Jean-Michel Basquiat may be one of the most iconic artists in recent memory, but did you know there are still secrets we are uncovering about his distinctive practice? In addition to his ground-breaking artistic style which melded then-ascendant hip-hop aesthetics with a firm understanding of art history, Basquiat collaborated with Pop Art scion Andy Warhol, was featured in a solo show at MoMA PS1 at the ripe age of 21 and even dated Madonna (no big deal). In addition to this singular pedigree, Basquiat’s works evince an incredible range of knowledge and artistic exploration during his tragically short lifetime. Even close to 30 years after his tragic passing there remain crucial aspects of his practice for the avid fan to uncover, beginning with hidden layers present in his artworks.
Basquiat and Street Art Style
Basquiat was deeply influenced by both his own study into art history and his lived experience working locally in the New York City graffiti culture. Basquiat began his art practice as one half of street art duo SAMO in the late 1970s, tagging the streets of Manhattan’s then-dangerous Lower East Side. Playing with street art culture and graffiti prevalent in 1970s-80s New York City, memorialized in films like Wild Style, Basquiat slow fused his text-based work with an expressionist artistic style and iconic imagery from pop culture. In many of his works, Basquiat included an eroding image, working through his process to break images down until marks became erased in the final versions of his artworks. The artist invariably experimented with markings and symbols in many forms, apparently in more ways than even experienced art historians were aware. In recent years, a secret to the artist’s work has come to light: Basquiat apparently hid secret markings in his works only visible to a select few who viewed the work using a very specific tool. This necessary device? A UV light. Miami-based art conservator Emily Macdonald-Korth, Principal of Longevity Art Preservation, recently confirmed during an inspection of Basquiat’s works that there are unseen layers within the artist’s compositions. She discovered that one of the artist’s works, Untitled (1981), holds a special significance for viewers approaching it with a UV flashlight. It appears that there are elements of the composition that are hidden in plain sight and in direct conversation with visible portions of the artwork. “I believe the discovery of a previously unknown technique within the oeuvre of a modern master such as Basquiat is quite significant and I hope it inspires art professionals to seek out other examples of the technique using UV light.” This is definitely one of the more interesting discoveries I have ever made because it was not only exciting to find an invisible drawing, but I found an invisible drawing on a work by one of the most famous artists in history.” The artist apparently created marks in invisible ink art markings that directly correlated to other (visible) portions of the painting. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” remarked Macdonald-Korth to Artnet news. “He basically did a totally secret part of this painting.”
Performing a routine inspection of Untitled led Macdonald-Korth to this hidden aspect of the artwork, but how can we be so sure that the artist made these marks himself – and that it wasn’t someone else adding onto the artwork after the artist’s untimely passing? As it turns out, clues to the artist’s use of invisible ink art infusing hidden markings into his artworks have been uncovered before! Basquiat’s Orange Sports Figure (1982) was sold by Sotheby’s in a summer 2015 auction, and the catalog essay for the work points to a similar, mysterious use of invisible ink. In the catalog note for the artwork’s sale, Sotheby’s notes that the artist signed and dated this work using invisible ink, “as though tagging in secret.” Created within a year of Untitled (1981), this similarity present in Orange Sports Figure echoes the interest Basquiat had in tagging and marking artworks with strokes both visible and invisible to the naked eye.
Basquiat and the Case of Invisible Ink Art
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s practice is now being re-examined, thanks to re-examinations by contemporary art professionals. Macdonald-Korth has already recommended that any collectors owning a Basquiat purchase a long-wave UV flashlight in order to examine the works themselves. She particularly points to works from the early 1980s in which Basquiat was employing arrow motifs. These simple markings seem to fall under the banner of motifs the artist painted using invisible ink art. “It’s so exciting to see something that’s literally invisible that the artist put there on purpose, completely intentionally,” notes Macdonald-Korth. The artist may have innumerable works that feature these hidden nuances, drawing from other segments of the artworks to provide playful formal experimentations in his practice.
Individual collectors and institutions alike should take the time to examine their selections of Basquiat up close to determine what hidden messages may be present in their inventory. Macdonald-Korth particularly singles out works from 1981, the same period in which the artist created Untitled, that feature arrows. As this was relatively early in the budding contemporary artist’s career, there is a good chance he was experimenting with new processes and playing with concepts around presence and absence. Especially with his roots embedded in street art, a form of artistic practice that produces works both ubiquitous yet overlooked by passers-by, it’s easy to see why the artist would be curious about trying out new methods. How long did Basquiat imagine these hidden aspects of his artworks would remain unseen? Perhaps he thought these parts of his paintings belonged to himself, and would always remain a hidden force in the narrative of his compositions, present yet invisible to the world.
What lies in store with these new finds from Basquiat’s artworks? Will other collectors come forward with images of their hidden invisible ink art markings present in Basquiat’s artworks? An exhibition perhaps where visitors can wander through the artist’s works with a UV flashlight, discovering his hidden messages all for themselves? Stay tuned – there may be other opportunities in the future to better understand the artist’s unique viewpoint and vision as it currently lies, hidden beneath the apparent aspects of his artworks.