The Tate’s Will Gompertz explains why Basquiat is every bit as good as Raphael
Art is a language, albeit visual. It is all very well learning to draw like Leonardo or paint like Raphael, but if you can’t communicate anything more than technical ability, then your work is dead. Art has to have something to say. And, for me, the greatest visual orator of them all was a young New Yorker called Jean-Michel Basquiat. An artist who, while still only in his early 20s, produced a painting called Notary (1983), which to my eyes is one of the finest pictures made in the late 20th century.
[ . . . ] And there’s no better example of this than his stupendously elaborate Notary. His canvas isn’t stretched across a frame, but stuck to three huge wood panels that might well have been sourced from a local skip. It is Basquiat’s idea of a triptych: three interrelating stories spread across 13 demented, colourful feet. The effect is part cave painting, part graffiti, part improv jazz. It is a masterpiece. Basquiat didn’t have any formal training, but he knew what he was doing. In Notary you can detect the influence of such modern masters as Miro, de Kooning and Rauchenberg. But far, far more importantly, you can see Basquiat.
Notary is totally raw. He makes no attempt to paint “properly”, knowing that if he did, the demonstration of technique – something learned and therefore copied – would create a barrier to the pure communication of his thoughts and feelings. And yet there is so much to admire from a technical point of view. The way Basquiat controls colour demonstrates a virtuosity that stands comparison with the best. His use of African motifs relates not only to his own genealogy, but also to the works of Matisse and Picasso. And the text he throws onto the canvas, words like “salt” and “dehydrate”, done in rough block capitals, seem knowingly cryptic. [ . . . ]
It was Schnabel’s movie that gave me my first proper introduction to Basquiat. I had heard of him, but I was too ready to listen to friends and colleagues who dismissed him as “not a proper artist”. By which they meant he wasn’t following in the modernist tradition of the almost complete removal of the artist’s personality from the artwork in the manner of say, Donald Judd or Richard Serra. But Basquiat understood the context in which he was operating. His was on a mission to breath life back into art: to save it from itself. Like the impressionists of the late 19th century, he wanted to paint expressively to counter the sterility and formal rigour of the existing art establishment.