Cosmopolis” Jean-Michel Basquiat. symbols and signs

by 1982, he had become both the youngest participant in documenta 7 and the first world-renowned artist with African-American and Caribbean roots. Organized by Dieter Buchhart and Antonia Hoerschelmann, the retrospective Basteihalle Albertina Jean-Michel Basquiat. symbols and signs presents in Vienna from September 9, 2022 to January 8, 2023 some fifty works by the great American artist who died too young (1960-1988).

The catalog of the same name Prestel (English edition:,,,; German edition: offers on 216 pages an overview of the artist’s work as well as the symbols and signs he used.

The director of the Albertina Albrecht Schröder writes in the foreword to the exhibition catalog that the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat combines various genres and artistic disciplines within his practice, which has changed the world of art. art of the 1980s. He brought together elements of street art, comic books, children’s drawings, advertising, his own Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage as well as African American, African, Aztec artistic and cultural stories , classic motifs, and mixed them with contemporary heroes such as athletes and musicians. Thus, Basquiat went far beyond pop art.

The use of linguistic signs and symbols is an integral part of Basquiat’s work, hence the title of the exhibition. He uses them in his very first drawings, in his poetic-conceptual graffiti, in his notebooks as well as in his later drawings and paintings.

Through signs and symbols in particular, Jean-Michel Basquiat held up a mirror to society. He criticized colonialism, racism, violence against African Americans, social discrimination and exploitation as well as the political system.

In his catalog essay, co-curator Dieter Buchhart examines Jean-Michel Basquiat’s polyvocal and symbolic language that draws inspiration from the cheap, poor, ramshackle and dangerous New York of the 1980s. Trains and walls were covered in graffiti and tags. Simple signs advertised services and sales. Traffic accidents, police violence, street musicians, newspaper and television images influenced the young artist. To all this he added the spiritualism of his Haitian heritage.

Dieter Buchhart explains that Jean-Michel Basquat was inspired by books on anatomy, geography, chemistry, alchemy, cartography, history, art history as well as the Bible, d encyclopedias and dictionaries. They served as raw material for his art-brut rhetoric of scholarly hip-hop.

According to Dieter Buchhart’s catalog essay, in the spring of 1983 the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat reached their greatest complexity both in terms of visual motifs and artistic energy. It resisted all the canons of hierarchy and aesthetic value. His engagement with social and political issues reaches its climax in these works.

According to the Viennese curator, Basquiat copied and transformed what surrounded him. He was inspired by the decoupage technique of William S. Burroughs, using cutting, tearing and gluing, not just words. He used cut-and-paste or cut-and-paste sampling, as is often the case in the internet age. The use of Xeroxes allowed Basquiat to reuse signs, patterns and fragments of drawings, even entire drawings. Basquiat both served and developed a cultural technique and an aesthetic principle, a key cultural technique of modernity.

In 1984/85, the artist returned to the technique of serigraphy, which he had already used in the work Tuexedo in 1983. Dieter Buchhart explains that, here (p. 147), the entirety of the central figure, which fills the canvas, was formed using 16 reproduced sheets, densely inscribed and illustrated in a regular pattern – the human body is made up of words, signs and symbols. Whereas Untitled from 1983 (pp. 148/49), on the other hand, Basquiat transferred a single large-format original of 28 glued sheets of the same format (fig. 9) to negative with white drawing and writing on a black background. He affixes the leaves to the canvas, lined up next to each other and on top of each other, but paints over the designs with very few brush strokes, both erasing them and bringing them closer together and in doing so, highlighting them.

In 1984/85, again according to Dieter Buchhart, Jean-Michel Basquiat finally freed himself from the rather orthogonal arrangement of the combined sheet and began to distribute them freely over the surface of the painting. In addition, he screen-printed a whole range of individual patterns and designs on the canvas, taking advantage of the full potential and possibilities of this technique.

From this period also date more than 150 works created in collaboration with Andy Warhol. Initiated by Swiss gallerist Bruno Bischofberger, Basquiat’s friend Keith Haring described it as a kind of “physical conversation taking place in paint instead of words”. Dieter Buchhart notes that Basquiat mostly accentuated and erased Warhol’s visual creations with his own visual elements. While Warhol, inspired by Basquiat, returns to his pictorial beginnings around 1960, Basquiat continues to work on his drawings, collages, serigraphs and assemblages. Later, he transferred the free play of visual patterns from his serigraphs to his “allover collages”.

From 1986 to 1988, the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat is clearly defined by an alternation between empty space and fear of emptiness. He began to work with a new type of figurative representation and once again expanded his repertoire of sources, symbols and content, although he retained his primary techniques.

The curator stresses that Basquiat’s political messages were never intended to agitate or make propaganda. But, in his work, he always took an uncompromising position. For Dieter Buchhart, the artist’s subjects have lost none of their urgency. He anticipated our cut-and-paste society, the madness of our new world of ubiquitous surveillance and communication. His works are totally driven by the polyvocality of postmodernism. He fought indifference with words, word mutations and erasures. He fought against exploitation, consumerism, oppression, racism and police violence.

Jean-Michel Basquiat died on August 12, 1988 in his New York loft at the age of 27. The autopsy report from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the Manhattan Mortuary lists the cause of death as “acute mixed drug intoxication”. .

This and much more, including an essay by Francesco Pellizzi titled “Black and White All Over: Poetry and Desolation Painting,” can be found in the catalog for the Albertina exhibition.

In short, in 1982, Jean-Michel Basquiat had become both the youngest participant in documenta 7 and the first world-renowned artist with African-American and Caribbean roots. He represents 1980s art better than probably any other artist.

Catalog: Jean-Michel Basquiat. symbols and signs. Hardcover, Prestel, September 2022, 216 pages. Order the English edition at,,,; order the German edition from

Exposure Jean-Michel Basquiat. symbols and signs: Basteihalle Albertina in Vienna from September 9, 2022 to January 8, 2023.

You can read more about Basquiat in the exhibition and catalog review Basquiat alone. Also check out my article Art Basel 2019, where I spotted three great works by Basquiat at Van de Weghe Fine Art, including two works from 1983: the Very Yellow onion gun as well as black and white tuxedothe latter is now part of the Nicola Erni collection and is exhibited at the Albertina retrospective.

This article is based on the book Jean-Michel Basquiat. symbols and signs. For better reading, quotations and partial quotations from this catalog review are not quoted.

Review of the exhibition and the catalog added on September 24, 2022 at 7:39 p.m. Austrian time.