Exhibitions: Basquiat

Crowns, Halos, and Heroes
The crown was Basquiat's signature motif. In some paintings, the crowns top nameless, generic figures. But more often, Basquiat crowned his heroes. These included renowned jazz musicians, such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and celebrated athletes, among them Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), and Hank Aaron. Like the royal titles that famous African American musicians have sometimes adopted as nicknames—such as Duke Ellington or Count Basie—Basquiat used crowns, as well as halos, to ennoble his icons.

In his unusual "portraits" of his heroes, Basquiat made almost no effort to paint his subjects with recognizable facial features. Often he merely named the person on the canvas or in the painting's title. Perhaps he sought to invest his art with a votive presence, without relying on a direct visual likeness. The crown and the halo—the abstract symbols of honor—are all that are really necessary. Basquiat's use of the halo, however, cannot help but remind us that in the modern world, art is no longer primarily dedicated to the service of religious worship.

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