Private Colletion, USA
Sotheby’s, New York, 5 November 1987, Lot 209 (consigned by the above)
Galerie Willy D'Huysser, Brussels (acquired from the above sale)
Private Collection, Belgium
Private Collection, Paris
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2004
Bilbao, Guggenheim Museum, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Ahora es el Momento, July - November 2015, p. 61, illustrated in colour
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. I, Paris 2000, p. 148, illustrated in colour; and Vol. II, Paris 2000, p. 138, no. 5, illustrated in colour
The monumental near-life size figure that dominates this impressive composition is immediately recognisable as one of Basquiat’s heroic figures. This series of isolated full-length male figures, always depicted with both arms raised aloft, and often shown with a studded halo or roughly pronged crown, formed the centrepiece of almost all of this artist’s most important early works. The present example is instinctive and urgent in execution, with arms and fists depicted through rapid bursts of dripping spray paint, and blockish body sparsely demarcated in twisting downward spirals of chalky oil-stick scrawl. These figures were integral to Basquiat’s praxis, and hugely important to him personally. As a young black man raised in a middle-class family in Brooklyn, the artist readily felt the effects of racial segregation in art history: “I realised that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them” (Jean-Michel Basquiat cited in: Cathleen McGuigan, ‘New Art, New Money’, The New York Times, 10 February 1985, online). He sought out idols in other areas of life, and transmuted them into his art.
To a great extent, Basquiat’s heroic figure was based on the black athletes whose extraordinary prowess allowed them to transcend racial boundaries in mid-twentieth century America. The first sainted black athlete that Basquiat identified with was the baseball player Hank Aaron, who, despite having set eleven Major League and eighteen National League records, could neither eat in the same restaurants nor stay in the same hotels as his teammates because of prohibitive laws in the south. However, the artist found his true heroes in the field of boxing: Cassius Clay, Jack Johnson, and Joe Lewis feature in numerous paintings, with gloves abstracted into blunt roundels and arms thrust triumphantly in the air. Indeed, even the defiant posture of raised fists, reduced to its most primitive iteration in the present work, had huge significance in this context. It is wholly redolent of the Black Power salute, first made famous in the sporting arena by Juan Carlos and Tommie Smith, who protested racial oppression at the Mexico City Olympic Games by raising their fists in defiance of the U.S. National Anthem. Against the backdrop of Charlie Parker’s jazz, these athletic heroes became the inimitable protagonists of Basquiat’s early production; the jubilant stars of his burgeoning oeuvre. As explicated by the art historian Richard Farris Thompson, the coronation of black sports figures in Basquiat’s oeuvre “at once celebrates and satirises one of the few professions in which blacks are permitted to excel” (Richard Farris Thompson, ‘Brushes with Beatitude’, in: Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of Art, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1993, p. 50).
This work represents an important milestone in Basquiat’s oeuvre: the very first occasion upon which he used a sheet of Xerox collage as the centrepiece of a major painting. Indeed, up to this point, the artist had barely used the medium at all, including similar sheets in only twelve of his earlier paintings. For the rest of his career, he collaged similar Xerox into countless works, allowing its distinctive aesthetic to become a signature component of his idiosyncratic style. Indeed, for such a prolific draughtsman as Basquiat, using Xerox was an invaluable way of multiplying and proliferating his output. He was famous for his relentless depictive energy; drawing and painting on fridge doors and windows with the same immediacy and fluency as upon sketchbooks and canvases. The introduction of the Xerox machine was, to an extent, a means to gather all of these creative efforts upon a single ground. Moreover, for an artist who already relished in combining multiple media in his art works, the introduction of Xerox was further exciting for its novelty: its flat sheen provided him with another texture – another tool; another weapon to include in his technical arsenal alongside acrylic, oil stick, and spray paint. In the present work, Xerox collage stars. It is the key stone of the compositional concept that brings the crudely delineated figure to life.
Basquiat’s prominent and central use of Xerox collage in this work is further significant within the context of further developments in art history and the New York avant-garde in the second half of the Twentieth Century. We think of Robert Rauschenberg, the true pioneer of collage, who included all manner of materials in his works and truly paved the way for introducing quotidian objects into art. We are also put in mind of Willem de Kooning, an artist who created similarly isolated figures against similarly incongruous abstract backgrounds, consisting of large opaque passages of daubed colour. De Kooning’s Woman from c. 1952 which is now held in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York forms a particularly pertinent comparison in its inclusion of a collaged element at its compositional centre; in this work, in order to anchor his wild abstractions in figurative reality, de Kooning collaged the mouth from a cigarette advertisement in a magazine onto the face of his figure, providing direct precedent for Basquiat’s strategy in Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face).
In the appreciation of this work we are also moved to think of Basquiat’s close relationship with Andy Warhol. When the young artist first broke onto the downtown scene in the early 1980s, Warhol was still king: the unmitigated arbiter of taste and the inimitable harbinger of celebrity and style. Such was Basquiat’s obvious artistic genius that the pair rapidly developed an intimate and hugely mutually influential artistic relationship. They met in the year that the present work was created. Warhol recorded the encounter in his diary in typical fashion: “Down to meet Bruno Bischofberger (cab $7.50). He brought Jean-Michel Basquiat with him. He’s the kid who used the name ‘Samo’ when he used to sit on the sidewalk in Greenwich Village and paint T-shirts… he was just one of those kids who drove me crazy… And so had lunch with them and I took a Polaroid and he went home and within two hours a painting was back, still wet, of him and me together” (Pat Hackett, Ed., The Andy Warhol Diaries, New York 1989, p. 462). Against this background, we are reminded that the entirety of Warhol’s painterly career was predicated upon the use of the Silkscreen print, itself a method of printing and image reproduction which he appropriated, subverted, and thrust into a high art context. Basquiat adopted Xerox in a directly comparable manner, using its everyday function as a means to reach his own creative and conceptual ends.
So much of Basquiat’s oeuvre was deeply founded in art history, especially during these nascent stages of his career. Picasso was perhaps his ultimate hero, for the machismo of his relentless artistic innovation, and for the jarring dissonance of his executive style. The isolated figures of Picasso’s blue period – equitably alone against equitably unfeasible backdrops – undoubtedly provide some stylistic precedent for Basquiat’s angelic heroes. Basquiat also loved Picasso’s preference for primitivism; the French master’s absorption of influence from tribal African art provided the young Basquiat with an iconographical pathway back to his heritage. Through Picasso’s work, he was able to divine the aesthetic of the African tradition, circumventing his immediate Haitian lineage, and tapping into his familial roots. We know that this was an immensely important notion for the artist. He visited Africa twice in his lifetime and formed close bonds with communities in the Cote d’Ivoire.
In the appreciation of Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face), and in the comprehension of Basquiat’s working process, we are also moved to think of Cy Twombly. Just like Basquiat, Twombly absorbed influence from an eclectic array of stimuli: where Basquiat focussed on Jazz music and anatomical textbooks, Twombly read Virgil and Leonardo da Vinci. Both artists used these unconventional prompts not as direct source material to emulate or illustrate, but rather as blunt emotional background to their work; conceptual themes that sit alongside their art works rather than within. Both Basquiat and Twombly’s oeuvres defy categorisation or classification according to genre, and they both created works in the same manner: with raw frenetic abandon, juxtaposing abstract passages with isolated figurative moments and scrawlings of instinctive text. Jean Dubuffet was another huge influence on Basquiat, providing precedent and a prototype for the art-world outsider. Dubuffet’s oeuvre was based upon a fundamental and conscious break with the artistic establishment. He found creative succour in the art of children, and the art of the mentally ill. Basquiat not only shared this sense of separation from the mainstream avant-garde but also a number of aesthetic traits. Dubuffet was another artist of immense fluency and skill, and was also well known for using unconventional mediums in his canvas works, proffering thick home-made emulsions and even sticking butterflies to his canvases. Moreover, whilst he never quite reached Basquiat’s extremes of Xerox, he was one of the pioneers of collage, every inch the equal of his Abstract Expressionist peers.
Executed with convulsive paroxysmal marks that reflect the spontaneity of graffiti, Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face) is the perfect encapsulation of the artist’s transition from street to studio. Created the year after Basquiat’s breakthrough participation in the renowned New York/New Wave show at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Centre, the present work is replete with the international excitement surrounding the artist. It was in 1982 that Basquiat had six solo exhibitions and became the youngest artist ever privileged with an invitation to exhibit in documenta 7 alongside Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, and his aforementioned heroes Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol. Utterly demonstrative of this extraordinarily fertile moment, Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face) is rich with iconographic meaning, radiating with unbridled confidence and conviction. Looking back on this astonishing year, Basquiat recalled “I made the best paintings ever” (Jean-Michel Basquiat cited in: Richard Farris Thompson, op. cit., p. 50). This feeling of bravura skill and assertion is nowhere more evident than in the present work.
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