Cosmopolis » Jean Michel Basquiat. Of symbols and signs


In 1982 he was both the youngest participant in documenta 7 and the first world-famous artist with Afro-American-Caribbean roots. Curated by Dieter Buchhart and Antonia Hoerschelmann, the Bastei Hall Albertina retrospective Jean Michel Basquiat. Of symbols and signs is presenting around 50 works by the American artist (1960-1988), who died much too early, in Vienna from September 9, 2022 to January 8, 2023.

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

In the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Albertina director Albrecht Schröder writes that the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat combines various artistic genres and disciplines within his practice, which changed the art world of the 1980s. He combined elements of street art, comics, children’s drawings, advertising, his own Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage, as well as African American, African, Aztec art and cultural history, classical motifs and mixed them with contemporary heroes such as athletes and musicians. Therefore, Basquiat went far beyond pop art.

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

Above all, through signs and symbols, Jean-Michel Basquiat held up a mirror to society. He criticized colonialism, racism, violence against African Americans, social discrimination and exploitation, and the political system.

In his catalog essay, co-curator Dieter Buchhart examines Jean-Michel Basquiat’s polyphonic symbolic language inspired by cheap, poor, run-down and dangerous 1980s New York. Trains and walls were covered in graffiti and tags. Simple signs advertised services and sales. Traffic accidents, police violence, street musicians, newspaper and television pictures influenced the young artist. To all this he added the spiritism 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, encyclopedias and dictionaries. They served as the starting material for his art brut rhetoric of scholarly hip-hop.

According to Dieter Buchhart’s catalog essay, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s works reached their highest complexity in the spring of 1983, both in terms of pictorial motifs and artistic energy. He defied all rules of hierarchy and aesthetic value. His examination of social and political issues reaches a high point in these works.

According to the Viennese curator, Basquiat copied and transformed his environment. He was inspired by William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique, in which he not only used words, but cut, ripped and glued. He used cut-and-paste or copy-and-paste sampling, as is common in today’s internet age. Using Xerox allows Basquiat to reuse characters, motifs and drawing fragments or entire drawings. Basquiat served and developed a cultural technique and an aesthetic principle, a central cultural technique of modernity.

In 1984/85 the artist returned to the technique of screen printing, which he had already used in the work Tuexedo 1983. Dieter Buchhart explains that here (p. 147) the entirety of the central figure filling the canvas was formed from 16 reproduced, densely inscribed and illustrated sheets in a regular pattern – the human body is constructed of words, signs and symbols. while in Untitled from 1983 (pp. 148/49), on the other hand, Basquiat transferred a single large-format template consisting of 28 collaged sheets of the same format (fig. 9) in negative with white drawing and writing on a black background. He glued the sheets next to and on top of each other on the canvas, but painted over the drawings with a few brushstrokes, erased them, joined them and thereby emphasized them.

In 1984/85 Jean-Michel Basquiat, still after Dieter Buchhart, finally broke away from the rather orthogonal arrangement of the assembled sheets and began to freely distribute them across the picture surface. In addition, he brought a whole series of individual motifs and drawings onto the canvas by means of screen printing, using the full potential and possibilities of this technique.

More than 150 works created in collaboration with Andy Warhol also date from this period. Inspired by Swiss gallery owner Bruno Bischofberger, Basquiat’s friend Keith Haring described it as a kind of “physical conversation that takes place in color rather than words”. Dieter Buchhart notes that Basquiat accented and erased Warhol’s visual creations primarily with his own visual elements. While Warhol, inspired by Basquiat, returned to his beginnings as a painter around 1960, Basquiat continued to work on his drawings, collages, screenprints and assemblages. He later transferred the free play of pictorial motifs from his screen prints to his “all-over collages”.

From 1986 to 1988, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art was clearly defined by an alternation between void and fear of void. He began to work with a new mode of figurative representation, again expanding his repertoire of source symbols and content while retaining his original techniques.

The curator emphasizes that Basquiat’s political messages were never intended as agitation or propaganda. But in his work he always took an uncompromising position. For Dieter Buchhart, the artist’s subjects have lost none of their explosiveness. He anticipated our copy-and-paste society, the madness of our brave new world of ubiquitous surveillance and communication. His works are completely carried by the polyphony of postmodernism. He fought indifference with words, word changes and deletions. 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 young age of 27. The autopsy report from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Manhattan Mortuary, lists the cause of death as “acute mixed drug intoxication.” .

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

In short, Jean-Michel Basquiat was the youngest ever competitor in 1982 documenta 7 and the first world-renowned artist of African American-Caribbean descent. He represents the art of the 1980s better than probably any other artist.

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

exhibition Jean Michel Basquiat. Of symbols and signs: Albertina Bastion Hall in Vienna from September 9, 2022 to January 8, 2023.

Find out more about Basquiat in the exhibition and catalog review Basquiat himself. Also check out my article at Art Basel 2019 where I discovered three great works by Basquiat at Van de Weghe Fine Art, including two works from 1983: the very yellow onion gun as well as the black and white tuxedothe latter is now part of the Nicola Erni collection and is on display in the Albertina’s retrospective.

This article is based on the book Jean Michel Basquiat. Of symbols and signs. For better legibility, quotations and partial quotations are not placed in quotation marks in this catalog review.

Exhibition and catalog review added on September 24, 2022 at 7:39 p.m. Austrian time.


Comments are closed.