Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles
Stéphane Janssen, Phoenix, Arizona
Acquired by the present owner from the above
In Red Man One, from 1982, Jean-Michel Basquiat's aesthetic presence and vision are compellingly depicted with forceful expression and embellished with a palette of vibrant colors. The monumentality of this work engages the artist's signature frenetic style. Here, the grand bravado of the artist is captured at the height of his brief career; a career that drew from a wealth of cultural influences. Basquiat's oeuvre deftly references his diverse sources from his youth, television, anatomy, graffiti, black history, racism and death to respond to the ponderous weight of social reality with a barrage of potent imagery. The rawness and violence of the artist's approach to painting also emerged from the work of the artists Basquiat most admired; most notably Robert Rauschenberg and his Combines which paved the way for Basquiat's own organic style of symbolic expression.
The figure in Red Man One overwhelms the entire picture plane, a compositional motif used often by the artist. More than likely, this figure is a self-portrait of the artist, confronting the viewer with its penetrating gaze and aggressive stance. The composition neatly encapsulates his primary concern with the human figure as well as revealing a direct engagement with his autobiographical struggle for identity, often given voice through his entirely unique iconography. Several of the recurring symbols from Basquiat's career appear in the present work – his trademark crown, raw childlike graffiti, skull-like features, ring of thorns around the head, and an articulated skeletal form derived from the artist's interest in Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical drawings.
The intense palette of Red Man One evokes African traditions of ornamentation. The human head, in various manifestations is arguably the most iconic subject matter for Basquiat, and it is particularly striking and deftly executed here. The large almond eyes, clenched teeth, flat nose and arched eyebrows are delineated with a raw energy that references primitive tribal masks. By identifying himself with his distant African roots, Basquiat was able to find a new, fresh and dignified image of the African American male as opposed to urban stereotypes of his youth. Basquiat was not only creating art and iconography about his African heritage but was also creating works specifically intended for it.
Basquiat's unique brand of intellectualized 'primitivism' was informed by a full spectrum of art historical and cultural sources. The present work can be seen as a synthesis of Basquiat's interest in a diverse range of artists from Pablo Picasso to Jackson Pollock, ancient to modern graffiti art, Dubuffet and Robert Rauschenberg. There is a raw power and defiance of traditional aesthetic norms in these artists' works that appealed to Basquiat. Red Man One is painted on a canvas that is hand stretched onto a rudimentary stretcher most likely hand made by the artist from found materials. The missing upper right corner of the rectangular composition and the stretcher bar extending beyond the painting in the lower left add a sculptural element to this work. Here Basquiat also painted over paper sheets collaged onto the canvas, creating a dense layered surface that mirrors the visual layers of rich subject matter. Collage would become a major component of the artist's works in the following years. Richard Marshall notes, "Basquiat was attempting to achieve a rough and casual appearance in defiance to the pristine, expensive canvases and stretchers that many of his colleagues were using at the time." ("Jean-Michel Basquiat: Speaking in Tongues" in Exh. Cat., Lugano, Museo d'Arte Moderna, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2005, p. 56)
Reminiscent of Rauschenberg's combine paintings, Basquiat's paintings are analogues of art and life as experienced by a most innovative artist. Characterized by collage, gestural paint and constructive elements, these hybrid works are intimate, personal and authentic. Both artists' work vibrates with an intellectual vigor that opens our eyes to the chaotic beauty of the lives we live. The present work is a truly outstanding example of Basquiat's terse aesthetic, throbbing with a network of impulses that informs his extraordinary means of expression. Basquiat's life and art typify the extremes of the early 1980s in New York. His legacy continues to this very day – the potent exuberance of Red Man One as challenging today as it was in 1982.
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