Jean-Michel Basquiat is one of those brand-name famous artists whose work I’m familiar enough with to recognize when I see it in a museum but who I otherwise don’t actually know much about. I only have a sense of him being a “graffiti” artist who transitioned to painting.
Last winter I started seeing writeups about the big show at the Barbican. So I started skimming; those kind of retrospectives—when done right—are an easy way to get a bit more context about an artist and even the reviews of them tend to be pretty educational. In this case, the writeups often mentioned how before he made it big he sold defaced baseball cards outside MoMA for a buck. Interest seriously piqued. I needed to check out the catalog once it arrived at the library.
The baseball cards are part of a larger project called “Anti-Product Baseball Cards” consisting of postcards that Basquiat and Jennifer Stein collaborated on. They’d make a collage consisting of printed material, paste four of them on a letter-sized page, photocopy the page, spraymount the copy to cardboard, then cut it into fourths to create four 4¼”×5½” postcards.
Basquiat was a visual-literacy sponge who remixed everything he saw—from academic “high” art to mass-produced disposable items—into new creations. This feels extremely familiar now since it’s the core competency of the internet but 40 years ago when color photocopying was not only new but expensive* so this kind of remixing had a higher barrier of entry.**
*At a couple of dollars per sheet, Basquiat and Stein would have have to sell 75% of their inventory to break even.
**Though it’s worth noting that this is a long-standing thing in photography and there’s no surprise that many of Basquiat’s postcards include photographic material.
What’s particularly notable about Basquiat is how broad his visual literacy was. folk art, western art, indigenous art, african art, advertising, graffiti, packaging. Everything was fair game.
The Anti-Product Baseball Cards in particular tend to operate more on the pop culture side of things. Basquiat draws from mass-produced art—not exactly vernacular art since it’s being produced by professionals but not at all what people consider Art™—and turns the designs back from being products to art objects.
So we have items that we recognize as being ubiquitous and effectively valueless—e.g. product packaging—turned into something new and distinct. That Baseball Cards are both the subject of many of these postcards and the title of them is especially noteworthy. Unlike other Pop Art which foregrounds design that people don’t think of as art and puts it into a museum space,* Basquiat’s work is still semi-mass-produced and intended to be purchased and traded.
My takeaway is that “trading card” and “baseball card” are often synonymous. Baseball cards are part of our common visual and cultural literacy. Tapping into the ways they’re produced and distributed while messing with all the branding and productization aspects is a way of both asking what it is that we’re collecting and pointing out how familiar we are with them. Outside of the collecting world baseball cards just are. They’re the kind of things everyone recognizes and is aware of but which few people take the time to look at and see. It’s only after someone changes the context and de-productizes them that they get interesting.
If whiting out all identifying information makes these anti-product, the implication is that face, team, and brand information is what makes these “products.” This feels about right to me. These aren’t about Baseball,* they’re about the object, how it’s distributed, and reclaiming the process on a more personal level.
*A point of view which sets them apart from the current crop of baseball card vandals who are having fun but are also very much fans of baseball too.
Basquiat’s art literacy came mostly through books—meaning that he learned via mechanical reproductions of artwork. I love the idea of using mechanical reproduction to transform mechanical reproductions into art themselves.
A note on the “checklist”
Aside from the two images in the catalog I’ve only been able to find one other image of Basquiat and Stein’s cards online. It’s not high enough resolution to inspect properly but it does kind of look like all the cards are from the 1979 Topps set. JOE is Steve Henderson. JERK is Bob Randall. I haven’t combed through the other small images here to figure out the rest.