Review of Jean–Michel Basquiat's Riding with Death
By: David K. Montoya

I find that picking a favorite artist and/or painting is becoming a bit tougher. I do not know if you noticed, but I prefer to keep my reviews in the realm of modern artists. While my knowledge and education allows me to move passed my reference in taste, I want to stay in at least the 1900s. The artist that I chose this month was in the same time as Keith Haring (in fact they were close friends). Let me give you a little background history first, because I feel that today's generation may not be familiar to the artist by the name of Jean Michel Basquiat, but he was considered by some (although he passed at a very young age of twenty–seven) as one of the most influential artist of his generation. Known for creating deliberately unrefined looking pieces of art which actually hid the complexity and his unique natural ability.

Born in Brooklyn, New York from a combination of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, Jean Michel originally gained fame with his graffiti style artwork (much like the street art movement happening during that time). His celebrity status skyrocketed when he begin to infuse words, symbols, stick figures, animals with historical and cultural references.

During the top of his prime, Jean Michel became friends with Pop Artist Icon, Andy Warhol and together he collaborated with him in over one hundred pieces of art. Even though his career was sadly cut short due to a heroin overdose, Basquiat was responsible for introducing a unique African–American and Puerto Rican view to the world of fine art.

Okay, now with the history lesson out of the way, let us take a look at the artwork in question this month titled, Riding with Death. Created with acrylic and oil–sticks atop a canvas. As all the elements of Jean Michel's work (worldly ideas, reticent, communicative, crude and art expert) laid perfectly to create an image of what can be argued as Basquiat, himself, riding death without his traditional garb like a horse. The background, a burlap–colored scrim, of absolutely nothing has critics wondering what was the artist really saying.

One of my favorite theories is that while this was created in the same year of his death, Jean Michel Basquiat was lost in a Heroin induced fog, perhaps was a subconscious metaphor that his drug addiction was so bad that he was playing games with his life with Death himself. As it is to my understanding that this was in fact, his final painting before succumbing to the White Dragon that August.

Another popular theory was this was a depiction motivated by race, as the dark skinned person on top was a visual metaphor of the dehumanization and oppression of African–American people in the United States and the failure of whites to acknowledge their own involvement in maintaining an ideology of white domination.

Or, the least popular theory, but which most likely means it's true is that it was Jean Michel's interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci's, Illustration for his thoughts on Virtue and Envy. Which if you look at it is pretty on point.

Which theory do you think makes the most sense?

While this is a review of Riding with Death, the artist himself dominates the thoughts of this review. As to who he was, and who he would have been without the drug addiction that took his life too soon. I believe Keith Haring said it best in Basquiat's memorial: "He truly created a lifetime of works in ten years. Greedily, we wonder what else he might have created, what masterpieces we have been cheated out of by his death, but the fact is that he has created enough work to intrigue generations to come. Only now will people begin to understand the magnitude of his contribution."

Riding with Death has done just that, despite what anyone thinks may have been Jean Michel Basquiat's actual messaging in this painting, what is agreed that like Haring said, it has captured the imaginations and intrigue for many, many years to come!