Jean-Michel Basquiat and Flexible
Fred Hoffman, PhD, worked closely with Jean-Michel Basquiat during the artist's residency in Venice, California in the early 1980s. He has written extensively on Basquiat’s practice, most recently authoring The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, published in 2017.
Special Catalogue: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flexible
When Jean-Michel Basquiat was asked to define his art, he answered without hesitation “royalty, heroism, and the streets.” This is the vision of Flexible, 1984. In many ways, this artwork serves as a summation of these three central themes. The figure Basquiat depicts is a tribal king. His posture, with arms raised and interlocked above his head, conveys confidence and authority, attributes of his heroism. He seems to be crowning himself. The nature of the picture support, and the way in which this work came about, takes us back to the artist’s origins on the streets of Manhattan.
Bringing the Street into the Studio
After opening his exhibition at the Larry Gagosian Gallery in West Hollywood in early March 1983, Jean-Michel Basquiat returned to New York, where virtually overnight he completed some of his most important paintings including Notary, The Nile, In Italian and Mitchell Crew. Later that year he was drawn back to Los Angeles, which afforded him a buffer from an increasingly challenging New York art world. With his return to Los Angeles, Basquiat opened his own studio, again on Market Street in Venice where he had worked previously, in Larry Gagosian’s townhouse.
Working in a location just one block off the beach, Jean-Michel mostly avoided the constant coming and goings from the Venice boardwalk. Commuting from the L’Hermitage Hotel in West Hollywood, he usually arrived at his studio in the afternoon, worked late into the evening, sometimes into the next day. The back door of the studio opened onto a small courtyard, which was enclosed by an eight-foot-high, deteriorating slat wood fence. One night, while taking a break from painting, Jean-Michel walked out into this space, and was startled by the presence of a homeless man who had somehow managed to slip into the courtyard between two sections of the fence.
This experience had a strong impact upon the artist, and he decided to remove the wood fence, essentially returning the patio to the Venice ambience. While Basquiat would no longer have an enclosed patio, he would no longer need to fear someone sleeping in his backyard and invading his privacy. After making plans for the removal of the wood fencing material, Jean-Michel instructed his assistants to bring the now deconstructed fence into the studio.
Within a day or two the wood slats started to take on a new life. Using longer sections of the wood fencing as vertical supports, the artist had the individual wood slats stacked horizontally, thereby turning the fence material into new, unique picture supports. Here in Venice, some three thousand miles from his earlier pictorial expression on the walls of the Manhattan streets, Basquiat had now found the means of bringing the street into the studio.
A New Formalism
Picture supports made from wood slat fencing material were used in more than 17 paintings made between 1984 and 1986. The earliest and most recognized of these works were Flexible, Gold Griot, 1984, and M, 1984, followed later in 1984 by Grillo, a work Basquiat executed upon his return to New York. Eli Broad quickly added Gold Griot to his extensive collection of works by the young artist. Jean-Michel Basquiat kept Flexible for his own personal collection. The works made from wood slat fencing gave Basquiat a new way to integrate his art with his penchant for life on the street. While the first wood slat picture supports were executed in Venice, California and came from previously existing fences, the artist made several wood slat picture supports from material purchased at a Soho lumber yard at a later time in New York, in 1984–1986.
In contrast to the earlier, exposed stretcher bar supports, these slat supports introduced a new formalism into the work. The irregularity and refuse-like quality of the earlier works, such as One Million Yen, 1982, Rubell Family Collection, or Untitled (Ernok), 1982, questioned whether the picture support fulfilled the function for which it was conceived.
Basquiat’s new picture support construction owes a debt to the work of Robert Rauschenberg. The senior artist’s almost alchemical ability to take materials, even detritus, from our daily lives, objects not loaded with significance as art, and transform them into forms laden with esthetic content and value, was of immense importance to Basquiat as he moved from the street into the studio.
In Rauschenberg’s Winter Pool, 1961, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the two highly worked outer panels are separated by a ladder-like structure that extends down and touches the floor. With this common, clearly cast-off and retrieved object, Rauschenberg linked the act of painting with our world. Trophy IV (for John Cage), 1961, presents a series of found objects positioned on top of a low, wood-slat structure that functioned as a picture support. Here too, the modest materials used to create this “arena of art” allow the viewer to enter into a more neutral space unburdened with the cultural and historical associations of “high art.” It was an astute awareness of Robert Rauschenberg’s art historical contribution that enabled the accomplished young artist Basquiat to turn the fence of his courtyard into an important and essential component of his artwork.
With the incorporation of the wood fence supports, Basquiat seemed to declare that his imagery must be regarded with the utmost respect and seriousness. With their weight, density and scale, these works demand to be noticed. It is instructive to recall the installation of Gold Griot and Flexible in the Basquiat retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The two works towered over the immense exhibition space. Like stop signs, these structures caused the viewer to slow down, and pay attention.
An Imposing Presence
It is not coincidental that with these new picture supports, Basquiat introduced more authoritative imagery in his representation of the standing black male. While the figure in Flexible shares some similarity with the central figure of Notary, 1983, and to a certain degree the figures depicted in The Philistines, 1982, it marks a change in the artist’s subject matter. In Notary, the key figural as well as iconographic precedent for Flexible, the central figure is part of an overall narrative content, intertwined in a cacophony of images and symbols. In contrast, the central figure of Flexible exists in solitude, looming over the viewer. Here Basquiat’s concern is for immediate, frontal engagement. In his portrayal of the ribs, Basquiat flattens out the figure, allowing the rib-chest portion to be represented as horizontal bands which become one and the same with the shape of the wooden slats. This integration of image and support adopts a formal pictorial solution more commonly associated with minimalist painting. In this regard, Flexible brings to representational image-making the same formal rigor Jasper Johns achieved in his American flag paintings and Frank Stella applied to his early geometric compositions.
Flexible pays homage to pop art esthetics. Basquiat’s use of wooden slats negates the viewer’s inclination to move into an illusionistic space traditionally associated with the picture surface. Like a pop art painting, such as Andy Warhol’s Elvis, 1962, Flexible provides no place “into” which the viewer can retreat. We are invited to engage this figure in “our” space. Basquiat’s figure is directly in front of us, without illusion. Flexible is nearly ten feet in height. In the photograph of Basquiat at work on the companion work Gold Griot in his Venice studio, the head of his figure dwarfs the artist’s beneath it. The concrete nature of Basquiat’s materials, and the tight, cohesive relationship between image and surface, give Flexible a unique and imposing presence.
Manifestation of a Higher Power
Basquiat’s first narrative representation of a heroic black male is in Acque Pericolose, 1981, Schorr Family Collection, and Per Capita, 1981, Brant Foundation. Acque Pericolosepresents a full-length black nude male whose hands are folded across his chest. The isolated male figure of Acque Pericolose, begun in mid-1981, underwent a significant transition over the next twelve months. This iconic subject was first represented as a raw, fully exposed and humbled youth, but quickly evolved in a series of paintings, each showing a fully mature and heroic male figure filling a significant portion of the pictorial field and surrounded with a collection of symbols. Per Capita, a depiction of Cassius Clay, was one of these works. These portray male boxers, red and black warriors, and other male figures that personify heroism, power, dignity, and pride. Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump, 1982, Profit I, 1982, Untitled (Self Portrait), 1982, and Untitled (Boxer), 1982, are others that convey these attributes. In 1982, Basquiat produced no fewer than 52 paintings and 30 drawings in which the main image is an iconic, black male figure. Some reference historical figures, others are self portraits. The artist presents them at a victorious moment, with upraised arms. The image of a black male relating to both Basquiat’s “crew” and the artist himself is primarily the subject of his formative years 1981–1982. 18 months later, Flexible ushers in Basquiat’s representation of the black male as king or divinity figure.
The figure in Flexible cannot be viewed as a mere mortal. This figure exists beyond our world, a manifestation of a higher power. While many of Basquiat’s earlier images of a single black male portray specific people, including the artist himself and well-known personalities from sports and music, the personage of Flexible is not an identifiable character, but represents someone removed from our daily experience. Contrast the figures of Flexible and Profit I, which was painted almost two years earlier. In Profit I, the figure is represented with both arms raised, like a cactus plant, the gesture suggesting some kind of worldly heroism. The gold and red crown of thorns – or halo – over the figure’s head is a sacred or perhaps heavenly symbol; its submersion in a black field surrounded by cryptic scrawls and symbols counteracts these associations, aligning Basquiat’s figure with our world.
Flexible presents a significantly different kind of figural presence. This figure is as much a divine apparition as a living human being. With its austere and assertive background surface, the figure of Flexible references sculptural representations of the divine in various sub-Saharan African cultures. In Flexible an oversized head, wide, slanted and partially closed eyes, a broad flat nose and mouth with prominent teeth, and cowry shells surrounding the eyes and along the hairline all indicate that Basquiat was influenced by sub-Saharan African source material. Instilling his figure with the same attributes of dignity, power and the sacred, the artist made an even stronger statement by devising a new picture support for his paintings of divinity figures.
The arm gestures in most of Basquiat’s representations of the black male extend upwards, signifying heroic achievement. The arm gesture depicted in Flexible is unique in Basquiat’s oeuvre. From each shoulder, two long, tubular-shaped green appendages, one vertical, the other first extending downward and then vertically, join together as a continuous band above the figure’s head. Now the figure’s arms are linked together, signaling an act of coronation. In works such as Profit I or The Philistines, Basquiat positioned a halo or nimbus above his figure’s head. In other works, such as Charles the First, 1982, he added his now iconic crown. Both nimbus and crown imbue Basquiat’s personages with sanctity. Flexible diverges from the previous iconography, enabling the figure’s arm position to convey the same attributes assigned to the halo or nimbus. Neither Gold Griot or M, Basquiat’s two other images of royalty depicted on wood-slat fencing material, have a similar representation of their figure’s arms. Painted immediately following these two works, in Flexible the royal attributes of the figure are complemented by the additional symbolism of the sacred.
Heroism and Sanctity
The meaning of the word “flexible” is to bend without breaking, be easily modified, to respond well to altered circumstances. If one compares the way Basquiat schematically outlines the form of upraised arms in M with his rendering of the arms in Flexible, it is apparent that the later work conveys a freedom or playfulness not found in the more static gestural configuration of the work that preceded it. The highly expressive, freely flowing arm positioning captured in Flexible is a counterpoint to the regularity and order of the picture support.
As previously noted, the arm gestures in Flexible are unusual for the artist. Faced with the “raw,” somewhat static imagery presented in M, Basquiat sought to enhance the characterization of his new, commanding royal figure. The unconventional yet expressive arm configuration of Flexible is elastic. In their extension these arms are strong and flexible, contorting but not breaking. The limbs of Flexible stretch beyond their natural capacity, extending upward, eventually joining each other, forming symbols of both heroism and sanctity. Flexible is the expression of a highly confident creator, an artist capable of taking chances, able to play with a given motif or subject matter, expanding his pictorial moves as he develops his themes.