Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump
Jean-Michel Basquiat had a short but successful career. Starting in the late 1970s with painting graffiti, it was not until the early 1980s that he experienced real success in the art world. During this time, he created one of his most best-known paintings, Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump. It is considered Basquiat’s artwork at its zenith, created with the fiery energy that is so typical for his works.
While understanding the deep meaning behind certain paintings is essential, it is sometimes also important to just sit back and marvel at the colors, the purity of the art, and the techniques applied. The painting, with its vibrant energy, immediately captures our attention and takes simplicity to a new level of complexity.
Measuring 420 cm wide and 240 cm high (96 x 164 in), it shows an emaciated black boy playing with his dog. They are in the center of the canvas, caught in the spray of an open fire hydrant, referencing a Johnny pump, slang used in New York to describe a fire hydrant that opens in the summer for children to play in the water. Moreover, the featured warm colors suggest a scorching scenery.
The painting is a prime example of the artist’s style of neo-expressionism that he blends with primitivism 1. The skeletal boy represents the artist’s way of capturing black figures in his paintings, while the dog is painted with strong and rapid brushstrokes. This technique was popular amongst neo-expressionist artists of the time.
Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump is a perfect representation of Basquiat’s teen life in the streets of New York, where open fire hydrants were very common during the hot season, evoking nostalgia for childhood and urban summers. With this painting, the artist displays his background of writing graffiti, and with his use of jagged lines, he managed to create figures with familiar key elements.
The artwork is quite similar to the rest of Basquiat’s paintings, owing to the skeletal figures and three-pointed hair on the boy’s head. The three-pointed hair furthers his use of a crown, a recurring theme in his work 2, to portray black people as kings and the freedom they enjoy even in their simplest lives.
While most of the artist’s works often denote the theme of colonialism and resistance, Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump seems to be a redacted version of his signature works. There is no reference to politics or memories of historical violence. There is barely the urban idyll, an ideal representation of naïve appropriation.
But somehow, the race motif managed to find its way into the painting. Basquiat’s use of a skeletal figure and braided hair reflects upon the stereotype that the black body is socially jarring. Just like most of Basquiat’s paintings, it captures the African American experience and renders it at an elite level.
This piece appears simple and enigmatic, yet so multifaceted at the same time, as if we were supposed to be left with a mystery to ponder later. The motif of this artwork conveys messages about social issues, including slavery and racism in New York and the United States in general. The colors and confusion echo New York’s diversity and commotion that make the city what it was in the past and is today.
Having drawn so much from the graffiti technique, he gave back to this art form by making it be embraced and helping it gain significance in galleries around the world. However, as with most of his paintings, Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump (1982) initially received mixed reactions.
Some art lovers were attracted by his raw and unconventional approach, praising his ability to capture the energy of street culture and his commentary on social issues. Others dismissed his work due to its unpolished appearance and its association with graffiti, which was not accepted in the mainstream art world at that time.
Over time, as Basquiat’s unique style gained recognition and his thematic depth became more apparent, his art began to receive greater acclaim. The criticisms had minimal bearing on the popularity of the painting as it became the second most expensive painting by Basquiat.
Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump is among the most expensive art pieces ever purchased. In 2020, the painting was purchased for slightly more than $100 million by Citadel founder and billionaire Ken Griffin, a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago. Before then, the artwork belonged to magnate Peter Brant, who held it privately.
But now, since most of Griffin’s art collection is on display at various museums, “he intends to share this [Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump] piece as well”, according to Zia Ahmed3, a Citadel spokesman. This contrasts with many private collectors who prefer to keep their art inaccessible to the public. The piece joins the works of other black and female artists in Griffin’s collections, including Isa Genzken, Lee Krasner, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Mark Bradford, and Virgil Abloh.
Banksy’s Basquiat tribute at the Barbican
In 2017, the famous British street artist Banksy debuted two new pieces in London at the same time as the Basquiat retrospective “Basquiat: Boom for Real” 4 at the Barbican Centre, the first-ever large-scale show of the artist’s work in Britain.
Banksy highlighting police brutality
The artwork shows British cops frisking and interrogating the boy from Basquiat’s painting as the dog looks on, highlighting themes of race, power, and state violence.
In the original painting, the boy raises his hands and opens his arms, indicating a gesture of warmth. However, in the mural, the boy expresses a state of defiant surrender, something like the feeling voiced by the slogan “hands up, don’t shoot,” which has been chanted at protests against police violence across the United States.
Through his artwork, Banksy recognizes the violent actions carried out by the American government against Black Americans and spreads this message globally. Basquiat’s boy in Banksy’s mural represents how young African American men are unfairly targeted in cities around the world through racial profiling.
Portrait of Basquiat being welcomed by the Metropolitan police – an (unofficial) collaboration with the new Basquiat show.
The artwork also hints at the rise of national politics that seek revenge, fueled by exaggerated fears of terrorism and crime. It highlights the contradiction of a society that claims to appreciate different cultures but rejects migrants seeking safety and uses unnecessary violence against people of color.
The police officers in Banksy’s mural are black and white, which gives the piece an entirely new meaning and is in stark contrast to Basquiat’s colorful and primitive painting. Situated along the hallway at the Barbican, the mural calls to mind the words of Zora Neal Huston on achievement and alienation, who wrote in an essay in 1928 6:
I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.
Banksy mocking the Barbican
Major new Basquiat show opens at the Barbican – a place that is normally very keen to clean any graffiti from its walls.
Ironically, the Barbican rushed to hire security for the duration of the exhibition and created a long-term strategy to protect both artworks with protective Perspex covering. According to Barbican Centre chairman Dr Giles Shilson 8, initially there were fears that “the cleaning team would scrub off half a million pounds of work by breakfast time.” Other artists who tried to add to Banksy’s work had their creations removed swiftly.
Bansky vs. the art establishment
The mural is not just a reference to how black men are treated in Western countries. It also comments on how the art establishment treats black artists. Even to this day, there is no single work of Jean-Michel Basquiat in a public collection in England. This is perplexing, considering the popularity and iconic status of the artist.
In 2017 Basquiat became the most expensive American artist of all time after his work Untitled, 1982, was sold for 110.5 million at Sotheby’s9 New York, putting him in the pantheon of the greatest of all time, including Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, and Andy Warhol.
Along with the mural, Banksy also created another artwork featuring the famous London Eye Ferris wheel with five passengers waiting in line. He replaced the gondolas with crowns, utilizing Basquiat’s iconic symbol.
The crown represents fame, which according to author Gloria Jean Watkins 10 aka. bell hooks (1952-2021) symbolized the “only possible path to subjectivity for the black male artist. To be un-famous is to be rendered invisible.”
Similarities: Banksy & Basquiat
It is no secret that Banksy is a massive fan of Basquiat and is probably the only other graffiti artist to reach similar heights in the modern era. It should be noted that Banksy also used the same pathway as Basquiat – from graffiti artist to mainstream artist.
Both have had an enormous influence, reaching far beyond the art world, albeit coming from different periods and artistic backgrounds. While they have their own distinct styles and contexts, the following similarities can be drawn between them.
- Art and politics: The art of Basquiat and Banksy often comments on political and social issues, drawing attention to racial inequality, power dynamics, and systemic oppression.
- Anti-establishment attitude: The works of both artists challenge the established norms of society as well as the art world. Banksy’s guerrilla art tactics and Basquiat’s graffiti background illustrate their unconventional and subversive ways of questioning traditional artistic and cultural boundaries.
- Art’s impact on society: Basquiat’s and Banksy’s works have sparked conversations about social and political issues and encouraged viewers to reflect on issues like colonialism, consumerism and human rights.
- Critique of authority: Their art often critiques authority figures, institutions, and power structures. Banksy’s satirical artworks and Basquiat’s exploration of race and power reflect this.
- Cultural references: Their works incorporate references to pop culture, historical figures, and art history, giving their art a multi-layered significance.
- Legacy: Both artists left a lasting impact on the art world. Their work has influenced subsequent generations of artists and continues to be celebrated and studied.
- Street art roots: Both Banksy and Basquiat began their careers in the streets and transitioned into the mainstream art world. Banksy is known for his street art and graffiti, while Basquiat started as a graffiti artist under the pseudonym “SAMO.”
- Use of text: Text is an important element in the works of both artists. Banksy often incorporates witty and thought-provoking phrases, while Basquiat’s use of text adds an additional layer of meaning to his art.