On Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Quest for a New Semiotic Machine

by John David Ebert

Apparatuses of Semiotic Capture

The central anxiety of Basquiat’s art — and it is an anxiety that runs through every single painting he ever did — is the absence of an apparatus of semiotic capture. In an age of semiotic overload when all the signifiers have been torn free from the previous apparatuses that once captured and bound them into ordered systems of meaning and significance (i.e. Heidegger’s various epochs of Being; Sloterdijk’s macrospheres, etc.), the precise problem now for the artist who finds himself on the outside of Everything is to find and construct new apparatuses that will capture and collect the signifiers, assigning them new places of fixity and meaning, thus neutralizing the dangers of information overload (which tends to have a hollowing effect on the human subject).

Indeed, ever since the collapse of Gebser’s Integral Sphere — the equivalent, more or less, of Derrida’s “transcendental signified” — signifiers have been running around loose all throughout our society: across billboards, sliding as graffiti across the surfaces of buildings, glaring with neon luminescence as islands in the dark amongst deserted gas stations and poorly lit convenience stores. Everywhere we go nowadays, we are confronted and bombarded by signifiers that have escaped from their transcendental apparatuses and assault and overwhelm the human psyche on a constant basis. Television screens; video monitors on gas pumps; electronic billboards; entire buildings with ad logos burning on them, torn loose from their surfaces of inscription in the pages of printed books.

It is an age of signifier overload, and the artist is vitally necessary — now more than ever before in fact — to construct and create new apparatuses of capture that trap and code these signifiers into systems of patterned order and meaning. It is, of course, ironic that the artist is now regarded as superfluous to the project of contemporary hypermodernity as a whole, an age in which, precisely due to the lack of such artists, individuals are drowning in signifier overload. The psychological effects of such overload are not hard to figure out: paranoia, public violence, spree killings, and cognitive disorientation. Indeed, far from being superfluous, the artist is essential to the health and functioning of any and every society. Without him, disinhibiting media take his place, media such as popular films and comic books which tend to feed rather than inhibit the regression of the human personality to the status of neo-Roman bestiality.

But it wasn’t, of course, always like this: one is therefore forced to ask, what was the status of the signifier in the metaphysical or the Medieval ages prior to the disintegration of the apparatuses which held them in place and kept them from running around like escaped zoo animals?

Why, in other words, wasn’t there any graffiti on the walls of Medieval churches and towns?

And the answer is because all the signifiers were locked and held into place by the apparatus of cosmic capture of the cathedral, and the transcendent cosmology that the cathedral realized in physical space. The Medieval signifiers — saints, let’s say, or the various myths and legends of Christian folklore — were organized into the niches and the various portals and windows of the art surrounding the cathedral, which acted as a sort of giant exoskeleton for setting them into place. The cathedral was normally laid out on an east-west axis, with the altar to the east and apocalyptic imagery adorning the west portals, while the stained glass of the windows transformed their interiors into the bejeweled radiance of the New Jerusalem which each cathedral was thought, from the time of Abott Suger on, to symbolize. The image of Christ nailed to the Cosmic Tree was the master signifier that held the whole apparatus together: nothing random, and everything, as the Radiohead song goes, in its right place.

In the metaphysical age that followed and to some extent overlapped the Medieval age, the apparatus of semiotic capture that displaced the cathedral, together with its organization of space as a sacred revelation, was Cartesian phase space, which, along with its x and y axes, organized three dimensional physical space as an objectively measurable realm of subjects confronting objects in motion. The master signifier of the age was the Cartesian cogito, for the human subject, in the form of the portrait study, soon began to displace Christ and his various iconotypes as the central image of Western art. Mathematics, especially analytical geometry and the infinitesimal calculus, captured and bound all the signifiers, locking them into place as Transcendental Objects suitable for scientific analysis.

But, as Derrida has pointed out, the transcendental signified — what I am calling here “apparatuses of semiotic capture” — disappeared during the time of Modernity, leaving behind an absent ontological center to which signifiers no longer referred. And, in doing so, the signifiers, now let loose from their traditional modes of capture by various surfaces of inscription, began to tear themselves free from their various media and run riot over the walls of the culture. With the deauthorization of the grand metanarrative by French thought, on the one hand, and the assault on the Gutenbergian media of the printed book by the rise of the various electronic media on the other, a Crisis of Surfaces came about, in which signifiers, like Yeats’s circus animals, no longer had anyplace to go. So they began migrating, crawling, swarming and shifting across the surfaces of public space in quest of new surfaces of inscription.

And graffiti, which originated in Philadelphia around 1967, was one of the new manifestations of floating signifiers shifting and drifting across the walls of public space. Like Jenny Holzer’s floating lines of text crawling up the sides of buildings, graffiti signs were largely composed of words, and not so much images, torn free from traditional surfaces of inscription and looking for new surfaces. In the absence of properly functioning apparatuses of semiotic capture, they had no place else to go, and so they started entering into public space as codes indicating the fragmentation and disruption of the social fabric into internal tribal hordes of city proletariat not taken into account by the overcoding of the capitalist consumer society. Corporate advertising on public signs and billboards is simply legal graffiti; illegal graffiti is regarded as a form of vandalism, and as such, is perceived and targeted by the immune system of the city for erasure.

Which brings us (back) to Jean-Michel Basquiat who, though not technically a graffiti artist, nonetheless began as a graffiti artist in the late 1970s who spray-painted lines of his own made up texts throughout the East Village in New York City, and signed them with the tag of “SAMO.” Basquiat’s graffiti was largely an imageless art, but his art on the other hand, while incorporating words within it, was largely about images. This is one of the reasons why his art cannot be dismissed merely as graffiti art, since it isn’t graffiti art, which (at least in America) is composed primarily of words not images (whereas with body tattoos the situation is reversed).

Basquiat, then, appropriated some of the semiotics of graffiti art in bringing it inside the world of New York art museums and galleries. In doing so, he deterritorialized — to borrow from Deleuze and Guattari — graffiti art from its origins in the streets and then re-territorialized it for the museums. But this problem, then, of taking the outside (as Andy Warhol once put it) and putting it on the inside brings us back to Basquiat’s central anxiety, that, namely, of creating new apparatuses of capture with which to harness the semiotic overload of the streets.

Ontological Canvas

Basquiat, though, is always on the Outside. The central conceit of his art, the Ur-phanomen, if you will, is the crumbling, abandoned City Wall that one, in beholding his canvases, is presumed to be standing in front of. Basquiat, as a painter, is as it were, the archetypal graffiti artist painting his images on the surface of this crumbling outer wall on some vacant side street of the City. But take note that this conceit always exiles him, no matter where he is in the real world, to the Outside of Things. He is always on the outside inscribing images onto the surfaces of a simulated public facade. The ontological status of the artist in contemporary society is that of an outcaste: he paints on the exteriors of the city, which has turned its back to him and is no longer interested in his fate. (In the metaphysical age, by contrast, the artist was always on the Inside, whether he was Michelangelo painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Rembrandt painting his canvases in his atelier which were destined to be hung in bourgeois or aristocratic homes).

And this was the problem of Basquiat’s agon as an artist since, no matter where he was, or how far inside the art world he managed to penetrate, the very conceit of his art always placed him on the Outside. Hence, the increasing use of the drugs to create a faux interior, an intrauterine state, in which his consciousness could be captured, bound and held to an Inside even while he painted on the exo-surfaces of simulated city walls.

This is a point that needs to be kept in mind during the following discussion.

The Totem vs. the City

Basquiat’s first paintings, dating from about 1980-81, are images of cityscapes and urban techno-forms, such as the 1981 Cadillac Moon (shown above), which depicts a stack of television sets beside two automobiles; or the car crashes of Untitled 1980, or the cityscape of Untitled 1981. These early paintings are cityscapes devoid of people, and they become very quickly overcrowded with floating signifiers, such as his famous Crown King signature or the notary seal that often figures in his canvases, or the letter “A” that is reiterated across the surface of Cadillac Moon.

The first signs of a human presence appear in the Untitled (Red Man) of 1981, in which a mysterious reddish-yellow figure with its right arm pointing up into the air surfaces on the left side of the canvas, while the right half is overcrowded with cars, planes and scrawled words. It is significant that the figure (the first of Basquiat’s totemic Presences) is leaning against the right half of the canvas, as though it were pushing back the crowd of signifiers in an effort to repel them.

And indeed, it is. In subsequent Untitled paintings of 1981, strange and mysterious totem figures suddenly emerge and dominate the canvas, towering over the city signifiers which have begun to recede into the background surrounding them. These beings, one of them the archetypal Fisherman (shown below) are rendered in the so-called X-ray style of art that is characteristic of shamanic art worldwide. They appear early in Basquiat’s canvases as invocations of totemic Presences to begin pushing back against the semiotic overload of the city, and they are rendered in X-ray style so that we can see their skeletons and internal organs precisely because it is his fascination with the interior of the human body as an antidote to the perennial Outside of the city surface that he has been exiled to, which will become his main preoccupation.

It is the Human Body which Basquiat will begin to experiment with as a possible apparatus of semiotic capture inside which the escaped signifiers will be swallowed up, just as in the Medieval Age, the mystical body of Christ functioned as an apparatus of semiotic capture inside which all of his believers were gathered as cells.

This becomes especially clear in Basquiat’s Self-Portrait of 1982 (directly above) in which he depicts himself scaled up to the size of a giant, a huge and solid shadow body, with an arrow in his left hand that seems to function like an eraser, for the various smears all across the surface of this canvas indicate the present absence of erased signifiers which this giant, pharaoh-sized shadow body has wiped clean from the surface of inscription that he stands before. The human body as totemic, ancestral Presence will become the new apparatus that not only captures and attempts to neutralize the signifier overload, but will be precisely pitted against Basquiat’s cityscapes.

In the famous Untitled (Skull) of 1981 (above), Basquiat puts his cityscape as semiotic overload on the inside of this ancestral-looking skull. Indeed, if one compares the cityscape of Untitled 1981 (shown below) with the jumbled patchwork of contents which Basquiat depicts, using his X-ray vision, on the inside of this skull, then it becomes clear that he is beginning to experiment with the human body as a possible substitute for traditional apparatuses of semiotic capture. As in his earlier canvases in which the City had swallowed up every trace of the human being, in this case, the human Presence has swallowed the City entire.

In the art of the ancient Egyptians, the signifier of the pharaoh was always scaled up to gigantic size in order to indicate his spiritual importance as the master signifier of the art. In these early canvases, Basquiat, in similar fashion, proceeds to invoke and enlist the aid of a series of mythical totem beings, scaled up to giant size, to aid him in the endeavor of capturing and neutralizing the semiotic overload.

The problem, however, soon becomes evident in paintings like Untitled (Black Skull) of 1982 (above), which depicts a floating skull above a pair of scales, with an arrow and a thigh bone as disconnected entities on the surface of the canvas. Basquiat’s totemic Presences, that is to say, have a tendency to explode apart and destructure themselves under the impacts of the signifiers that Basquiat tries to stuff inside them. There are too many signifiers — this is the age of information overload, after all — and his totem beings are unable to successfully contain them. They burst these beings apart, rupturing them into pieces, so that city signifiers are constantly spilling acorss the surfaces of his canvases from henceforth. By the time of such canvases as Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits (below) and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Derelict (shown below that one) it becomes clear that the signifiers are winning the battle and have exploded across the surfaces of the canvases in rich, dense profusion. Bits and pieces of the Anatomy of his ruptured Human Presence dot these canvases with their effluvia: the floating head in Portrait of the Artist; the detached leg and the various feet and limbs in Leonardo da Vinci, etc.

In spectacular paintings like Charles the First, 1982, and Horn Players, 1983 (both below) the signifiers are completely free-floating once again and run rampant across the abandoned city wall of his canvases. The apparatuses of semiotic capture are gone, and the signifiers have broken free once more, flooding the human subject with dizzying waves of information overload as city signifiers beam at him at the speed of light from all directions simultaneously.

The internal anatomy that is visible in Anybody Speaking Words (shown below) is another attempt to open up the human body as a space of capture; but the Self-Portrait as a Heel, Part Two of 1982 (shown below that one) indicates the results, in which he depicts himself as an exploded and ruptured entity, a destructured being, like one of the Armani suits that he liked to wear while painting.

The problem is that, without an apparatus of semiotic capture — like one of Bacon’s hermeneutic cubes — Basquiat as a philosophical subject (and he is himself the subject of his own art), fails to develop a protective membrane in order to allow it to function. Canvases like The Italian Version of Popeye Has no Pork in His Diet (1982) (shown below) and Untitled (Hand Anatomy) (shown below that) also from 1982, demonstrate the signifier overload; the invasion, from every quarter, of his psyche by hordes of displaced signifiers.

And this, of course, is also the problem of the contemporary self in general, for it is a self which, differing vastly from the Cartesian cogito or the Husserlian Transcendental Ego, is often unable to develop proper defense mechanisms against the information overload of electronic society, which beams so much information at the self, that in many cases it simply wilts under their impact like a tank under the deathray of one of George Pal’s War of the Worlds spaceships.

Basquiat’s signifiers, as evident, for instance in LNAPRK (1982), are a chaotic wilderness of disorganized forms that look as though they had been scrawled like graffiti upon a city wall by multiple hands. With graffiti art, there is no subject of enunciation, as in the case of the production of a classical novel or work of art, precisely because graffiti art is produced by a collective assemblage of enunciation; multiple artists, in other words. The subject is a We, not an I.

And so the problem in Basquiat’s art is the very same: he is not an “I,” but a “We.” A stable self never crystallizes in his art, as is made clear in the painting entitled Jesse (shown below) of 1983, which displays a central circle drawn over a collection of pages of diagrams and objects that look as though they had been ripped from the spine of a sketchbook. The circle is, of course, the traditional symbol of the self, and in Basquiat’s case, it is a permeable self that fails to produce a solid interior which would provide him with a safe hollow in order to escape from the semiotic overload of the contemporary city. But as the image makes clear, there is no interior for Basquiat, no inside into which he could escape, since the images flood the inside just as much as the outside. Hence, the need for the drugs, to provide him with a safe inside where he could hide from the overload.

Technological Substitute

Basquiat’s various attempts at constructing new semiotic machines for processing and rewiring the various disconnected elements of his fragmented cosmos were largely failures. But the central point of his art, namely, the need for a new machine of semiotic capture to replace the collapse of the traditional apparatuses that once organized our signifiers and prevented semiotic chaos, was not only correct, but it was also prophetic.

Supposing one were to take one of his later canvases, such as the 1984 Sienna (shown below) or the Melting Point of Ice (shown below that) and plug them in and turn them “on,” sending electric current racing through the canvases. What would we have then?

Something very much resembling, I think, William Gibson’s vision of cyberspace, which he was articulating in his science fiction novels at just about the same time as Basquiat was painting his art, for Gibson’s cyberspace, too, is a realm of disconnected signifiers, corporate logos and Voodoo gods. And Gibson’s vision of cyberspace, furthermore, was a clear foreshadowing of the Internet, that recent technological substitute for all traditional apparatuses of semiotic capture. The Internet is an electronic apparatus of capture that takes up all the floating signifiers from public space — ad logos, corporate symbols, graffitti both legal and illegal — and scoops them up into a world space that becomes the interior consciousness of the city.

Artists are often prophetic of coming developments, and the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, with its wilderness of floating signifiers divorced from any material substrates in any traditional media whatsoever, is prophetic of the coming of the Internet as a new apparatus of capture of public signifiers. Unlike all previous apparatuses, however, it does not organize and give meaning to these signifiers; it merely swallows them up and gathers them all into the Inside of a new world interior.

Consequently, just as Basquiat’s art took the outside and put it on the inside; that is to say, captured the semiotics of the city wall and folded it inward into the New York art world; so too, the Internet captured all forms of public graffiti and folded them up to become a new Inside of city consciousness. The Internet is the Within of the city, its interior nervous system and self-luminous correlate to its exterior nighttime luminescence.

Basquiat’s various endeavors were clear intuitions that all these signifiers would eventually have to be gathered up into the same space in some way. In his case, he was gathering them onto the surface of a mythical abandoned city wall, while in the case of the Internet, they have been dematerialized from all their substrates in previous media. Nevertheless, the effort, in both cases, to build new systems of semiotic capture, are directly parallel to one another.

The Problem With Warhol

This is especially the case with Basquiat’s collaborations with Warhol, which are a dress rehearsal, as it were, for the coming of this development. This series of paintings, done between 1984-85, when Basquiat and Warhol were hanging out together, performs the graffiti myth perfectly: Warhol’s clean corporate logos and bits and pieces from advertisements were “defaced” by Basquiat, who would come along and paint little graffiti cartoons over them, as though he were an actual graffiti artist painting his tags over public walls.

But then, of course, this is precisely what the Internet is composed of: corporate logos and websites (electronic billboards, in other words, made portable), together with such forms of (now legal) vandalism as Customer Reviews on Amazon or the various Comments left on blogs and websites or even the websites of private individuals themselves. Together, Warhol and Basquiat are foreseeing the coming technological developments (as Warhol so often did) that lay just around the corner from them. Basquiat’s “comments” on Warhol’s ad logos are the equivalent of the various “comments” and “customer reviews” on today’s official websites.

But there is another problem posed by these collaborations, one that involves an entirely different set of considerations. In rendering Basquiat’s art a mere commentary on Warhol’s, the collaborations tended to reduce his art to the status of a mere supplement. Basquiat’s art becomes supplemental to Warhol’s, an ontological status which it had never possessed before, and this introduced a perturbation into Basquiat’s art that he never recovered from. Hitherto, his art had been perfectly confident in the metaphysics of its own presence. But now, with his very high esteem of Warhol, whom he looked up to, it was suddenly reduced to the status of a supplement to the Master, a phenomenon not uncommon amongst traditional artists at the beginning of their careers (Leonardo, for instance, painting the folds of the angel’s robe on Verocchio’s canvas as a supplement to the Master whom he was only apprenticing at the time). But Basquiat was not at the start of his career; in fact, his best art already lay behind him. So for him to be supplementing the works of a Master like Andy Warhol at this point in his career proved to be disastrous for him.

From this point on, Basquiat’s canvases grow ever less sophisticated, ever less sure of themselves; they become sketchier and less and less authoritative as metaphysical Presences unto themselves. A new, and fatal, tentativity begins to set in, which is evident, for instance, in canvases like To Be Titled of 1987 (shown below) or Riddle Me This Batman (shown below that) from the same year. A cartoony, sketchbook-like quality begins to dominate these later works, such as Glassnose of 1987 or Victor 25448. (both below)

Their ontological model is no longer that of the abandoned City Wall, but rather the Sketchbook. They are more like doodles drawn by a bored man on the pages of his notebook than works of the master that Basquiat had once been. Even his final great (and one of the very few in these years) painting Riding With Death has a cartoon quality about it that renders its status as great art questionable.

In these last couple of years, then, the semiotics of graffiti no longer provided Basquiat with his inspiration, but rather the images of cartoon characters and comic books. With the shifting of his ontological canvas from that of the abandoned City Wall to the sketchbooks of a cartoonist, the central Vision that had always “animated” his art for nearly seven years had, by that point, gone.

And along with it, Basquiat’s art.

The End

The commonplace observation, of course, is that the drugs were at fault. But the drugs had been there all along. Basquiat had been a hardcore heroin user right from the start, and he had enjoyed the peace of mind and ability to slow time down that it gave him, allowing him to focus intensely enough to produce the minute details of his early canvases. The drug usage, it is true, had grown gradually worse, especially as the result of his becoming one of the richest artists alive. Cash was never a problem for him, as Phoebe Hoban, in her biography, makes clear.

And the fame hit him hard, too, as it did Jackson Pollock and many, many other celebrities.

However, nothing hit him as hard as Andy Warhol, the Master Signifier whose Factory had always represented for Basquiat the ultimate Inside of Art. If, like Kafka’s K. in The Castle, he could ever manage to wend his way into Warhol’s inner sanctum, then he would finally find himself on the Inside of the art world where he had always so longed to be. But, once he had befriended Warhol, who had a crush on him, finding himself on the Inside did nothing for him, since, as I have pointed out, Basquiat was, as a city wall painter, always on the Outside and always would be. There was no Inside for him ever to get into.

Warhol was the great master that he most admired, and the collaborations with him had the unfortunate effect of regressing him to the status of an apprentice, paradoxically while already having achieved the status of a Master on his own first. (In electronic society, effects, nowadays, often come before the causes).

But it was, of course, Warhol’s death in February of 1987 that created a sucking vortex on the Inside that finally pulled him down, since Warhol was the Symbol that anchored his cosmos, the axial center around which he had revolved. Warhol was the great Magus of Pop Art who had opened all the doors, and Basquiat would have been nothing without his admiration for him.

In the end, he had been reduced from the status of a Master to that of an Apprentice, and it was this ontological shrinkage of his status in his own eyes that permanently disabled him as an artist. There would be no more Visions from henceforth, and he knew it.

And so, in August of 1988, about a year and a half after Warhol’s death, Basquiat died of a combined heroin-cocaine overdose.

By then, he was finally, and permanently, on the Inside.


  1. Heidi says

    There most certainly was medieval graffiti, and a cursory survey of medieval literature will give you a quick lesson in the flexibility and multifarious use of signs and signifiers in the imagination of medieval folks. We moderns – especially now in the age of multiculturalism and the internet – are very essence of medieval, much to (I imagine) the distress of Plutarch’s ideological gang. What’s the internet but the printing press multiplied? And our globalization but the mirror of European mercantile corporatism? Maybe stick to art.

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