First and foremost, contemporary art tends to be a visceral experience, the work resonating with the viewer on an emotional level. But to fully comprehend these pieces, one must subsequently approach them from an intellectual position, considering the intent formed through a work’s layers of paint and/or chosen construction. And this holds true for Kidrobot‘s two recent 3-inch tall Dunny collections centered around Andy Warhol, wherein his iconic two-dimensional pop art creations were translated on the sculptural vinyl form. While those unacquainted with Warhol’s works can still appreciate these pieces, knowledge of him and the history behind the designs enriches the experience. Following this concept, Kidrobot have partnered with The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Artestar to produce a series of limited edition works decorated with the artist’s neo-expressionist style. Titled the Jean-Michel Basquiat Dunny Series, this collection likewise benefits from the backstory, of knowing about Basquiat himself as well as the allegorical and symbolic imagery that his pieces were riddled with.

A Brief History of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Born to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother in Brooklyn on December 22nd, 1960, Jean-Michel Basquiat grew up amid the vibrant backdrop of New York City. Encouraged to enjoy and explore art by his cultured mother, Basquiat began drawing incessantly at the age of 4. Three years later, his parents’ marriage ended after his mother began suffering from depression, a condition that led to her eventually being committed to a mental institution. With him and his two sisters left to be raised by their womanizing father, a man who reportedly beat the boy constantly, Basquiat attempted to run away at 15 and finally succeeded in leaving his abusive home two years later. But even before then, the artist began receiving attention as part of the mysterious SAMO (or SAMO©) collective that he and several friends formed, the group known for scrawling cryptic messages on the Brooklyn Bridge and all over Manhattan. On December 11th, 1978, The Village Voice published an article about these enigmatic epigrams, odd statements birthed from the cultural hotbed of Manhattan’s Lower East Side where the hip-hop, punk, and street art movements had coalesced. Then, in 1980, Basquiat started writing “SAMO IS DEAD” on the streets of Lower Manhattan, just as his art career was truly beginning. However, there was not a clean break between the SAMO identity and Basquiat as a solo artist.

Early in his solo career, Basquiat’s works were often attributed to SAMO, including the identity under which his first one-person gallery exhibition was billed. But in December of 1981, renowned critic Rene Ricard published “The Radiant Child” in Artforum magazine, bringing the name Jean-Michel Basquiat to the attention of the art world. With this rapid increase in recognition, which would be aided soon after by a well-publicized collaborative friendship with Andy Warhol, collectors were clamoring to see Basquiat pieces in person. Imbued with a bold sense of color and composition, Basquiat’s edgy and raw works frequently married text and image, each typically covered in a collage of words, letters, numerals, pictograms, logos, map symbols, and diagrams, and thick with social commentary, historical references, and personal opines. For less than a decade, Basquiat experienced his dream of being a world-famous artist, but his longtime heroin addiction took its toll, the artist found dead in his apartment on August 12th, 1988 at around 5:30 pm. And though his life ended at only 27 years of age, his legacy endures.

Works from the Jean-Michel Basquiat Dunny Series

Transitioning 14 art pieces by Basquiat from their canvas or paper page origins onto three-dimensional surfaces, as well as an additional two decorations based on the artist’s signature imagery rather than specific paintings or illustrations, the Jean-Michel Basquiat Dunny Series is comprised of a total of 19 limited edition designs. This number includes three color variation versions, one of which is a chromed “gift with purchase” rendition for those early adopters who acquire a full case (or 24 randomly packaged pieces) while supplies last. The packaging of the series itself is adorned in artwork derived from a 1984 painting by Basquiat, one titled The Wine of Babylon, which is also employed as the basis for one of the Dunny designs.

The Wine of Babylon, 1984

The Wine of Babylon debuted in May of 1984 at Basquiat’s first solo exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery, which was owned by the so-called “New Queen of the Art Scene” and whom the artist had recently become represented by. Evolved from an illustration on paper collage work he’d done the year before, The Wine of Babylon cartoonishly depicts several iconic characters from Lewis Carroll‘s Alice books, including the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the Caterpillar, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Most likely, due to the style, inspired by The Walt Disney Productions‘ cinematic adaptation Alice in Wonderland from 1951, this serves as a reminder of Basquiat’s aspirations to be a cartoonist as a child. Amid the various playful renditions of these characters, one might note that the Mad Hatter is portrayed as a black man, a transformation that purportedly draws attention to the absurdity, or madness, of white characters dominating popular culture, specifically Disney productions.

Hector, 1983

The 1983 work Hector is most likely named after the Trojan prince from Greek and Roman mythology, who Basquiat had referenced the previous year in his piece Jawbone of an Ass. Of greater note, though, are some of the other motifs expressed herein, specifically the eyes and teeth imagery, which would become reoccurring symbols throughout Basquiat’s work. Inspired by the artist’s fascination with his heritage and its artistic legacy, these elements are frequently emphasized aspects on African reliquary masks, and their use on Hector implies something both Shamanistic and aggressive. With the all-seeing eyes granting a spiritual sense to the work while the dislodged tooth implies a violent altercation, these perfectly pair with all accounts of Hector, a peace-loving man forced to witness and participate in a terrible war.

Two-Sided Coin, 1984

Throughout 1983, Basquiat included drawings of the “head” side of a coin, as seen in Skin Head Wig, In Italian, Brother’s Sausage, and Life Like Son of Barney Hill. The following year, he’d include the imagery in two pieces, Moon View and Two-Sided Coin, both featuring an Africanized profile facing the “wrong” direction. On Two-Sided Coin, this black man is smiling, staring at and contrasting against the angry appearance of an elderly white man. While some have deciphered this as a demonization of the Western colonization of Africa, the joyous and indigenous black man’s liberty about to be stripped from him by the fair-skinned oppressor, it bears noting one other use of the coin symbolism from 1983, a painting entitled Five Fish Species. In this work, the date on the coin is specified as being 1951, as it is on many uses of this imagery. This is noteworthy as Five Fish Species was a visual celebration of Basquiat’s favorite author, William S. Burroughs, who had killed his wife on September 6th, 1951 by shooting her in the head in what was apparently a drunken attempt at playing William Tell. Whether accident or not, this act provided Burroughs “liberty” from a marriage that was, by all accounts, an unhappy one. Considering this and the white man depicted on Two-Sided Coin, one may believe that Basquiat’s depiction as a passing resemblance to the beat writer. And while there is no consensus as to the artist’s intent within this work, it may simultaneously indicate both interpretations, just as there are two sides to every coin.

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