Executed in 1985, Now’s The Time announces Basquiat at the absolute apex of his international success as an artist, when he was also the center of New York’s creatively exploding downtown art scene. As Basquiat’s most visually simplistic and mature masterpiece, Now’s the Time witnesses Basquiat radically pare down the explosive bravura of his street art-based paintings into an austere composition that replicates a vinyl record pressing, with only a few inscriptions scrawled upon the black matte surface.
In addition to its reference to Charlie’s Parker’s 1945 composition, the emphatic exclamation of the painting’s title calls immediate attention to this moment of Basquiat’s career when his star shined brightest and there was seemingly nothing he could not accomplish as an artist. Today, this phrase, which has become a familiar slogan within the scholarship and cultural vernacular for the artist, holds more resonance than ever before, as Basquiat’s artistic vernacular is so universally familiar within popular culture.
Though Basquiat once referred to Miles Davis as his favorite musician, it was Charlie Parker who ultimately figured as his all-time personal hero. In many ways Parker’s career trajectory paralleled Basquiat’s. Parker’s brief recording career lasted only one decade from 1945 to 1955, and he was a largely self-taught saxophonist. Pioneering the jazz style of bebop that is best exemplified by the sonic rhythms of the eponymous composition, Parker was uncompromising in his revolutionary sonic complexity that synthesized an inventively fast tempo, alternating chord progressions, and above all else, an undying freedom of improvisation. The modernity of the bebop sound that Parker innovated, as well as the urgency of ending racial segregation in the wake of World War II through which he lived, are both no better suggested than in the call to action behind the present composition’s title: “Now’s The Time.”
Beginning in 1983, Basquiat began to focus on jazz as a central subject of his work and would go on to produce more than thirty paintings in tribute to saxophonist Charlie Parker alone. In Now’s the Time, Basquiat transforms Parker to the shorthand “PRKR,” creating an updated persona for the jazz legend that mirrors Basquiat’s street tagging alter-ego SAMO, drawing an unmistakable parallel between the two artists and binding their artistic legacies. As a final touch, the artist emblazons his signature copyright sign upon the surface of the painting, both as a means of giving credit to Parker and marking the painting and declaration as his own.
With Now’s The Time, Basquiat reconfigures the familiar form of a vinyl record into an abstract composition that more closely resembles a black hole in size and scale, as the painting is composed on a large, roughly cut plywood disk that immediately absorbs the viewer into its mass. Basquiat’s austere white-on-black technique is restrained yet elegant, possessing a beauty and stillness that evoke the rigors of Minimalism while preserving the urban grit and energy of the artist’s downtown New York environs. The work builds upon the conceptual practices of artists such as Jasper Johns, and radically destabilizes the boundaries of painting, sculpture, and object in a poignant interpretation of the cultural symbolism and context behind Parker’s music.
While abstaining from the expressionist fury normally associated with Basquiat’s paintings, the irregular shape of the work maintains the profound tension pervading most of his oeuvre. Rejoicing in the Black male jazz musicians with whom Basquiat discovered his unique style, Now’s the Time creates a monument to Basquiat’s legendary career and influence that resounds today with visual artists and musicians who continue to amplify his voice and find inspiration in the depth of his body of work and life. With three words, Basquiat declares his place amongst the pantheon of Black artistic icons he admired, claiming the moment as his own and immortalizing the significance of his then radical, now canonical artistic project: Now’s the Time.
Testifying to its significance in Basquiat’s oeuvre, Now’s the Time has appeared as a major highlight in many of the Basquiat’s most acclaimed international exhibitions and retrospectives, including those at the Brooklyn Museum, New York; Fondation Beyeler, Basel; and Art Gallery of Ontario, where it was the centerpiece of the eponymous exhibition entitled Jean Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, and most recently, in the landmark exhibition at Montreal Museum of Art, Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music, where it was prominently illustrated on the cover of the exhibition catalogue.