On Basquiat, the Black Body, and a Strange Sensation in My Neck

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Back of the Neck, 1983, silkscreen with hand painting.

While visiting Los Angeles a couple of years ago, I strained my back. My mother gave me the name of her former chiropractor. As I stood before him, I listed my symptoms, and in one quick gesture he ripped my pants down, without warning, just below the cheek. He hadn’t really looked at me while I spoke, so I wasn’t sure how to make sense of the way he’d stripped me. It was like he was going to spank or fuck me. He used a TENS machine to electrostimulate my muscles and I left with almost no back pain. A bit ambitious, I walked the several miles back to my hotel. It’s only now that I wonder what else might have prompted that need to wander so far by myself.

I went to see another chiropractor in Tucson when my back froze up again. I waited for what seemed like hours, watching other walk-ins pass quickly through to the other side. I think we were ushered in based on seniority, and I was new to the place, but I kept a close eye on those who came and went, what they looked like.

The chiropractor listened to my troubles. He moved my head quickly and I heard a click in my neck. After a few more adjustments, he told me to come back the following day and had the receptionist sell me a multi-visit package. The next day, I was still in pain, but my body refused to obey when I tried to drive back to claim the appointment I’d already paid for. I turned down a side street and pulled over.

I will likely never see a chiropractor again. Because they know how to break my neck, I’m afraid they might. 

*

When Jean-Michel Basquiat was a child, he got into a bad car accident and had to have his spleen removed. As he recovered, his mother, Matilde, gave him the textbook Grey’s Anatomy, which he memorized.

The art historian Robert Farris Thompson, one of the only critics Basquiat trusted, wonders if the artist’s mother, by giving him this book of human anatomy, “had with affection commanded her son to study his body back together again.” Matilde struggled with her mental health. She would sit still for hours and try to “imitate the whistling of birds,” according to the writer Jennifer Clement. When she saw her son’s paintings, later in life, she said, “You are moving very fast.”

His paintings contain the words “sangre,” “corpus,” “diagram of the heart pumping blood,” “cranium,” “ear,” “eye,” “ribs,” “skull,” “jaw,” “arm pit,” “scapula,” “tit,” “elbow.” The biographer Phoebe Hoban writes of the bodies on his canvases: “Boys never become men, they become skeletons and skulls.”

In Jesse, from 1983, Basquiat has drawn a series of bodiless heads and headless bodies. “Neck,” he writes just below where the skull would go. “Esophagus,” over an open throat.

*

I used to watch Breaking Bad, seduced by and not despite the show’s graphic violence. I felt devoted to it because of what it showed me—a perverse brand of intimacy that must explain how brainwashing works in cults and armies. But there was one scene I refused to see because I could tell it would have to do with the neck. I still remember my girlfriend’s face in the glow of her computer screen as she watched what happened next.

*

Basquiat’s talent seemed to irritate or mystify most critics. In the New York Observer, Hilton Kramer wrote, “His sensibility, insofar as he can be said to have any, was that of an untrained and unruly adolescent wise only in his instinct for self-display as a means of self-advancement.”

In a famous interview, Marc Miller asks the painter of his work, “It’s just spontaneous juxtapositions, and there’s no logic?” To which Basquiat responds, “God, if you’re talking to like Marcel Duchamp—or even Rauschenberg or something … ” He was a devoted student of the artists who came before him—read so deeply into history, biology, anthropology, and art—he could see clearly that critics were trying to disavow him of his intelligence. They called him an “art-world mascot.” They heaped vitriol on him, and the deep well of racism lurking in their responses is as much a part of his legacy as the art itself.

A white photographer who traveled with Basquiat to Europe was astonished by the level of nastiness. “He was treated weirdly, strangely, like he was an oddity. People were entertained by him, fascinated for the moment, but would sooner or later throw him away. Or he was feared, you know? Just genuinely feared.” No matter where he went in the world, he was pulled over. In Paris, with guns drawn, the police asked if a woman who had fallen asleep in the back seat of his car was dead.

The actor Jeffrey Wright, who played the painter in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic, has pointed out that the mechanisms at work in Basquiat’s life informed even the filming of the movie: “I really got some insight into Basquiat because I really had to travel through the same doorways and rooms and hallways that he did,” he says. Schnabel’s choice to direct the film was especially notable given that Basquiat considered Schnabel, who is also a painter, a rival. Wright explains, “I think my performance was appropriated, literally, and the way I was edited was appropriated in the same way his story has been appropriated and that he was appropriated when he was alive.”

*

When I was a child, I was a serious gymnast. I stretched often and deeply. I’ve long known about my body that there is a resistance at a certain point when I lie on my back and bring my feet over my head. Some older part of me diagnosed this kind of limitation as something I should move toward, not away from. Like bitter greens. Still, I avoided it for years.

Later in life, when I got into yoga, I became reacquainted with that sensation as I stretched the upper portion of my spine. The thing that kept me from moving deeper wasn’t pain, exactly, but particulate matter, separate from myself, an entity I should expel. The more I moved into it, the more it became a ripping fire. But I kept going.

*

Early on in Basquiat’s career, a young, black aspiring artist and model named Michael Stewart was caught drawing the words “Pir Nema Pir Nema” on the subway. The NYPD allegedly used his face to break the window of a patrol car. He was beaten and strangled, went into a coma and later died. Basquiat’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, was close friends with Stewart and covertly photographed every wound on his body in the hospital. She helped his family bring his case to court. When Basquiat found out what had happened to someone so like himself, a beautiful black artist who’d scribbled on the city’s surfaces, he drew black skulls all night. He made a painting called Defacement.

I google Defacement in order to see the painting and find a similarly titled book by Michael Taussig. The jacket copy reads: “Defacement asks what happens when something precious is despoiled. It begins with the notion that such activity is attractive in its very repulsion, and that it creates something sacred even in the most secular of societies and circumstances. In specifying the human face as the ideal type for thinking through such violation, this book raises the issue of secrecy as the depth that seems to surface with the tearing of surface.”

We live in a society wherein white supremacists use law enforcement as a tool. Their crimes against the black body suggest a kind of blood lust, whether it is conscious or not. What is it that these men and women—masked, robed, or uniformed—seek to find when they smash the faces of our brothers and our fathers? Does some secret pleasure unfurl itself when they go repeatedly—systematically—for our necks? It is as if what is broken there holds a secret symbolism. A glowing circle at the cervical spine that, when shattered, earns a new victory for the other side.

At dinner a few weeks ago, my father told the story of a young man in Detroit he knew growing up. A group of famously rough cops told him to stick his face through the open patrol-car window. “Please, Dad,” I said. But he wanted me to hear it. That particular young man did not die. But you know what comes next: They rolled up the window. They began to drive away.

*

At a certain point, the way I felt when I curved my head forward and stretched my cervical spine became a kind of addiction. I tried to keep myself from dipping into it too much, but I noticed that if I had felt stressed or if I’d consumed weed or alcohol the day before, the stretch would push that lingering stiffness out into my blood, heat moving into my stomach before dissipating. I was left light-headed. I would ask physical therapists and yoga teachers what it was. Nobody seemed to know. Some encouraged restraint. Others called it the body’s wisdom. Eventually, I stopped; I spun my torso too quickly one day and heard a sound at the base of my neck. A whooshing. As if I’d opened up a window.

*

Basquiat’s antagonism toward white audiences became part of what attracted them to his art. His friend Lee Quiñones notes, “Jean-Michel’s work is very anti-art world, you know. It’s almost like a curse. And people still love that. They love being cursed at.” But the curse seems wrapped up with a gift, somehow. Like when Nina Simone sings “Mississippi Goddam.”

While he was still a teenager, Basquiat invented a pseudo-religion called SAMO with a Al Diaz and wrote about it in their high school newspaper. Basquiat saw himself as its leader, as a prophet. He and Al Diaz painted SAMO on walls and buildings: “SAMO as an end to playing art,” “SAMO as an expression of spiritual love.”

In Widow Basquiat, Clement’s poetic biography about Basquiat’s relationship with Mallouk, the painter is obsessed with silent films. He is especially partial to D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms. He memorizes, and loves, the line: “The yellow man holds a great dream to take the glorious message of peace to the barbarous Anglo-Saxons.” He would repeat it over and over again. Farris Thompson writes, “Basquiat’s essays in anatomy, in their jazz-riff manner of exposition, are style and content in service to healing on a heroic scale.”

In the film Downtown 81, you can see the artist walking through New York City chanting what was labeled in his notebook as a prayer: “THE EARTH WAS FORMLESS VOID / DARKNESS FACE OF THE DEEP / SPIRIT MOVED ACROSS THE WATER AND THERE WAS LIGHT / ‘IT WAS GOOD.’

*

After Freddie Gray was arrested for possession of a knife, he was put in a tactical hold, chained to the back of a police wagon, and given a “rough ride.” His spine was 80 percent severed at the neck. I tried to watch the video in which he attempts to walk after his injury. But the brutality of that killing, the way they chose to break him, sends my hands to my face, where I try to press the image out of my head with my palms.

When I heard about Gray’s death, I thought about the way I stretch my neck. I thought of every lynching. Every chokehold. Every act of violence on this part of the body that connects the rest of us to the brain. I bent my neck, let the fire travel along the axis of my spine. I wondered exactly what it was that was being released. If it was mine.

*

People like to tell the story of Basquiat’s death. His addiction has been confused with his talent, as if drug use might explain the torrential flow of exquisitely rendered canvases. Only after reading his biography did I learn how badly Basquiat wanted to be healthy. In his notebooks, he wrote over and over, “Not in praise of poison.”

Before he died, Basquiat met a painter from the Ivory Coast named Ouattara. They went to a Cy Twombly exhibition together in Paris and, as Ouattara says, “had a lot of existential discussions.” Basquiat was starting to think about writing more and began to make a plan for getting clean. Ouattara planned a ritual in his village that was meant to cure the painter of his addiction. Basquiat had booked a flight to the Ivory Coast for August 7 and then postponed. He died of an overdose on August 12. They did the ceremony anyway, resplendent with animal sacrifice, masks, and prayer, “mystic dances around the fire all night long.” A ritual for the dead.

Many see Basquiat’s paintings and think only of his sad story, his illness. Not ours. And it’s been a thing, especially lately, for white artists and poets to render, simply, the limp black body or to recite the contents of an autopsy report while performing their work. But Basquiat whispered “Alchemy. Alchemy. Alchemy. Alchemy. Alchemy” into his fractured diagrams of the body with what feels like sacred intention. He drew disembodied skulls next to torsos and surrounded them with music, prophecies, good tidings, and crowns, as if, upon his command, these disparate parts could dance back together again. What is the name of the Ibsen play? “When We Dead Awaken.”

Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s essay collection The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2013. Her most recent collection, Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, was chosen by Maggie Nelson as the winner of the 1913 Open Prose Contest and was published this week by 1913 Press.

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