The three works in the MACBA Collection were made between the years 1982 and 1986, and are populated with totemic and archaic Voodoo images, homages to heroes of Afro-American culture, including jazz musicians, and other references to American popular culture. The vibrant lines, intense brushstrokes, silhouetted black figures and facial expressions pushed to the limit suggest connections with German neo-Expressionism and with referential painters such as Willem de Kooning.
The presence of dark-skinned figures as a self-portrait is recurrent in Basquiat’s work, such as the 1986 Self-Portrait that projects a fragmented and multiple reality.
In his work, Basquiat often referred to the music and musicians he admired, as in King Zulu (1986), a painting featuring three great American jazz trumpeters: Bix Beiderbecke (1903–1931), Bunk Johnson (1879–1949) and Howard McGhee (1918–1987). The canvas also shows a black-painted face inspired by Louis Armstrong (1901–1971), characterised as the King of the Zulus at the New Orleans Carnival Parade in 1949. Armstrong, also a trumpet player, explained his participation in this parade: ‘The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club was situated in the neighbourhood that I was reared… And no place that I’ve ever been could remove the thought… that, someday, I will be the King of the Zulus… I won it in 1949... Wow.’ Basquiat places his King Zulu at the centre of the canvas, while the musicians are submerged in a blue space that evokes the lyrical sound of the blues.
Finally, Sterno (1985) presents an aggressive and apocalyptic vision of alcohol abuse. The presence of a gin bottle at the centre of the canvas is associated with a can of Sterno (a.k.a. canned heat), an alcohol-based fuel created in 1920, used for heating food products but also notorious for its abuse as an alcohol substitute. Basquiat strengthens the apocalyptic message with ‘Drink Sterno’ written on the can and an image in the foreground of a monster with a double mouth, wolf’s teeth and horns. The dark and reddish tones contribute intensity to this nihilistic evocation of the perils of alcohol abuse.
Gold does not take on any dirt. And gold, just are diamonds, is an exalted material. It possesses such a degree of abstraction that it encounters you –if you use it artistically– on an already exalted level.