Private Collection (acquired from the above in 1985)
James Goodman Gallery, New York
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2007
Still only 24 years old, Basquiat had reached an apogee of success and production and was a painter whose work incessantly courted laudation for its inimitable and instinctive gestural force – a quality that unquestionably shines through the present work. The variance in paint-handling between the bold broad background brushstrokes, and the delicate delineation of details such as the green plant motif and the barrage of stream-of-consciousness forms on the right, identify this is as the work of Basquiat at his most virtuosic. That quickness, almost haste, which characterised his output from previous years, is appended to a sense of compositional magnitude, stylistic gravitas, and weight. In some areas the canvas seems to glow with deep aqua blue, opaque emulsion white, and thin translucent red, rubbed onto the canvas in narrow streaks of intuitive fluency. We might easily compare this mode of depiction to that of the Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline: both use blocked in polygons of thick impervious colour to define their composition; both employ a combination of thin, almost scumbled, paint in tandem with wider streaks of oleaginous viscosity; and both refuse to modulate or blend their colours, instead retaining brash conjoined edges of blurred intensity. However, Basquiat combines such appropriative formal borrowings with a wider, more pantheistic melding of art historical allusions.
Basquiat greatly admired the work of Pablo Picasso; painterly elements extrapolated from the early twentieth-century master’s canon of abstraction and treatment of line thread a course throughout his oeuvre. Spanning Picasso’s Cubist undoing of the figure through to the ground-breaking African Period, Basquiat masterfully quotes and re-appropriates. In the present work, such a reading is certainly at stake within the twisting application of line and stuttering dynamism of its composition, whilst, the figure at the top right undoubtedly evokes the kind of tribal masks apparent in Picasso’s masterwork, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).
The most coherent approximation of the tribal resides in the top left hand corner of the work; a motif through which Basquiat directly confronts African American history. A figure is shown in unmistakably tribal dress, with necklaces and piercings, mounted on a pediment and surrounded by a ring emblazoned with the word 'tobacco'. The emblem is a direct appropriation and transformation of the logo found on vintage packets of Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes. However, the white bearded sailor usually encircled by a heraldic lifebuoy is now replaced by a manacled slave. The African figure is thus objectified as a trophy – an ornamental prize to deliver wealth to the European ships that float behind him in a deep blue sea. He presents a stark contrast to the generic figures, clad in sinister black uniforms, that loom from the bottom of the canvas through a haze of red mist. These yellowed admonishing faces could represent authority figures who tormented Basquiat and his graffiti peers.
As with so many of Basquiat’s greatest works, there is a distinct sense of self-portraiture at play in Campaign. Not from any of the figurative human representations, but from the torrent of textual and visual motifs that pour through the centre of the canvas, appearing as a chaotic stream of consciousness. We are reminded of the artist’s working method, of his adoration of Beat poetry and his perennial reliance on source material. Basquiat was never unstimulated when he worked. He surrounded himself with Walkmans, televisions, books, artistic monographs, and the colourful characters of bohemian New York, so that his life was engulfed in images, words, phrases, and sounds that could inspire and fulfil his work. In the words of prominent dealer and curator, Jeffrey Deitch, “Basquiat’s canvases are aesthetic dropcloths that catch the leaks from a whirring mind. He vacuums up cultural fall-out and spits it out on stretched canvas, disturbingly transformed” (Jeffrey Deitch quoted in: Larry Warsh, Ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks, New York 1993, p. 13). It is undoubtedly this reliance on eclectic source material that created the waterfall of diverse imagery and alphanumeric mark-making apparent in the present work. While it resists a facile interpretation, this cluster of motifs provides further insight into Basquiat’s working method; this is not an illustrative self-portrait, providing a simple likeness, but rather an instinctive regurgitation of the artist’s stimulus – a glimpse at his inner cogitation rather than his exterior appearance.
The individual elements of the present work can be read separately, as miniature motifs, introducing themes of racism, art history, and expressionistic gestural power to the canvas, as well as conveying a distinct sense of the artist’s own voice. In combining them so freely, Basquiat allows several linear histories to coalesce and his composition becomes a maelstrom of association; each theme plays off another to create a pervasive and complex mood of contemplation. In scale and ambition, the work is almost a reinterpretation of the traditional history painting. While it does not adhere to a simple narrative, the combination of self-portraiture, allegory, and an extraordinary level of visual interest, creates a compelling sense of poetic message, born out across a limitless composition. The present work stands as testament to Basquiat’s unparalleled ability to fill his work with unbridled power. Through its composition, he created an arresting meditation on African American culture, galvanized by his own experiences, and executed in his inimitable style.
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