‘A lot of [Van Gogh’s story] is the same story as Basquiat. It takes 20 years after his death before a Van Gogh enters a museum. Anything which breaks new ground takes a while for people to catch up to.’
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Vincent Van Gogh in a Wax Museum in Amsterdam, 1985, rendered at the peak of his tumultuous rise to fame and celebrity, presents a vivid and emotionally charged rendition of Vincent Van Gogh. Rapidly executed, his famous red hair seems ablaze in a tangled mane of flaming yellow and red. His face is portrayed in profile and delineated through a series of black lines, evoking a raw intensity typical of Basquiat’s bold and vibrant style. Enchanting in his vivacious figuration, the Dutch artist’s swimming-pool-blue eyes shine bright with energy, and a single black line masterfully conjures the appearance of an upright and elongated neck. Composed with charismatic vigour, the work’s dizzying colours resonate against the untarnished white paper on which it is drawn. Perfectly encapsulating such enrapturing simplicity, Diego Cortez writes of Basquiat’s practice that ‘He constructs an intensity of line which reads like a polygraph report, a brain-to-hand “shake.” The figure is electronic-primitive-comic’ (D. Cortez, quoted in Jean-Michel Basquiat: Volume 2, California, 1996, p. 160).
The title of the work is presented in block letters beneath the portrait of Van Gogh. Dating back to Basquiat’s graffiti days in the 1970s as the street artist SAMO©, this merging of image and word is emblematic of his pioneering technique, which assimilated different strands of the arts from painting to poetry, drawing to literature. The factuality of the work’s inscription is laced with an ironic self-awareness of its own materiality: basing his image on the wax model of Van Gogh in Madame Tussauds Amsterdam, Basquiat seems to assert this work as a mediated construct drawn in oilstick, from another mediated construct made of wax. Basquiat was a remarkably erudite scholar of art history and from a young age would spend time in the museums of New York teaching himself about, and admiring the work of, the great painters from the art historical canon. It is tempting to consider this homage to Van Gogh as a declaration of kindred artistic spirit: both misunderstood, controversial, and far ahead of their contemporary moments, each artist has since achieved the critical acclaim they so deserve. As Herbert Schorr posits, ‘a lot of [Van Gogh’s story] is the same as Basquiat … Anything which breaks new ground takes a while for people to catch up to’ (H. Schorr, quoted in M. Sawyer, ‘The Jean-Michel Basquiat I knew…,’ The Observer, September 2017).