Born into a regular working family in Brooklyn, New York, at the age of seventeen Basquiat dropped out of school and moved to Manhattan’s spirited Lower East Side. With few resources other than sheer determination, within just four years the young artist progressed from intermittent bouts of homelessness and the ubiquitous dissemination of his “SAMO” graffiti tag across the city, to being introduced to an enamored art world as “The Radiant Child” through René Ricard’s seminal Artforum article of December 1981. By 1983 Basquiat had already in the previous year shown at the legendary Documenta 7 in Kassel as the youngest of 176 artists, and in March he became one of the youngest artists to have ever exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in New York. Basquiat’s early success provided him with this confidence to be more ambitious in scale, structure and technique. Recalling the makeshift aesthetic of Rauschenberg’s revered Combine paintings, Brother’s Sausage is one of only five multi-panel works from 1983 that Basquiat constructed by joining six or seven canvases together with metal hinges that he left visible on the picture plane. Like a slapdash folding screen or a piece of theatrical scenery, the work supersedes the boundaries between painting and object, recalling the artist’s early financial hardship during which, as long term friend Mary Ann Monforton reported, “Basquiat painted on anything he could get his hands on: refrigerators, laboratory coats, cardboard boxes, and doors.” (“Interview with Franklin Sirmans,” January 31, 1992, in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (and travelling) Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1992, p. 235) The present work’s profound recall of desolate shop fronts plastered with posters and graffiti enshrines the ephemeral threads of the city’s visual fabric as Basquiat’s enduring source of inspiration. However, by also indulging in an immense horizontal format that emulates ancient architectural entablature, Basquiat uses his unique aesthetic to reconfigure classical ideals of pictorial storytelling embodied in paradigms such as the Renaissance altarpiece or the Elgin marbles of the Parthenon; a calculated nod to the fine art establishment that his early institutional recognition had placed him at the heart of. Considered in comparison with the other 1983 ‘hinged’ works, Brother’s Sausage shows the greatest variation in visual registers and techniques between the panels, whilst still remaining visually cohesive. As such, Basquiat hints at the notion of legible narrative, whilst ultimately denying it by constructing an unstable nexus of evasively referential images, words, and abstract idioms that express infinite semantic possibilities.
With characteristic gestural bravura, Basquiat introduces the central theme of consumerism into Brother’s Sausage by way of the expressively painted “FAMOUS SAUSAGE” and coin motifs that act as the resolved bookends to the grand progression of images. Unlike iconic brands such as Brillo and Campbell’s Soup, which were immortalized by Pop Art pioneer Andy Warhol, the commercial signs Basquiat chose here are typically esoteric while retaining the bold simplicity that is a hallmark of visual merchandizing. Like a hand-painted butcher’s window, the first canvas inaugurates the artwork’s eponymous sausage company through a hybrid logo that appears as a visual mélange of signs from its packaging. This includes the company’s founding date and a list of the edible ingredients, framed by links of comically exaggerated red sausages that also reappear in the work’s third panel. Playfully indulging in the ambiguity of visual signs, Basquiat here conflates the reduced symbols of advertising and the free loops of gestural abstraction. Similarly tearing apart distinctions between cultural genres, Basquiat’s punctuated structuring of words enables a banal list of quotidian ingredients to take on a rhythmic quality that draws from the artist’s experience as a musician and DJ during the birth of New York’s hip-hop scene. Rap’s driving lyrical power translates to Basquiat’s persistent sampling and rhythmic repetition of words such as “Famous”. Highlighted in a blood red paint, this subtle indication of his unbridled ambition is repeated in the Xerox collage, which Basquiat lauds as the ultimate referential medium.
Incorporated into the “Bros Famous Sausage” logo is a charismatic depiction of a menacing wolf whose symbolic ambiguity serves as a point of enigmatic entry into the works plethora of endless semantic registers. Basquiat often drew inspiration from comic books and this villainous, hat-bearing wolf is in direct reference to the 1943 feature Dumb Hounded, illustrated by his favorite cartoon artist Tex Avery. In the Twentieth Century, however, the iconic image of the ‘big bad wolf’ was equally popularized through Walt Disney’s Silly Symphony cartoons and the relentlessly catchy tune “who’s afraid of the big bad wolf” that provided both an uplifting anthem and a haunting soundtrack to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Developing the common historic associations between the ‘big bad wolf’ and the United States’ devastating interwar economic decline, Basquiat brings in solemn monetary associations in the final panel. At the center of a stark blackness the words “LIBERTY” glisten from the depiction of a 1951 dime. Paralleling the commercial logo of the first panel, the artist calls upon this powerful word as a commonly recognized slogan for the American dream. At the dime’s center we see the crudely rendered coin portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States for much of the great depression from 1933-1945. His profile is rendered in a distinctly abstracted structure reminiscent of the appropriation of African art within the idioms of western modernism. Building upon this dialogue, Basquiat contrasts the pink skin tone of his Roosevelt with a dark black ground and an inflection of ochre that shines through from beneath the head. Through symbolically simple colors that parallel the reductive ignorance of prejudice, Basquiat finds an apt chapter of history through which he initiates a dialogue on the economic dimensions of race relations in America and the history of its art. Indeed, it was Roosevelt who in 1941 signed Executive Order 8802 which forbid race discrimination in defense related industries, and which crucially formed a precursor to historic Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that would come into force decades later and forever change the social fabric of the nation. Transporting this historic precedent to the urban present, Basquiat questions the remaining presence of institutionalized racism in America. Born to Puerto-Rican and Haitian parents, Basquiat embodied the sheer determination, intelligence and skill that he believed would be necessary to gain respect in not only an almost exclusively white art world, but the almost exclusively ‘white’ western art historical tradition. Weaving a nuanced tapestry imbued with a deep awareness of the cultural legacies that defined his position as an African American artist, through Brother’s Sausage and the revolutionary oeuvre of which it is a paradigmatic masterwork, Basquiat rendered for himself a unique and enduring place within the meta-narrative of art history, remaining as one of its most radical and visionary painters.
The signatory power of Basquiat’s forms are intimately tied to his multiple techniques. Reveling in a definitive Neo-Expressionist idiom whilst exercising a sophisticated knowledge of art history, Basquiat’s gestural brushwork across the work’s six canvases intuitively recalls the legacy of Abstract Expressionism. In the crudely delineated red sausages that animate the third panel and the vertical drips of fluid blue that caress its length, Basquiat recalls both the luscious abstract moldings of Willem de Kooning and the ecstatic drips of Jackson Pollok with a typically irreverent sense of humor. The dynamic energy of Franz Kline is recalled in the more aggressive zones of jagged marks that demarcate the figurative elements of the first and last panels, whilst the effusively merging vibrations of Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still find place in the color field evocations of the fifth panel. This is taken to an extreme in the second panel, which shows Basquiat’s rare submission to pure tonal abstraction as he indulges in the shimmering optical splendor of a graduated sky blue, imbued with the subtleties of texture from an underlying layering of paper collage. In no other work does Basquiat devote an entire panel to this captivating effect of light and shadow, displaying a calm serenity that privileges a sense of ethereal beauty, found in even the most disposable material amidst an urban cacophony.
The delicate strata of aqua tissues provide a moment of calm that contrasts with the pervasive presence of printed Xerox collage, which read as frenzied outbursts of uncontrollable creative expression and allude to Basquiat’s superlative talents as a draftsman. Central in importance within the artist’s wider methodology, as noted by Robert Storr, “Drawing, for him was something you did rather than something done, an activity rather than a medium. The seemingly throw-away sheets that carpeted his studio might appear little more than warm-ups for painting, except that the artist, a shrewd connoisseur of his own off-hand and under foot inventions did not in fact throw them away, but instead kept the best for constant reference and re-use. Or, kept them because they were, quite simply, indestructibly vivid.” (Robert Storr, “Two Hundred Beats Per Min,” in Exh. Cat., New York, The Robert Miller Gallery, Basquiat Drawings, 1990, n.p.) Channeling the kinetic scrawl of Cy Twombly and child-like characterizations of Jean Dubuffet, the collaged drawings in Brother’s Sausage provide a cathartic map of Basquiat’s subconscious. As noted by Fred Hofmann, “He discovered that he could shut out the myriad stimuli constantly bombarding him from the outside world; and at the same time, he could enable impressions, thoughts, memories, associations, fantasies, and observations formulating in his mind to simply pass through him, making their way onto a sheet of paper. From a very early age, Basquiat discovered that drawing was a process of ‘channeling’ in which he essentially functioned as a medium.” (Fred Hoffman in Exh. Cat., New York, Acquavella Galleries, Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawings: Work from the Schorr Family Collection, 2014, p. 33) Utilizing the quotidian office technology of the photocopier, Basquiat accessed a far more rapid form of image duplication than the dense silkscreen method pioneered by Warhol, whom the young artist regarded as both lauded mentor and friend at the time. Effectively usurping Warhol’s obsession with domestic products and household names, Basquiat here creates a brand of himself through the repetitive exploitation of his unique visual idiom. Crucially, Basquiat copies his own drawings, repurposing again the characters from Greek and pagan myths, as well as the popular cartoons, that collectively typify the artist’s broad cultural purview. By plastering his stream of visual consciousness onto the canvas through collaged copies, Basquiat emulates the successive buildup of advertisements on city walls, underground flyposting and commercial billboards. As such, Brother’s Sausage reflects not only the artist’s penchant for self-promotion, but his undying infatuation with urbanity: a psycho-physical space through which he inserts his unique subjectivity into the grand genre of history of painting.
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