Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
Private Collection, Houston
Sotheby's, New York, November 13, 2002, lot 558
Private Collection, Paris
Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris
Acquired by the present owner from the above
The story of Jean Michel Basquiat's meteoric rise to fame at the height of the 1980s art boom followed by his subsequent combustion at the age of 27 is legendary. An itinerant graffiti artist and poet, Basquiat was plucked from the streets of New York in 1982 by the gallerist Annina Nosei, who offered him a small studio in her basement and provided him for the first time with artist's materials. As his obsessive, insatiable need to draw and paint was nurtured and given shape, his work developed dramatically and he became an overnight sensation, his early shows selling out within minutes. Although he severed ties with Nosei before the end of the year, his work continued to flourish, his newfound commercial success allowing him the freedom to satisfy his creative as well as his self-destructive appetites. The work he produced during this early period is widely considered to be the best of his career.
The present work displays Basquiat's masterful use of color, his deliberately primitive, unschooled style and his poetic evocation of existential struggle. His lines are bold and assured, the whole containing an energy and vitality that Basquiat embodied in his short life. The brilliant blue, red and orange mask pops against the rich ochre ground. Basquiat's skull-like masks and skeletal figures are central to his work, acting as traditional vanitas, through which the viewer contemplates the fleeting pleasures of life and the inevitability of death, as well as autobiographical expressions of the artist's own state of mind. Here, the mask stares off the page at an oblique angle, its expression inscrutable, occupying the uneasy territory between a silly, playful grin; aggressive, bared teeth; and a grimace of fear or dismay. There is a childlike vulnerability in its gaze, as if the figure has been caught unaware. A clue to the figure's identity is provided in its close cropped black hair crowned with the spiky dreadlocks of Basquiat's signature style. The figure hovers in space, alone and exposed against the yellow sky, a revealing expression of feeling from the artist who always remained the quintessential outsider.
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