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Jonathan Fineberg – Additive Aesthetics

Excerpt from “Lam/Basquiat”, a catalog published by Galerie Gmurzynska on the occasion of a special presentation at Art Basel 2015, prepared in collaboration with Annina Nosei.

Excerpt from “Lam/Basquiat”, a catalog published by Galerie Gmurzynska on the occasion of a special presentation at Art Basel 2015, prepared in collaboration with Annina Nosei.

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Additive Aesthetics

by Jonathan Fineberg

At the beginning of The Anxiety of

Influence, Harold Bloom’s classic theory

of poetry, he states that “strong poets”

make poetic history “by misreading one

another, so as to clear imaginative space

for themselves.” Whereas “weaker talents

idealize,” first rate poets appropriate from

their predecessors and then live with “the

immense anxieties of indebtedness.” 1

Standing in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s

studio, in front of his 1983 painting Notary

[fig.1], an interviewer asked him: “Where do

the words come from?”

Basquiat: “Real life, books, television...”

“You just skim ‘em and start including...”

“No, man. When I’m working I hear them.

You know? I just throw them down.”

“This looks like a skull?”

“...It’s a casco,”

“A what?”

“A casco,”

“and these lines are, again, just lines?”

“That’s an astronomical diagram,

that’s a Puerto Rican word for helmet, that’s

a Roman belt buckle, that’s the evil eye,

the mal occhio...,” the artist pointed out one

image after another and then explained,

“You’re talkin to Marcel Duchamp and

you ask him, or even Rauschenberg, he

couldn’t tell you why something was next

to something else except that it was just

there...” 2

The imagery in Basquiat’s work

reveals his voracious appetite for

assimilating what he saw. He was also

an avid reader and recorded that on his

Fig. 3

Michael Hurson

Edward and Otto Pfaff, 1974-75

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Fig. 1

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Notary, 1983

paintings too. But what he picked up

on could be anything – sometimes the

most unlikely images or words. He also

made a canny appraisal of the works

of successful artists – often work that

seemed entirely different from his. He

didn’t really “misread” them, rather he

appropriated and redefined them to

fit his free train of thought and exploit

devices for his own ends in an additive

and more complex aesthetic. Basquiat’s

Untitled (Head with Green Eyes) [fig.2]

replicates the delicate line, child-like

simplicity, and anecdotal lightness of

Edward and Otto Pfaff [fig.3], a painting

by Michael Hurson, which Basquiat

saw in the 1978 New Imagist Painting

show at the Whitney Museum in New

York. By the time that influence

shows up in a major Basquiat painting

like Notary, he has denatured it with

his own powerful expressionism.

Basquiat layers the simple images

until they become intense, conflicted,

and disturbing.

Basquiat was a sophisticated

modern artist whom the art world treated

as an exotic “primitive” because he was

black. The same was true of Wifredo

Lam who preceded Basquiat by two

generations. Both identified as Black and

sought subjects that reconnected them

to their ancestry in the Black Atlantic.

Lam’s trademark iconography of the

1940s drew on the Santeriá religion and

practices of this African lineage, which he

had learned about in his childhood from

his godmother in turn-of-the-century

Cuba. Basquiat grew up in a middle class

household in Brooklyn and read to enrich

his understanding of his Afro-Carribbean

heritage. In particular, Basquiat studied

Flash of the Spirit, a book by Robert Farris

Thompson, a white Yale professor from

West Texas whose profound grasp of the

constantly mutating practices from Africa

in the African Diaspora produced some of

the most deeply researched, imaginative,

and influential scholarship ever written on

this art.

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Wifredo Lam

Sans titre, 1967

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Fig. 2

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Untitled (Head with Green Eyes), 1981

Lam was raised in the small city of

Sagua la Grande, on the north coast of

Cuba at the beginning of the twentieth

century. He went to Spain for fifteen years

for his artistic education, fought for the

Republican cause on the front lines in the

Battle of Madrid, and fled to Paris in 1938

at the age of thirty-six. There he met

Picasso, who introduced him into Surrealist

circles, and then in 1941 Varian Fry’s

Emergency Rescue Committee spirited

him out of Nazi occupied France, through

Marseilles, along with André Breton and

other endangered artists and writers.

Lam returned to Cuba where he

abandoned more conventional styles of

European modernism for a personal style

of Afro-Cuban imagery, most famously his

femme cheval (seen, for example, on the

left edge of his 1942-3 painting The Jungle

[fig.4]) representing a woman fused with

the caballo [horse] of the orisha [the divine

spirit in the Afro-Carribbean Voodun

religion] who rides the possessed devotee.

The ritual was famously documented by

Maya Deren in her film Divine Horsemen:

The Living Gods of Haiti. Yet this painting,

The Jungle, also relies on a spatial structure

derived from Picasso’s Cubism and

metamorphic images influenced by French

surrealism. “I’m fifty-per-cent Cartesian,

and fifty-per-cent savage,” 3 Lam told his

early biographer Max-Pol Fouchet. He was

simultaneously an insider and an exotic

outsider to the sophisticated Paris and

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New York art scenes, just as Basquiat

was to the art world in New York.

In her monograph on Lam, Lowery Stokes

Sims points to “the inexorable inversion

of European colonization that occurred

as global trends in the post-World War

II era were marked by migrations of

populations from former colonies to

the centers of world economic, social,

and political power.” 4 While on the one

hand Lam exhibited at the established

Klaus Perls and Pierre Matisse galleries

in New York in the 1940s, alongside his

mainstream European and American

contemporaries, he also said he wanted

to capture “the Negro spirit, the beauty

of the plastic art of the blacks,” 5 like

“a Trojan horse that would spew forth

hallucinating figures with the power to

surprise, to disturb the dreams of the

exploiters.” 6

Wifredo Lam’s father was Chinese,

endowing this Afro-Cuban, half Chinese

artist with a complicated identity, forged

in destabilized meanings. He spent the

formative years of his career in Spain

and France and then worked in Cuba

and Haiti. He showed with the Abstract

Expressionists in New York and with

the French Surrealists in New York

and Europe, and was embraced by the

Cobra artists of Northern Europe at mid

century. Both Lam and Basquiat had

roots in the Black Atlantic and embodied

the hybridity of a new world identity.

But as Jordana Saggese pointed out,

in her book Reading Basquiat, one of the

important discoveries Basquiat made in

the writings of Robert Farris Thompson

concerned the mutability of culture in

the African diaspora: “Above all else,

Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit focuses on

the production, rather than the strict

preservation of African culture in the

Americas.” 7

In a painting like Lam’s late Untitled, done in

the 1960s [p. 22-23], the spectral presences

of the orishas persevere in the triangular

headed figure in the lower right with its

glowing eyes and upturned, limb-like

blades, but also in the simple configuration

of the elongated rhomboid at the base of

the truncated arm that lies horizontally

across the canvas. Citing Robert Farris

Thompson, Sims points to these diamond

shaped, criss crossed, and triangular forms

as representing the “four-point boundaries

of the soul’s orbit” which “guard the point

of entry/exit between realms of existence.” 8

At the same time, the attenuated arm

seems to harken back to the dark Spanish

Baroque crucifixions and martyrdoms of

Lam’s formative years in Spain.

Lam lived a long life, dying in Paris

at the age of eighty. Jean-Michel Basquiat

lived a sped-up life in New York. Raised in

Brooklyn, he exploded onto the New York

art scene in 1980 like a firework that rains

down brilliant light and then suddenly goes

dark; he died of a drug overdose in 1988

at the age of twenty-seven. The dynamic

complexity, the multivalency of images, and

the poetic layering of disparate trajectories

of thought and identity in Basquiat’s work

are among its meanings.

By 1980, Baquiat had cultivated

his innate gift for drawing by looking at

artists like Hurson for semantic distance

and simplified figuration, on the one hand,

and the new painterly expressionists

like Julian Schnabel, on the other. He

updated his romance with Abstract

Expressionism and Rauschenberg’s

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Fig. 4

Wifredo Lam

The Jungle, 1942-3

Collection Museum of Modern Art, NY

29


evolutionary appropriation of found

objects and then found images with

Warhol’s redefinition of iconography

in art after 1960. Warhol’s redefinition

of media images themselves – rather

than the things in the world to which

they seemed to refer – into the real

subject of his paintings, led Basquiat

to take this idea of the reproduction

as subject to another level by literally

using the Xerox machine to reproduce

his own gestural marks. As Robert

Farris Thompson explained: “He was

fascinated with Xerox as a process and

a medium and so there’s Xeroxes of

Xeroxes, and pasting and collaging....It’s

as if he were saying, ‘O.K. I’m aware of

what happens when art is reproduced.

But I will reproduce the reproduction,

and when I have finished reproducing

the reproduction, I will reproduce the

reproduction of the reproduction of the

reproduction.’” 9

In Notary, Basquiat used Pollock’s

principle of “all-over” composition,

dispersing the pulsing energy of images,

words, and gesture so evenly across the

large, lateral triptych that he virtually

eliminates the issue of composition

altogether, as in a monumental poured

painting by Pollock. But unlike a

Pollock in which the subject matter is

the map of the artist’s existential act of

self discovery embodied in free gesture,

the multilayered content of the Basquiat

embraces the virtuoso autographic

brushstroke, but also a rich field of

profusely allusive images, and a play

of poetic texts. Some of the phrases

are simply lifted from the familiar, like

the line on all United States banknotes:

“this note is legal tender for all debts,

public and private.” Other words are

Wifredo Lam in his Albissola studio, 1963

30


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epeated – “46. Leeches, 47. Leeches” –

as if the replicated sound releases a new,

dislocated meaning, like the media images

in a painting by Warhol of Mourning Jackie

[Kennedy] or the Electric Chair. “It’s as if

he were dripping letters,” Robert Farris

Thompson continues. “If Pollock had

played with typography, if Pollock had

been scared by a linotype, he would have

come back as Jean-Michel.”

Endnotes

1. Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973) 5.

2. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jean-Michel Basquiat: An Interview (1983), by Marc Miller

(New York: Inner-Tube Video, 1989) VHS. 34 mins. See also John Carlin, Jonathan

Fineberg, and Hart Perry, Imagining America: Icons of Twentieth Century American Art,

a two hour documentary film (NY: Muse Film & Television,

SCETV, & PBS, 2005).

3. Max-Pol Fouchet, Wifred Lam, (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, S.A., 1976), 45; cited in

Lowery Stokes Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982

(Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 35.

4. Lowery Stokes Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982

(Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 1.

5. Fouchet, op. cit.,188-9; cited in Sims, op. cit., 62.

6. Fouchet, op. cit.,187-8; cited in Sims, op. cit., 222.

7. Jordana Saggese, Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art (Berkeley:

University of California Press, 2014), 43-44. Basquiat assiduously read Robert Farris

Thompson, Flash of the Spirit (N.Y.: Random House, 1983) and then began to meet with him.

8. Sims, op. cit., 58-9; See the discussion of these motifs in Robert Farris Thompson, Face of

the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas (New York: Museum of African

Art and Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1993), 48-55.

9. Robert Farris Thompson interviewed by Jonathan Fineberg in: John Carlin, Jonathan

Fineberg, and Hart Perry, Imagining America: Icons of Twentieth Century American Art,

a two hour documentary film (NY: Muse Film & Television, SCETV, & PBS, 2005).

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Wifredo Lam

Untitled, 1972

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Publication © Galerie Gmurzynska 2015

For the works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Wifredo Lam:

© 2015, ProLitteris, Zurich

Documentary Images of Wifredo Lam SDO Wifredo Lam

Editors:

Krystyna Gmurzynska

Mathias Rastorfer

Mitchell Anderson

Coordination:

Jeannette Weiss, Daniel Horn

Support:

Alessandra Consonni

Cover design:

Louisa Gagliardi

Design by OTRO

James Orlando

Brady Gunnell

Texts:

Jonathan Fineberg

Anthony Haden-Guest

Kobena Mercer

Annina Nosei

PRINTED BY

Grafiche Step, Parma

ISBN

3-905792-28-1

978-3-905792-28-7

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