Jean-Michel Basquiat and Neo-Expressionism: A Critique of the New York City Police Department
Featuring 'Irony of a Negro Policeman' and 'Defacement (Death of Michael Stewart)'
It was a mild summer night on September 15, 1983 when popular graffiti artist, Michael Stewart, was headed home and was confronted by a group of police officers after tagging a wall. New York City had been getting “tough on crime” in the 1980s and the emergence of street art and its rising popularity only served to heighten tensions between the artists and police. The details of what transpired on that night remain unknown due to unprofessional police reporting. However, eyewitness testimony stated that the New York City Police Department unlawfully attacked Michael Stewart, eventually hospitalizing and causing the death of the young artist. The exact cause of his death was highly contested, as both medical examination and autopsy reports changed; even the trial itself was shrouded in doubts as some claimed perjury on the part of the NYPD. Nothing about the proceedings of the night or Stewart’s death added up, but further inquiry suggested that his death was the result of asphyxiation due to a chokehold. When news of his death circulated through the art world, many were devastated by the loss, but fellow artist Jean-Michel Basquiat took it extremely hard. Basquiat’s friend and other famous New York artist, Keith Haring, stated “It was like it could have been him. It showed him how vulnerable he was.” Basquiat went on to create one of his most famous and haunting paintings later that year called "Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)" (1983) in honor of the late artist.
Neo-expressionism as a genre of art began appearing in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was characterized by a reaction to modernism and minimalism in which the artist’s “work offered violent feeling.” While many other artists were praised for this new technique that was emotive and intrinsically motivated, Basquiat’s work was contrastingly “explained away” by his Afro-Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage. For instance, some art historians and critics, including Sharon F. Patton, categorized his work as “primitive” and called him a “black graffiti artist,” a term he found inherently racist. On the other hand, gallery owner Kellie Jones dispelled that misconception by saying his works showed complexity and fluidity. Many others have recognized this as well and come to similar conclusions about the specific themes he addressed and what elements of art he used to do so. Both Kellie Jones and Laurie Rodrigues point out his use of language in his works and how he used scattered words to confront his themes of black identity. Rodrigues believes Basquiat’s works most reflected his disdain for the way the media commodified African Americans while others like Celeste-Marie Bernier and Richard Powell believe his main reoccurring theme to be the dehumanization of black bodies.
These interpretations are true given the fact that Jean-Michel Basquiat was deeply concerned with the state of race relations in the United States, and especially New York. He translated these concerns through his art work with fluid and complex technique, showing great attention to detail in the layering of colors, application of brushstrokes, words, and symbols, subjects, and lines. He applied reoccurring meaning to many of these elements; for instance, using the color red to imply aggression or crossing out certain words to emphasize a point. The ways in which he expressed his views and cast judgments through his art were specific to him but resonated with a larger audience because of their provocativeness and honesty. He frequently tackled themes relating to race such as the African Diaspora, black music/culture/celebrities, and the commercialization of African Americans. The one magnified most was law enforcement, specifically the hypocrisy, irony, and brutality of the institution. Jean-Michel Basquiat used the style of neo-expressionism to convey his personal apprehensions about law enforcement and especially the NYPD through his use of color, language, and subjects.
'Irony of a Negro Policeman'
A masked black figure fills the page, its red eyes peering into the viewers'. This is one of, if not the most recognizable Jean-Michel Basquiat painting. His use of lines, subject matter, words, and especially color demonstrate his clear concern with the institution of law enforcement. Here he was, blatantly criticizing African Americans who chose to be a part of law enforcement. He found it ironic that black people would want to become part of an institution that was stacked against them. They were thereby actively supporting their own oppression by joining the NYPD, he believed. What is interesting about this piece in particular is the overall deliberateness of the message. Most other Basquiat pieces require very thoughtful interpretation whereas this does not. Irony of Negro Policeman (1981) obviously was not a painting in which the artist wanted to beat around the bush, so to speak, and is therefore more calculated in its portrayal of black police officers.
He conveyed this criticism in many ways, one being the use of language. It has been said that Basquiat was just as much a poet as he was an artist in reference to his continued use of words both English and Spanish in his works. "Irony of a Negro Policeman" (1981) is no exception to this belief. Here he has written the words “IRONY,” “IRONY OF A NEGRO PLCEMN,” and “PAWN.” His use of words reflected his neo-expressionistic style as it is generally brief, eccentric, and random. The word “IRONY” is circled at the top of the page because the artist wanted the audience to notice it and reflect on it (he sometimes circled words to emphasize them). He then went on below to elaborate on this word by adding “IRONY OF A NEGRO PLCEMN.” The use of the word “PAWN” is especially haunting in this piece. Here, Basquiat is suggesting that the “negro policeman” is no more than a pawn in this “game” that the institution is playing.
It is not merely the presence of the human figure but also the way the artist portrayed it that further criticizes these “negro policemen.” Basquiat painted an imposing black figure in the middle of the canvas, not activating any edges or focusing particular attention to any one part of the subject. This suggests to the viewer that the subject is integral to the understanding of the painting. Moreover, the build of the figure itself is intimidating because of the short, thick brushstrokes that comprise it, turning it into something of an abstract bodybuilder. The face of the subject is also integral to the painting and includes some reoccurring elements he used in other works. The red eyes, gritted teeth, and apparent mask over the figure’s head all evoke a sense of intimidation that parallel the officer’s stocky, imposing body language. To represent an African American police officer as a brute stands to support his belief that the negro policeman is no better than any of the other aggressive, white officers he serves along side, he is merely just a pawn.
'Defacement (Death of Michael Stewart)' (1983)
In the summer of 1983, Michael Stewart, a black street artist only a few years older than Jean-Michel Basquiat, fell victim to police violence. This event was especially traumatic for Basquiat because of his already pre-existing distrust of police and his personal connection to Stewart.
Unlike "Irony of a Negro Policeman" (1981), "Defacement (Death of Michael Stewart)" (1983) is not purely conceptual. That is to say it does not solely rely on theoretical analysis in order to determine the meaning of the piece. While Basquiat used one subject to broadly define a larger population of police officers in the first piece, in this work he is retelling an actual event that occurred involving police brutality. The painting illustrates two cartoon-like police officers with batons surrounding a shadowed figure. Basquiat still used color and language to describe what he imagined transpired that night, but here, the use of subjects is most significant.
One of the things that is consistent is the use of the color red in the faces of the police officers. Here, Basquiat paints the entire face red rather than just eyes. He also included brief strokes of red throughout the background in what seems like the smearing of blood on a wall. The way in which the color was applied is significant too because it was done to look like spray paint—a popular medium of street artists. Michael Stewart being a street artist who died as a result of tagging a wall makes that application all the more relevant to the haunting overall tone of the piece.
Another commonality between the two pieces is the inclusion of the title of the painting in the work itself. Unlike the first, "Defacement" only features the one word and nothing else. It is not hard to understand the significance of the title in relation to the death of Michael Stewart though. By only choosing to include the word “defacement,” Basquiat was essentially calling attention towards the reason his peer was arrested and ultimately killed. Immediately following the word is a copyright symbol, something akin to Basquiat’s notorious crown. The copyright is a symbol that spans his work over the years and has meaning to him. Basquiat played with the theme of commodification in terms or African Americans in white society as well as just the general notion of ownership.
The subject matter of this piece is one thing that differs from the first work. "Irony of a Negro Policeman" (1981) features only one human subject while "Defacement" (1983) depicts three. The portrayal of the two police officers on either side of the shadow figure is significant because they are artistically different from the depictions of law enforcement seen from Basquiat thus far. Rather than the gestural, anatomical, and physically imposing figures, we can see in other works, the two officers here are more like cartoons. And rather than looking angry or aggressive, Basquiat is portraying them here as laughing. This humorous look combined with the cartoonesque style suggests that the artist believed law enforcement to be some sort of joke or rather that they did not handle their power in a serious way. The black, humanoid figure in the middle of the painting (presumably Michael Stewart) resonates with the viewer because of the contrasting style to the officers. Rather than being a cartoon as well, Stewart is portrayed here as some sort of ghost. Here, he is just a black mass with the vague outlining of human head and torso with a dissipating waist and legs, creating a sense of disappearance of the subject from the painting. The contrasting styles of the subjects reflects the state of tensions in law enforcement because it suggests that the police did not take their job with any seriousness while it was literally a matter of life or death for the victims they preyed on.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of the most prolific artists of the 1980s and has left a lasting legacy by way of his artwork. By the time he died in 1988 at just 27 years old, he had left over 1,000 paintings and 2,000 drawings. Neo-expressionistic art often reflects the feelings and emotions of the artists at the time of conception and by looking at the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, one can look deeper into the racial issues of the 1980s. Police brutality was a rampant problem in the US and he often reflected this in his own works. Two neo-expressionist paintings of Basquiat’s that exemplified his own reactions towards police corruption and brutality in New York City include Irony of a Negro Policeman (1981), and Defacement (Death of Michael Stewart) (1983). Through his use of color, language, and subject matter in both pieces, one can interpret the artist’s concerns and see the criticisms of the institution of law enforcement in New York City.