Private Collection, Monaco
Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris
Private Collection, Paris
Sale: Sotheby's New York, Contemporary Art, 13 May 2004, Lot 371
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra Jean-Michel Basquiat: Peintures, sculptures, oeuvres sur papier et dessins, 1989, p. 41, illustrated in colour
Malaga, Junta de Andalucia, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1996, p. 65
Kaohsiung, Kaohsiung Museum of Art; Taichung, Taichung Museum of Art, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1997, p. 66
Sao Paulo, Pinacoteca, Jean-Michel Basquiat Pinturas/ obras Sobre Papeis, 1998, p. 74, illustrated in colour
Venice, Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Basquiat a Venezia, 1999, p. 89, illustrated in colour
Naples, Museo Civico Castel Nuovo, Jean-Michel Basquiat a Napoli, 1999-2000, p. 82, illustrated in colour
Cuneo, Il Prisma, Galleria d'Arte, Basquiat a Cuneo, 2001, p. 39, illustrated in colour
Rome, Chiostro del Bramante, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Dipinti, 2002, p. 90, illustrated in colour
Paris, Fondation Dina Vierny-Museé Maillol, Jean-Michel Basquiat. The Work of a Lifetime, 2003, p. 81 illustrated in colour
Michel Enrici, Jean-Michel Basquiat¸ Paris 1989, p. 89, illustrated in colour
Richard D. Marshall and Jean- Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 1996, Vol. I, p. 210, illustrated in colour
Richard D. Marshall and Jean- Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, Vol. I, p. 203, illustrated in colour
Richard D. Marshall and Jean- Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, Vol. II, p. 212, illustrated in colour
"As one follows the progress of his work, one sees an increasing sophistication of composition and color. There is an increasing ability to create a powerful work with a subtle economy of means... Jean-Michel was able to penetrate the surface and focus on essential forms that continue to resonate." (Jeffrey Deitch in: Tony Shafrazi, Jean Michel Basquiat, New York, 1999, p.23).
With bared teeth and arms outstretched against a vast field of cadmium yellow, Jean-Michel Basquiat's archetypal figure faces the viewer replete with commanding symbolic authority. Entitled Spike and dated 1984, this imposing painting bears witness to the very year Basquiat reached full artistic maturity at the age of just twenty-four. Diagrammatic and linear without compromising spontaneity or vivacity, this is the work of a man grown more analytical and discerning through the lessons of experience. Evidencing a distillation of colour and heightened compositional conviction, the present work is one of the most striking and economically confident from the artist's oeuvre. In the previous year alone Basquiat had shown his work in 17 group exhibitions, had 4 major solo exhibitions in America, Europe and Japan, and was the youngest artist ever to be included in the prestigious Whitney Biennial. The creative confidence that this success instilled resulted in a newfound clarity of purpose and execution. This is reflected here in the bold and balanced composition that significantly veers away from the frenetic cacophony of his earlier work towards a more discerning symbolic formula of minimal line and colour. Rather than depriving the composition of meaning, this act of reduction positively enriches the poetic capacity of Basquiat's aesthetic, imbuing his work with greater focus as well as enhancing intended narrative ambiguity.
Basquiat was a keen student of art history and the works he made during these years of intense creativity are characterised by a keen sense of aesthetic synthesis. Via a uniquely intellectual and complex semiotic schema, Basquiat wields a powerful cultural language steeped in myriad references from art history. Combined with the graffiti style which first brought him the attention of the Manhattan art scene, this symbology is enmeshed in a complex matrix of signifiers steeped in the indigenous and ancient artistic traditions of African tribal art and channelled through the influence of Picasso and Abstract Expressionist masters. Herein Basquiat masterfully scrutinises the art historical language of modernism from a unique racial vantage point.
Born in Brooklyn in 1960 to a Haitian father and a New York Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat's mixed heritage from an early age instilled in him the mentality of an outsider, and with it a concurrent rebellious freedom. Multi-lingual, Basquiat grew up speaking English, Spanish and French and remembered as a child being taken by his mother on visits to the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. He later spoke of these outings and how he recalls rarely, if ever, seeing any depictions of black people in paintings. As a black artist functioning in a white dominated art world, his art became a voice as well as a means for self discovery, and although he rarely ventured into the realm of the overtly political, the subject of racial inequality became a natural focus of his creative vision.
Within the present work Basquiat conflates the ritualism of African culture with Christian and Catholic saintly icons. Alongside the evocation of skulls and tribal masks, the figure is diagrammatically arranged into a central cruciform with a distinct Christian undercurrent. The Christ-like arms of the figure morph into the Christian insignia of the fish, while the suggestion of a halo (a recurrent appearance in Basquiat's figuration) minimally appears to hover over black skull-like head. Belonging to what Marc Meyer has identified as Basquiat's 'icons' this work skirts a fine line between the sacred and the profane. As Meyer explains: "the Christian artistic tradition was developed to chasten, instruct, and exalt; we watch Basquiat rehearse, with an almost absurd potency, the instrumental inadequacy of such morally functional art beyond introverted rigors of modernism and the garrulous ironies of postmodernism. With hybrid iconography that he developed from his complex heritage, he attempted to add Charlie Parker, Jackie Robinson, and Joe Lewis to a wobbly generic pantheon of saints" (Marc Meyer, 'Basqiuiat in History' in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat, 2005, p. 51). Indeed, alongside the aforementioned black heroes that frequently appear in Basquiat's work as venerated icons, there is the suggestion in the title that the present work may relate to the acclaimed film maker Spike Lee.
Raised and schooled in Brooklyn like Basquiat, and only three years his senior, Lee began to gain recognition during the beginning of the 1980s for his reaction against the blaxploitation films of the previous decade. In challenging the precepts of black people in cinema, Lee often takes a critical look at race relations, political issues and urban crime and violence. Known for filming and basing his screenplays in Brooklyn, Lee was beginning to start work on his first major film around the time of this painting's production, She's Gotta Have It. Thus, based in Brooklyn and rapidly gaining acclaim for his active engagement with issues of racial identity and equality, Spike Lee is perhaps an apt choice of subject for Basquiat's attention in keeping with his canonization of Jazz Musicians, boxers and baseball players. Nonetheless Basquiat is deliberately vague and ambigious, and where many of these figures within Basquiat's oeuvre are in fact self-portraits, the title may relate to Basquiat's signature hairstyle and thus evoke the artist himself. Although the spiked hair is not visually apparent, the inclusion of anatomical elements posit a distinctly autobiographical reading relating to the injuries incurred as a result of a car accident when Basquiat was a child. The recurrent allusion to anatomical body parts and injuries evidences a fascination with corporeality incurred after his accident; indeed, in the present work the red-teardrop suggestion of an organ outside of the body boundary perhaps relays the splenectomy Basquiat underwent as a result of the crash. Furthermore, the black and white suggestion of an x-ray with diagrammatical bones and organs in Spike evidences an engagement with the illustrations contained in Gray's Anatomy – a well-known source and favourite of Basquiat's ever since his hospitalization.
Artculated in the reduced tricolour of black, red and yellow – a powerful allusion to the African people, their blood, and native sunshine united within the Ugandan flag – Spike is a consummate example of Basquiat's ambiguous and challenging visual code. At once subjective and universal, this painting epitomizes the uniqueness of Basquiat as a trans-cultural, mixed-ethnicity and multi-lingual visual artist. Masterfully distilled into a reduced schema of line and colour, the present painting stands alongside the best of Basquiat's work, implores an intense scrutiny akin to a kind of archaeological examination and cultural deconstruction. The boldness and the breathtaking immediacy of Spike position this work as one of Basquiat's most memorable images, therein providing further evidence of the artist's towering achievement within a field that still dominates the arena of contemporary art. Combining high and low art influences through an urban, raw immediacy of execution, the expressive power and energy of his painting remains as potent today as when it first exploded onto New York's art scene.
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