Huffpost Arts
Matthew Israel Headshot

'The Most Beautiful Drawing Ever': Pegasus (1987) by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Posted: Updated:

Jean-Michel Basquiat's Pegasus (1987) has always intimidated me.

It was usually one of the last works I showed students when I taught Basquiat, and I never said much about it. Its massive size, allover writing and symbols, and almost total lack of negative space overwhelmed me.

It also felt like standing face-to-face with sadness and death. Basquiat made Pegasus during the last period of his life, when his use of heroin was increasing and he was devastated by the recent death of Andy Warhol. He was also isolating himself and feeling like he had no one he could talk to. And then there is the work itself. The black acrylic paint emerges like impending doom from the top right and the writing and symbols feel obsessive.

Yet whenever I think about Basquiat's work, it's usually Pegasus (and Skull, 1981) which come to mind. So for the second entry of this series I thought I'd take a second look at this work to see what other things I could say about it. A few observations are below:

I know I've said above that this work is a drawing but it's important to remember, since its size (7 x 7 ft.) suggests it's a painting and it's mounted to canvas. And the whole thing is mostly executed in graphite. (He also used oil stick, acrylic and colored pencil.)

Alongside other Basquiat works, Pegasus has entered the world of mainstream fashion. Probably because of its allover surface it's a good fit for accessories and clothes. For example, you can buy a watch or a pair of shoes with Pegasus on them.

"It's as if [Basquiat] were dripping letters," the art historian Robert Farris Thompson once wrote. One might argue that the written word and Basquiat's specific style of writing were the most important aspects of his work. (And Pegasus could be one of the most important examples of how the written word dominated his work.) Have we done enough to understand Basquiat's grasp of writing, his vocabulary and his script?

Below are some of the words most often used in this work; many of them could be seen to reflect his emotions at the time: PEGASUS (In Greek mythology, Pegasus is the winged horse birthed from the blood of Medusa when Perseus beheaded her. It's become a symbol of fame and wisdom and is characteristically seen among the Muses. Also, in one of Basquiat's collaborative paintings with Andy Warhol, Warhol painted the image of Pegasus, which was then the Mobil logo.)

EROICA (Beethoven's Third Symphony)
SCHWARZ (German for black. It appears 47 times in this work.)

The major source for the diagrams and symbols used in this work was Henry Dreyfuss's Symbol Sourcebook (1972). Among the symbols taken from Dreyfuss's book were so-called "hobo signs," used by homeless people during the Depression. Such symbols marked a house where people could receive food or indicate unfriendly neighborhoods. This is where Basquiat found the phrase "nothing to be gained here." Basquiat also used Dreyfuss's diagrams for a rotary or centrifugal pump (a circle with a line shooting out from the top right with a "G" at the end); a tape recorder and a loudspeaker--again, among various others.

Looking at this work, you might conclude there is a possible circular path to Basquiat's thinking. You could think of him writing out a major theme of the work (i.e. "PEGASUS"), then drawing some diagrams from the Dreyfuss book and then coming back to "PEGASUS," and then moving back to the diagrams again. One might compare his process to the path of anxious thoughts or stream-of-consciousness thinking. Critics often see Basquiat's work as the visual counterpart to Jazz and Hip Hop. So one also might see the rhythm behind his writing as influenced by such music.

Basquiat worked on Pegasus while he was in-between paintings and didn't know exactly what to work on next. Dealer Anina Nosei has commented that she witnessed Pegasus's completion at his studio. She said Basquiat worked on the upper section as he talked to her. Then, she said, he "got bored and filled up the black" and it was done. Nosei has called Pegasus "the most beautiful drawing ever."

This is the second post in my series focusing on individual works. The first was on one of Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills.