Sale: Sotheby's, New York, Contemporary Art, 7 May 1992, Lot 145
Private Collection, Europe
Sale: Sotheby’s, London, Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 15 February 2012, Lot 23
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Emblazoned in the centre of the canvas, a fiercely expressive head atopped with Basquiat's signature three pointed crown, stares out of the picture plane. Conspicuously bestowed with the artist's iconic trademark, this piece reduces a multifaceted allusion to autobiography, black identity, fame, success and money to a masterful symbolic economy. Associated with the artist's graffito persona SAMO, the crown autobiographically alludes to Basquiat himself, while acting as a seal of admiration and ennoblement for the notary figures that populate his work. Famous black boxers such as Cassius Clay, Jack Johnson and Joe Lewis proliferate in Basquiat's canon during 1982 whilst the coronation of a host of Jazz musicians would shortly follow. Nonetheless, first to be inaugurated within this pantheon of beknighted and sainted black dignitaries was the baseball player Hank Aaron. Childhood hero of Basquiat and famous for garnering a reputation to rival that of Babe Ruth, references to Hank Aaron permeate much of Basquiat's very earliest work; indeed, allusions to Aaron in the form of sequences of AAs and OA represent the foremost instances of venerated black identity. As outlined by Richard D. Marshall in reference to Untitled (1981): “Above and below the ambulance are a number of repeated AAAAs. These letters suggest a double reference: both to the sound of an ambulance siren might make on its way to hospital, and to the first two letters of the last name of one of Basquiat’s’ first black heroes – Hank Aaron” (Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, Vol. II, p. 27). In the present work, although the identity of the eponymous sports figure is undisclosed, the prominence of a frantically sketched baseball alongside the presence of OA and a repetition of AAs buried beneath a rectangular grid confers a likely allusion to Hank Aaron. Furthermore, the date of this work intriguingly coincides with the same year Aaron was immortalised in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Like an icon, majestic and commanding, Basquiat's Orange Sports Figure asserts the same iconic and aspirational power of Andy Warhol's cult of Marilyn Monroe. However, like Warhol, Basquiat's beatification of black sporting prowess is similarly as ambiguous. As expounded by Richard Farris Thompson, the coronation of mask-like sports personages "at once celebrates and satirises one of the few professions in which blacks are permitted to excel" (Richard Farris Thompson, 'Brushes with Beatitude', in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Whitney Museum for American Art, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1993, p. 50). Thus, whilst engendering an iconography of salutation and commemoration, Basquiat simultaneously invokes social criticism. As succinctly outlined by Glenn O'Brien, Basquiat "presented so simply how society expected black people to be athletes and not painters" (Glenn O'Brien in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Deitch Projects, Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: Studio of the Street, 2006, p. 19). Such underlying cynicism is reinforced by the significance of baseball for Basquiat's racial heritage. During the 1960s, the factory line assembly of baseball manufacture was exported to Haiti to profit from an eager and cheap workforce. Consequently for Basquiat, the child of a Haitian father, the evocation of baseball dichotomously conjures exploitation and aspiration. Within the scarified sunken eyes and squarely bared teeth of the centralised looming head, a suggestion of African tribal masks and Haitian voodoo ritualisim acts as recourse to the historical subjugation of Basquiat's ancestors. Along with the very best of Basquiat's astounding production, Orange Sports Figure is ambiguous, contradictorary, replete with cultural significance and autobiographical meaning.
Herein the allusion to baseball, an American sport notoriously regarded as predominantly white, somewhat mirrors Basquiat's ascendancy within the predominantly white art establishment. Like a double portrait, Hank Aaron's extraordinary success mirrors his own in 1982. This artistic confidence is flagrantly brandished via the inclusion of a dollar sign parallel with the crown alongside the use of resplendent gold paint – an alchemical inclusion Basquiat referred to in an interview with Henry Gelzahler in 1983: "I was writing gold on all this stuff, and I made all this money right afterward" (Jean-Michel Basquiat quoted in: Henry Gelzahler, 'Art from Subways to Soho' in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1999, p. 48). As though printing his own money, Basquiat's work during 1982 presents an ironical retort to the booming gallery culture of the 1980s.
Basquiat had an unimpeachable grasp of art history and a defined understanding of American abstraction. Within the layers of erased, painted over and liberally confident mark making, Basquiat recasts an innovative symphony of modernism's pictorial vernacular. Imbued with the frantic exertion and the poured, dripping aesthetic of Jackson Pollock, the exuberant colourism and dramatic painterly gesture of de Kooning and Franz Kline, and the text and blackboard surfaces Cy Twombly, Basquiat's field of allusions is impressive and manifold. As in the present work, his best paintings command, combine and synthesise these paradigms of American art with spectacular faculty. Indeed, both Twombly and Kline were cited by Basquiat as "favourites" in the famous interview with Geldzahler (Ibid., p. 48). The brute force of application and chromatic layering through brush, spray can, and oilstick confers a remarkably paroxysmal yet deliberate harmony via a structural and exuberant formalism. In Basquiat's canon art historical visual idioms are recast, cut-up and remixed to give form to an entirely new language centred by the artist's own identity as a multi-racial and ethnically plural individual at the very forefront of an emergent avant-garde. Thus by 1982 having been rapidly yet fully inaugurated within the upper echelons of the art establishment, Basquiat's work evokes a simultaneously encompassing yet ambiguous dialogue with the white-centric canon of art historical precedent.
Orange Sports Figure is an absolute expression of Basquiat's full artistic powers of creation. Though maintaining the spontaneity of graffiti, by 1982 the transition from street to studio was fully crystallised. Jubilantly demonstrative of this extraordinary year, Orange Sports Figure represents a remarkable exemplification of the inimitable conviction that propelled Basquiat to prominence. Intriguingly, Basquiat even emblazoned the front of this painting with his signature and date of execution in invisible ink as though tagging in secret. This painting bears witness to Basquiat's own coronation and inauguration into the meta-narrative of art history. As pertinently expressed by Robert Farris Thompson, "he remained true to himself, what is more, with a single motif reprised right up to his death: the sign of the three-pointed crown. Banking not only on hard work and inspiration to get him through, but also on amuletic forces, he continually crowned himself king of painters" (Robert Farris Thompson, 'Royalty, Heroism, and the Streets: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat', op. cit., p. 36).
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