, how it downloads itself into your brain if you see enough of it.

  5. Aaron Apps

    SAMO was supposed to be its own religion onto itself (although his work is also deeply rooted in a consideration of the history of art… so the appropriation of catholic iconography would make sense).

  6. Aaron Apps

    Oh…. It also says (at about 2:30 in that video) that he went to catholic school for a year and a half in Puerto Rico.

  7. Basquiat, “Radiant Child” - Montevidayo

    […] thrown away. Of course the paper is about all this excess energy that manifests itself in spasms. See my previous entry about Basquiat and spasms. More about this later. No comments for this entry […]