University of Delaware: Investigating Basquiat

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Dec 3, 2021

UD almunae Kristin deGhetaldi, Emily MacDonald-Korth, and Christine Daulton are beginning to make useful discoveries about Basquiat's materials and techniques.

​The name “Basquiat" continues to attract international recognition; in August 2021, cultural icons Beyonce and Jay-Z posed with Equals Pi, a large canvas painting created by Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1982. Over the past decade, paintings by the artist (who died in 1988 at the age of only 27) have continued to sell for millions (Figure 1), sparking debate and intrigue among collectors, dealers, and art connoisseurs.

​Art conservators are often able to offer background information relating to notable art sales and blockbuster exhibitions. UD almunae Kristin deGhetaldi, Emily MacDonald-Korth, and Christine Daulton are beginning to make useful discoveries about Basquiat's materials and techniques. The graduate-level Winterthur/UD Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC) has earned recognition for producing graduates who excel in the analysis of art materials, whether it be studying a pigment particle on a canvas painting down to the micron or utilizing non-destructive imaging to peer beneath the upper layers of varnish and paint. The ultimate goals of conservation-driven studies are to learn more about the methods used by an artist or workshop in order to a) help inform art historians and scholars and b) to inform future generations about best methods for exhibiting and preserving works of art.​

​When it comes to works by Basquiat, it seems a UV light is key for inspecting his works (especially questionable paintings posing as authentic pieces). In 2012, workers at Christie's discovered Basquiat's signature on Orange Sports Figure hidden in plain sight; the signature and date were not easily detectable under normal visible light but became evident when viewed under long-wave UV light. Since then, a handful of experts working in the art world have come across similar findings as described by MacDonald-Korth in her 2019 article, featured in both ArtNet News and IIC News. Later that year, Dr. deGhetaldi had an idea about what to look for when she was confronted with examining Basquiat's monumental Flesh and Spirit painted in 1982-83 (Figure 2a).​

Figure 2a. Detail of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Flesh and Spirit as seen in visible (left) and ultraviolet light (right) revealing numerous markings executed in oil stick. ​

Figure 2b. ​UD alumnae Emily MacDonald-Korth (center) and Christine Daulton (right) with pre-program intern Kelsey Marino (left) performing X-Ray Fluorescence analysis on Collaboration (1984-85, Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh) by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.​

Figure 3. Graduate students Katie Rovito and Magdalena Solano ('22) examining the bottom two panels of Basquiat's Flesh and Spirit (1982-83).​ Sure enough, UV light revealed hidden inscriptions, symbols, and complex imagery, some of which seemed to emerge from beneath the uppermost layers of paint. Dr. deGhetaldi reached out to MacDonald-Korth and Daulton, a painting conservator who is well acquainted with works by both Basquiat and Andy Warhol (who collaborated with the younger artist in his “Factory" in the 1980s). The three UD alumnae have since been working together with Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner, Painting Conservator and Rosenberg Professor of Material Culture, Assistant Professor Brian Baade, WUDPAC graduate students Katie Rovito and Magdalena Solano, and pre-program intern Kelsey Marino (Figures 2b and 3) to develop a deeper understanding behind these curious features of Basquiat's works.

​One answer seems to point to the artist's love of oil sticks, pigmented crayons containing waxes and oils that were originally used to mark lumber and possibly livestock. Eventually, these crayons were repackaged and sold to artists via independent companies, but by the early 1980s art material suppliers were creating oil sticks directly for use by artists. Markings left behind by some of these oil sticks appear to fluorescence strongly when viewed under UV light (Figure 4), something that has been observed on Basquiat's works for some time. What the UD team hopes to uncover is a more comprehensive understanding of the properties behind these sticks, specifically their chemical composition and aging properties. Daulton and her team at the Andy Warhol Museum​ were able to provide the graduate students with samples from oil sticks used by Basquiat himself, samples that were recently analyzed together with the help from scientists at Winterthur's Science Research and Analysis Lab (SRAL). ​

Figure 4. Modern Fluorescent Richeson Oil Stick Colors as seen in visible light (left) and ultraviolet light (right). A number of modern and archival sets of oil sticks have been examined and analyzed by graduate students Katie Rovito and Magdalena Solano (WUDPAC class of '22).​ ​The group also aims to incorporate outreach initiatives as they continue their research. Local school districts will be provided with a “tool-kit" that will encourage students to create two-dimensional artworks that possess hidden messages that can be seen only by using black lights. Educational packets and presentations will also introduce students to Basquiat's colorful and prolific career, starting from his beginnings as a graffiti artist to someone whose works are now displayed in recent and upcoming exhibitions. As the team concludes their research over the next year or so, they hope to present their findings in a peer-reviewed public journal to help inform future collectors, curators, and conservators when faced with preserving and exhibiting Basquiat's works.​​​

Figure 5. ​UD alumnae Emily MacDonald-Korth (left) and Christine Daulton (right) with pre-program intern Kelsey Marino (center) performing X-Ray Fluorescence analysis on Collaboration (Year of the Rat, Rodent (TM)) (1984-85, Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh) by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.​