PROPERTY OF A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE COLLECTOR
Sale: Phillips de Pury & Company, New York, Contemporary Art (Part I), 11 November 2004, Lot 26
Van de Weghe Fine Art, New York
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2009
Basquiat’s transition from graffiti artist on the streets of downtown New York to star of the 80s art scene is as legendary as the artist himself. Raised in a middle-class family in Brooklyn, the young Basquiat readily felt the effects of racial segregation in art history: “I realised that I didn't see many paintings with black people in them” and from that moment on sought to rectify art history’s glaring omission (Jean-Michel Basquiat quoted in: Cathleen McGuigan, ‘New Art, New Money', The New York Times, 10 February 1985, online resource). 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 Jim Crow laws in the South. Turning his paintbrush from the traditionally white sport of baseball to that of boxing, famous black boxers such as Cassius Clay, Jack Johnson and Joe Lewis began to spring up in his paintings and were closely followed by black athletes and a whole host of black jazz musicians. In each painting, the black hero is canonised with jubilant crowns and halos encircling their mask-like faces. As explicated by 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: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1993, p. 50).
In Untitled (The Black Athlete) Basquiat masterfully illustrates an intricate representation of black identity through the heroic stance of the athlete. The athlete is depicted with both of his hands thrust jubilantly in the air, a gesture that is both evocative of the stance of a victorious boxer and also a doubling of the raised black-gloved fist of the Black Power Salute. This defiant motion was first exhibited in the field of sport by black American athletes Juan Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. Carlos had initially encouraged a boycott of the 1968 Games as a demonstration against the global prevalence of racial oppression, calling for the withdrawal of apartheid states, South Africa and Rhodesia, from the games as well as reinstating Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight boxing title. In the aftermath of the boycott’s failure Carlos and Smith decided to participate in the games but would stage a protest should they win a medal. As a result, when both athletes rose to the winner’s podiums following the 200 metre race, they each raised their right, black-gloved fist solidly into the air for the entirety of the American national anthem. The black glove that proudly adorns the raised right fist of the figure in the present work and the black tracksuit that clothes its torso are almost certainly a nod to this utterly ground-breaking moment in history.
Undoubtedly one of the most psychologically searing and powerful examples of the artist's full-length male figures, Untitled (The Black Athlete) typifies Basquiat's urgently daring presentation of the majestically isolated human form and his unimpeachable grasp of art history. In this respect it advances an esteemed tradition that encompasses Willem de Kooning's corporeally introverted series of Women, and the existential isolation of Bacon's full-length male figures of the 1960s and 70s. The figure’s silvery face, mask-like in its construction, reveals jet black hollowed out eyes and a clenched jaw, hinting at the skulled-face of the Haitian Voodoo priest Baron Samedi. Undeniably inspired by the Cubism of his great hero Picasso, the figure also looks back to the older master’s own sources in primitive African art, in itself a reflection of Basquiat's own cultural heritage.
Executed with convulsive, paroxysmal marks that reflect the spontaneity of graffiti, Untitled (The Black Athlete) 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, Kassel, alongside Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol. Utterly demonstrative of this extraordinarily fertile moment, Untitled (The Black Athlete) 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" and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the tantalising surfaces and powerful imagery of Untitled (The Black Athlete) (Ibid.).
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