Christie's, New York, 5 May 1993, Lot 172 (consigned by the above)
Private Collection, New York
Private Collection (acquired from the above in 2003)
Vienna, KunstHausWien; and Künzelsau, Museum Würth, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Gemälde und Arbeiten auf Papier, February 1999 - January 2002, p. 56, illustrated in colour (Vienna); and p. 59, illustrated in colour (Künzelsau)
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 3rd ed., Paris 2000, p. 127, illustrated in colour (Vol. I); and p. 140, no. 8, illustrated in colour (Vol. II)
Brimming with graffiti-like marks, Hannibal is the perfect encapsulation of the artist’s transition from street to studio. Whilst self-organized exhibitions such as the Lower Manhattan Drawing Show at the Mudd Club gave crucial exposure for Basquiat, his breakthrough participation in the show New York/New Wave at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center and success in the show Public Address at the Annina Nosei Gallery gave him the critical success that was to bring about a huge turning point in his career. Indeed, Nosei became Basquiat's primary dealer which led to a critically acclaimed solo show in 1982. Using Nosei's Prince Street gallery basement as his studio, Basquiat forged influential links with Bruno Bischofberger and Larry Gagosian. Subsequently his rise to stardom was astoundingly accelerated: exhibited alongside Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, and Cy Twombly he became the youngest artist to have ever participated in Documenta in Kassel, heralding 1982 as the definitive year in his sudden yet pervasive invasion of the art world. Looking back on this astonishing year, Basquiat recalled, "I made the best paintings ever" and perhaps nowhere does this manifest itself better than in the extraordinary surfaces and creative ingenuity of Hannibal (Jean-Michel Basquiat cited in: Cathleen McGuigan, ‘New Art, New Money', The New York Times, 10 February 1985, online).
Not only did 1982 bring about extraordinary critical success for Basquiat, it also saw the birth of one of his most iconic motifs: roughly hewn canvas supports. These pioneering stretchers were the brainchild of one of Basquiat’s first studio assistants, Stephen Torton. Basquiat had initially hired Torton to be a bouncer at one of his infamous loft parties but by the end of the night he offered him the job of building his stretchers. His instructions could not have been simpler: “Just use whatever materials are here” (Jean-Michel Basquiat cited in: Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, London 2008, p. 104). Torton set about crafting stretchers and frames out of a whole host of found materials such as carpet tacks, rope, canvas and wooden mouldings. So exceptional they were, that one of Basquiat’s most notorious critics, Rene Ricard, singled out the stretcher paintings as of particular importance: “For a while it looked as if the very early stuff was primo, but no longer. He’s finally figured out a way to make a stretcher… that is so consistent with the imagery… they do look like signs, but signs for a product modern civilisation has no use for” (Ibid., p. 105). Hannibal sits at the extreme end of this corpus of stretcher paintings; reveling in the crossbars of its over-extended poles. The construction evokes both a ceremonial banner carried to war and a makeshift commercial sign, repurposed and scrawled with unintelligible words, numbers, and currency signs. It proclaims the artist’s inauguration into art history and acts as an effective advertisement for his ensuing commercial success.
Rife with sporadic jagged lines that crash and collide across the jubilant ground, Hannibal seems utterly at war with itself and perfectly manifests Basquiat’s competitive spirit and relentless drive for self-improvement. Replete with semiotic games and duplicitous cultural signifiers, Hannibal is endlessly intriguing. The appearance of a golden star references the badge of a police officer, placed cannily next to a ‘captain’ label, wittily combines authority and celebrity. The central lexical focus of the word ‘Hannibal’ invites varied interpretations through its double inclusion. We are reminded of the fearsome Carthaginian military commander, generally considered one of the greatest warriors of history. Hannibal Barca’s relentless battling with Rome, The Punic Wars, are referenced towards the top of the canvas alongside an abbreviated reference to the Spanish Armada and ‘El Capitan’ – instantly we are transported to a playful cross-cultural hybrid of famed historic battles. Author Thomas Harris has also harnessed the savagery of the present work’s namesake in his creation of the iconic fictional cannibal Hannibal Lecter, who debuted in Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon released just a year prior to the creation of this work. Basquiat’s wide-ranging borrowing of cultural symbols – from the grandeur of history, to popular fiction and even to the street markings of the 'hobo code’ set out in Henry Dreyfuss’ Symbol Sourcebook – position him as a knowledgeable purveyor of history, playfully remixing and sampling narratives at his will.
Basquiat’s unparalleled confidence was noted at the time by gallerist Tony Shafrazi: "As he began to paint, and with his first exhibition at Annina Nosei, Jean-Michel Basquiat was already a young king. He knew he was the best and demanded serious attention and respect..." (Tony Shafrazi cited in: Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 3rd ed., Vol. II, Paris 2000, p. 50). Basquiat’s iconic three-pointed crown motif reigns over the present work, unmistakably declaring the young artist’s supremacy. This sense of branding harks back to the ‘SAMO’ graffiti tags that he and Al Diaz marked through the streets of Soho. The ephemeral charge that street art embodies is carried forward into Hannibal, where words and symbols overlap and efface each other. Akin to the contemporaneous musical innovation of the re-mix, Basquiat repeats, overrides and samples his own images with a rhythm that channels the energy of the burgeoning hip-hop music scene of his Brooklyn locale. As noted by Franklin Sirmans, such a work “takes apart and reassembles the work that came before it... it dismantles its historical precedents by showing mastery over their techniques and styles, and puts them to new uses, in which the new becomes the final product layered over the past" (Franklin Sirmans, ‘In the Cipher: Basquiat and Hip-Hop Culture’, in: Exh. Cat., New York, Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat, 2005, p. 92). A year after the creation of this piece Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released the breakthrough song The Message, that redefined hip-hop and as such this work siphons this raw energy of creative cultural change.
Basquiat’s use of the iconic skull motif in Hannibal is both formally and symbolically crucial. It vibrates with a hypnotic layering of contrasting electric tones, duplicating lines with an energy that conveys both ecstasy and angst. Immediately to the left three expressionistic lines of red, yellow, and green mark the colours of pan-African ideology channelling the sense of black pride that fuelled Basquiat’s oeuvre. Whilst the skull acutely references modernist abstraction and Picasso’s engagement with African art, it also engages with Basquiat’s own identity as a black subject seeking expression within a seemingly ‘white-washed’ art world. As surmised by cultural theorist Dick Hebidge "… in the reduction of line into its strongest, most primary inscriptions, in that peeling of the skin back to the bone, Basquiat did us all a service by uncovering (and recapitulating) the history of his own construction as a black American male" (Dick Hebidge, ‘Welcome to the Terrordome: Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Dark Side of Hybridity’, in: Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1993, p. 65). Rich with socio-historical referent and ripe with symbolic portent, Hannibal is Basquiat at his very finest.
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