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Hidden Basquiat

Words:

Edd Norval
January 7, 2019

Jean-Michel Basquiat's images are already dense with possible interpretation. His expressionistic style lends itself to the notion that his arm was a subconscious extension of his thoughts. Now, upon much closer inspection, there's something there that the naked eye can't see. There's more to the story.

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The discovery came recently as a conservator was examining a piece for a collector to verify its date. Confirmed to be from the expected year of 1981, there was a little more to it than that. After turning the lights off to search for any imperfections like repairs or varnish, features of the paintings began to glow - parts that were not visible with the lights on.


It isn't the first time that a Basquiat painting has revealed something more under similar circumstances. Back in 2012 a black-light examination showed the artist's signature. That might seem normal, only Basquiat doesn't sign with his name. That this showed up with a UV light was no mistake. Assumed to be created with a black-light crayon, it was there to be found.


This latest discovery, featured on an untitled work, wasn't just a signature though. Arrows, similar to those in the actual painting, emerged. Their presence adds a new depth to the image. Their form exists as if to join dots, connecting narratives where they had hitherto been fractured.

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The conservator said of the find, "I’ve never seen anything like it. He basically did a totally secret part of this painting." On an individual level, this is significant, but given that it has happened once before, we can assume that other works carry something similar. Anyone with a Basquiat, get the lights off and the UV on.


It's significance is multifaceted. On one hand, an artist creating hidden art, or at least embellishing their 'visible' art with deeper 'invisible' meaning, instantly adds a depth. Secondly though, it gives us a chance to reflect on Basquiat's legacy and style as a whole.


Although complex, Basquiat's work carried a simple energy. His paintings are created with a raw vibrancy. The movements and strokes are uninhibited by doubt. They're impulsive. Brutal. Honest.

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That's not to say they lack thought though. On the contrary, his art is enigmatic and puzzle like. Interpretation is often an endless pursuit, but with Basquiat that didn't seem to be the case. There was always a feeling with his pieces that they were constructed almost like a puzzle. They seem like works that, given the necessary time, will yield certain concrete answers.


Herein lies the crux. We thought we were getting some answers, but in reality, we couldn't have if part of the puzzle remained hidden. Looking at Basquiat with this in mind makes his work seem a little less raw. The energy may have been down to bouts of heightened emotion rather than a life lived in a perpetual charge forward.


Basquiat would often 'hide' words. He'd write something and obfuscate it with paint or scratch it off. To make something invisible is the logical conclusion to this aspect of his work, as well as the hidden-link to understanding and re-assessing what we think we already know.


The artist, who passed away aged 27, left an almost unparalleled impact on the art world. Both complex and popular, of the street and the gallery, he transcended any simple classification. That he's given us something else to think about comes as a late gift 30 years after his death. While it may be a gift, it's not a surprise. Basquiat was and always will be an artist that lends himself to subsequent understandings according to the zeitgeist of the era. For all we know, there's still more to find.

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