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"Asbestos" Referenced in Provocative Basquiat Painting at L.A.'s Broad Museum

The Broad Museum is Los Angeles’ newest addition to the contemporary art scene, courtesy of billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and his wife Edythe. Wandering the space of what has already become an architectural landmark, you are overwhelmed with the openness and bright light streaming into all corners of the museum. Its impressive collection features work from Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst and Yayoi Kusama.

There is much to admire at the Broad, but we were particularly struck by the 1982 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, titled Obnoxious Liberals. The painting confronts you with its provocative symbols depicted in abstract and primitivism style. Upon closer inspection, you notice the words “Asbestos” graffitied three times in the upper left section of the painting.

This was an unexpected revelation which made us want to learn more about the artist and his work. After all, it’s not often that the art world intersects with our practice or, better, our quest to shed light on the atrocities of asbestos exposure on the American public.

We were surprised to learn that the word “Asbestos” appears in several of Basquiat’s paintings, most featuring crude figures and hellish scenes. He even references “Asbestos” in a poem penned in his notebook.

Jean-Michel Basquiat died at the height of his career in 1988 at the young age of 27. He left behind a vibrant and evocative body of work which continues to be controversial and referenced in pop culture. He took the art scene by storm by first piquing interest with his ambiguous graffiti appearing on New York streets before obtaining fame and critical acclaim in the 1980s. His works often serve as social commentaries on race and class struggles, identity and politics.

These same power struggles are evident in this painting. Although, we were unable to find Basquiat specifically commenting on his work Obnoxious Liberals, typical of great art, this piece is widely open to interpretation.

Even from the title, it appears that Basquiat was mocking the world of socially conscious and rich art collectors, the very circle that so embraced him. The dollar signs and iconic hats appear to represent capitalism. The black figure kneeling and bound labeled “Samson” is shorn of his hair, rendered powerless and exploited. Many more symbols are depicted containing messages waiting to be discovered by the viewer. Each viewer will have a different approach to interpreting this piece raising many questions not all of which can be satisfyingly answered.

In 1982, the same year Obnoxious Liberals was painted, Johns-Manville Corporation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after facing unprecedented liability for asbestos injury claims (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johns_Manville). At the time, it was the largest company ever to file bankruptcy. Although Basquiat was a young man and it is not known whether asbestos illness touched anyone close to him, he was gaining notoriety at the same time the wave of asbestos litigation and bankruptcy reorganization were sending shockwaves through society.

We now know that the connection between asbestos and certain types of cancer was well known by asbestos companies as early as the 1930s. Many of these companies continued making asbestos products decades after learning that a substantial percentage of those who used them would develop life-threatening cancer. The conduct of asbestos companies from the 1940s through the 1980s is one of the worst examples of companies putting profits ahead of public safety in our nation’s history.

Basquiat is clearly referencing corporate greed in this painting. It contains multiple symbols depicting social marginalization, in addition to its deliberate reference to asbestos. The fact that he writes the word three times makes it undeniably intentional. Asbestos disproportionately targeted laborers and veterans, groups that are vulnerable to corporate greed. However, asbestos also indiscriminately harmed people without regard to their social or economic standing, gender, age or occupation.

It may be challenging to decipher Basquiat’s exact preoccupation with asbestos. We came across snippets of interviews with him responding quite cryptically, but true to character about his intent. He also featured the words “tar,” “coal,” and “lead” in other works which, like asbestos, seem to reference industrial hazards and corporate greed.

Seeing “asbestos” scrawled on a painting occupying such an awe-inspiring space is jarring. To our firm, asbestos represents a public health catastrophe surrounded by a history of corporate callousness, corruption and greed. Although, Basquiat’s depictions are unquestionably dark and grim, the painting is being viewed in a stunningly beautiful and modern space bathed in abundant natural light. To us, the light surrounding this moving piece represents the growing public awareness of the vagaries of asbestos and the fight for justice which has guided our practice.

We encourage you to check out Basquiat’s seminal work for yourself, along with the rest of the impressive collection at The Broad Museum (http://www.thebroad.org/).

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