A s collectors, dealers and artists descend on Art Basel – a showcase of the latest works, often straight from the studio – Fondation Beyeler, the serene art institution situated on the poppy-field fringes of the Swiss city, is staging an exhibition some 40 years in the making.
In May 1982, Jean-Michel Basquiat arrived in Modena in northern Italy with an unusual commission from gallerist Emilio Mazzoli: to hole up in a warehouse in the city’s industrial hinterlands and complete a series of works within a week. The following week there would be a gala exhibition of the works. At the time, the 21-year-old New Yorker was enjoying his first taste of art world celebrity – with solo shows at the Annina Nosei Gallery in New York and with Larry Gagosian in Los Angeles – and now here he was in Italy, once again the centre of attention. The result of his Modena adventure was an articulate series of eight monumental masterpieces, executed in acrylic, spray paint and oil stick, and a show that never took place.
That is, until now.
Talking to me in the tranquil garden of Fondation Beyeler, its director Sam Keller explains how the Modena project collapsed in 1982 – an event that evidently distressed the artist – and has been revived with the foundation’s new exhibition Basquiat: The Modena Paintings, open now through 27 August. “I think Basquiat enjoyed going to Modena,” says Keller. “Mazzoli is a really nice guy. He showed us Polaroids and photographs of them eating and drinking, partying together. Basquiat wanted to eat well and go and see museums. I think the frustration was that the exhibition didn’t happen.” Keller explains that there were disagreements between Mazzoli and Annina Nosei, the artist’s New York dealer, about the proceeds and who would get credit for the project. Basquiat was “caught between them.” The clash scuppered the show.
In a triumph of detective work, Keller and his team identified which works were created during that week in Modena and where the paintings were today. “They are all signed ‘Basquiat Modena’ but only a few on the front, and as you know many works are covered on the back,” says Keller. The works were dotted around the world, sitting in various private collections in the United States, Europe and Asia. “It was like putting a puzzle together. It felt like an interesting challenge to bring them together, to get the chance to do a show that tragically never happened.”
“It felt like an interesting challenge … to do a show that tragically never happened.”
At the warehouse in Modena, Basquiat made use of prestretched and primed large-format canvases that had been created for the Italian painter Mario Schifano. Their wall-like format – approximately two and half by four meters in size – perfectly suited Basquiat, an artist who had cut his teeth on the expansive sidewalks and facades of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The Modena series delivers a fusion of American and Italian motifs – a Roman torso of Venus, a New York fire hydrant – along with whimsical, spiritual, universal and existential elements. There are angels, devils and animals; haloes, fruit and crowns of thorns. With Basquiat, Keller states, “it’s almost always different things mixed in a unique way.” For instance, in one of the Modena works, titled The Guilt of Gold Teeth, there is a figure of a man in a top hat, possibly a reference to the voodoo culture of Basquiat’s Haitian heritage or, alternatively, the style of hat worn by Mazzoli. Two of the paintings feature cows. “There was a field with cows next to the hotel where Basquiat was staying,” explains Keller. But the artist was also a great admirer of Dubuffet’s celebrated cow paintings. Life and art were fused together in paint.
The Modena paintings are focused: there are fewer words, scribbles and signs present than in many of Basquiat’s later works. They are “much more painterly,” says Keller, adding that their expressive colorful backgrounds are direct references to Abstract Expressionism. The other constant is a dominant central figure. In five of the paintings an ominous black skeletal figure lurches out towards the viewer, arms raised in an ambiguous manner, a sign perhaps of victory and celebration, or surrender and despair.
Today, says Keller, Basquiat’s masterpieces “go into the best collections in the world, collections that have Van Goghs and Picassos.” Part of the artist’s enduring appeal lies in his intense and prescient collaging of culture. Basquiat’s hunger for knowledge was insatiable – high and low art, music, literature, society, fashion, history, anatomy, sport – interests that all fed into his compositions. “He was almost like a pre-internet,” Keller says. “Surfing and putting science, numbers, images, everything together. Making connections between things that didn’t make sense for people at the time.”
Fondation Beyeler was created in Riehen by the Swiss gallerist Ernst Beyeler and his wife Hildy in 1997, the culmination of five decades spent dealing in art and collecting the best examples from the 20th century. This is not the first time Beyeler has hosted Basquiat. In 1983, Expressive Painting after Picasso, a selling show at his commercial gallery included four works by Basquiat, alongside paintings by Jean Dubuffet and Francis Bacon. More recently, in 2010, Fondation Beyeler staged the first major Basquiat retrospective in Europe. For the museum, the Modena paintings were a natural third act.
Basquiat had mixed feelings about his Italian sojourn. At the end of the week, Mazzoli paid him for the works, which went on to disappear into various separate collections, and the painter returned to New York. In an interview given years to the New York Times, he called the warehouse a “sick factory.”
Keller is convinced that this rhetoric was triggered by the demise of the show rather than the experience of creating the works. Seeing the Modena pictures all together, you can tell they were painted simultaneously, with verve, even joy. The peach tone in one reappears in another, sky blue repeats across several. “You can just see him jumping from one to another,” says Keller. In the context of the tranquil galleries of Fondation Beyeler – with its vast glass windows and lily-pad pond – the vitality of the pictures is only further amplified.
This late-in-the-day reunion serves them well, perhaps even better a Modena exhibition would have in 1982. Keller acknowledges that reunited for the first time in four decades here in the peaceful setting of the Swiss countryside, Basquiat’s paintings appear “fresh, wild. They are like energy bombs.”
Banner: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Profit 1, 1982. Acrylic, oil stick, marker and spray paint on canvas, 220 x 400 cm. Private Collection, Switzerland © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Robert Bayer