BANG BANG BANG
Cinematic in scale, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s captivating Infantry (Lot 623)
exemplifies the artist’s ultimate fusion of high and quotidian culture. Drawing from a mélange of vibrant personal references and rooted in his childhood ambition to be a cartoon artist, Basquiat lures his viewer into a world of slap-stick drama and playful psychological fantasy. As surmised by 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 the stretched canvas, disturbingly transformed.”1
Painted in 1983 during the heightened escalation of his success and in the most productive years of his tragically short career, Infantry
offers a unique insight into the artist’s uniquely creative mind and idiosyncratically graphic style of painting.
Breaking onto the New York art scene as the “Radiant Child” of René Ricard’s seminal 1981 text, the years 1982-83 became the most important of Basquiat’s career. Following a landmark solo show at Annina Nosei Gallery he became the youngest artist to ever exhibit at the Documenta in Kassel, showing alongside Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly. Further institutional recognition came in 1983 as Basquiat participated in the Whitney Biennial in his native New York. At the opening dinner he met Mary Boone, the “New Queen of the Art Scene” who came to represent the ambitious artist, propelling him further into the cultural spotlight. Concerning this period Basquiat remarked: "I had some money. I made the best paintings ever.”2
Having secured a vast independent studio in SoHo that same year, Basquiat combined drawing and painting at a new scale that he referred to as ‘extra large’; a size exemplified in the present work. Other significant ‘extra large’ works from this year now sit in esteemed international museum collections, such as Hollywood Africans
(Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and Horn Players
(The Broad, Los Angeles).
Embodying the artist’s iconic aesthetic, a raw and acidic yellow engulfs the picture plane and the central figures in an ecstatic wash of tonal intensity. Basquiat’s limited palette of naïve primary colors – red, yellow, blue and green – offer the visual immediacy of mass-produced visual culture: advertising, children’s illustration and the graphic novel. Buzzing with frenetic energy like the playful scrawl of an infant, Basquiat collapses the picture plane and irreverently disavows illusionistic depth by conflating background and foreground. The discordant viewpoints of Pablo Picasso and the pictorial dynamism of the Italian Futurists all collide in captivating array of art historical references that constitute Basquiat’s unique visual lexicon. Typically erratic brushwork makes a sardonic reference to Franz Kline and the energy of Action Painting as the artist aligns himself with the masters of 20th
The movement embodied in Basquiat’s mark-making feeds the central narrative, mirroring the familiar cartoon symbols that decorate the canvas and indicate directional forces. An ad-hoc missile heads towards across eyed figure, already prostrate and dazed with a ‘goose-egg’ bump on his head signifying injury. Spirals of confusion emanate from the alien-like goon, giving effective form to the physicality of this comical farce. Basquiat creates a multi-sensorial experience with the sensational power of onomatopoeia, harnessing the sonic connotations of the iconic action words “BOOM” and “BANG”. The German phrase “wo bin ich?”, or “where am I?” cements an atmosphere of overriding chaos and confusion. Showing Basquiat as a savvy businessman appealing to his new international repute, the use of German also reflects a new commercial relationship with Bruno Bischofberger, who first sold this piece at his Zurich gallery. As raw expressions of his consciousness, Basquiat’s work carries autobiographical notes. Here, repeated twice, “wo bin ich?” perhaps also takes on a profoundly existential tone undertone and acknowledges his unsettled position as an art world outsider amidst a phenomenally accelerated rise to fame.
Crucially, Basquiat’s evocation of the comic book forges an allegiance with his pop art forbearers. Whilst the explosions of sounds draw an ineffable link to the comic book inspired war series of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol had also turned to the genre just two years earlier in his 1981 Superman
series. In the year the present work was created Basquiat rented his studio from Warhol and they began to work on their first collaborations together. Being coarsely composed of jarring, oil-stick swathes, Basquiat’s coarse left-hand gunman poses as the perfect anti-hero to Warhol’s slick depictions of Superman. As such, this is not so much a celebration of pop culture but rather a psychological dissection. Reinforced by the prominent gun and military stars scattered across the canvas, the title Infantry
enigmatically references armed forces of foot soldiers. Yet this menace of conflict is satirised by his use of distinctly comic characters. The word ‘infantry’ finds its etymological root in the Italian word infante
, equivalent to infant or boy. Communicated paradoxically through a child-like vision, Basquiat indulges in a curious phonetic pun that is both linguistic and visual. The artist re-orientates our vision to the peculiarities of a pop culture in which comic book fantasies can embody both violence and the innocence of childhood.
Jeffrey Deitch cited in Larry Warsh, ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks
, New York 1993, p. 13
 The artist quoted in Cathleen McGuigan, "New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist," The New York Times Magazine, February 10, 1985, p. 29
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988, USA) was an American Neo-Expressionist artist who first achieved notoriety in the late 1970s with his graffiti in the Lower East side of Manhattan. Before achieving fame, Basquiat sold sweatshirts and postcards featuring his artwork on the streets. By the 1980s, his Neo-Expressionist paintings were being shown in international galleries and museums, receiving critical acclaim for the fusion of words, symbols, stick figures and animals. His rise to international recognition coincided with the emergence of Neo-Expressionism, ushering a wave of new artists including Julian Schnabel and Susan Rothenberg. The artist collaborated with Andy Warhol in the mid-1980s, which resulted in a show of their work featuring a series of corporate logs and cartoon characters. In 1986 the 25-year-old became the youngest artist ever to showcase his work at the Kestner-Gesellschaft Gallery in Hanover, Germany. Basquiat died on August 12, 1988 in New York City.