Human Interest:
Mathew Cerletty on Jean-Michel Basquiat
Sep 29, 2016

In this series, artists talk about portraits from Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection. Here, Mathew Cerletty focuses on his admiration for Jean-Michel Basquiat's work, which began with a poster in his college dorm.

I had a poster of this painting in my college room for all four years of college. It was a big deal the first time I saw this painting in person, just because I had this thing on my wall and was always staring at it. I think of Basquiat maybe as one of the first artists whose narrative I could sort of relate to, in that he wasn’t that old. I think I was about sixteen years old, and I was in Wisconsin. Finding out about a young, cool artist in Wisconsin is pretty rare. So him being sort of a celebrity, or like a rock star of the art world—he just kind of cut through the culture in a way that not many other artists do. 

Just seeing the image over and over and over, over a long period of time and in different moods, in different settings, there are stopping points for my eye, but I’m not really reading the words anymore. It just goes abstract. He is an expressionist artist and this is a reflection of his experience, and he’s trying to communicate something about that, and yeah, I suppose there is this societal angle or political angle that you can take to it, but as a painter, all of that just fades away.

You can see he’s got big finger drags in there. Whenever I see his paintings, I always like to see a footprint or something on the canvas because then you’re like, “Oh, it was on the floor—he wasn’t even painting it stretched, probably.” It’s so different than what I do. I’m so calculated in the way that I make decisions, and so when people are just quickly able to get that spontaneous energy into a picture, that’s exciting for me to see. There’s a whole lot of moves in this thing that I could just never imagine pulling off myself. it’s impressive.