“I don’t think about art while I work. I try to think about life.”
J ean-Michel Basquiat’s meteoric rise to fame in the early 1980s is nothing short of extraordinary. The American artist is revered as one of greatest artists of the late 20th century, with an auction record of US$110.5 million established at Sotheby’s New York in 2017. Today’s auction highs and landmark museum retrospectives – most recently, Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music slated to open in October at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts – are a world away from his days tagging “SAMO”, derived from the phrase “same old shit”, on the streets of Manhattan as a precociously talented teen. Basquiat received the first public showing of his paintings in 1981, exhibiting alongside art world heavyweights Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, and others in New York/New Wave at PS1 in Long Island, an exhibition which would further propel him into the spotlight. His rapid rise saw him become the youngest artist to exhibit at documenta (aged 21) and the Whitney Biennial (aged 22), with this success consolidated by the support of Warhol who became his mentor, friend and collaborator.
Emblem, 1984, a highlight of Sotheby’s Hong Kong contemporary sales this autumn, was created at the pinnacle of his career, with Basquiat having already cemented his place as an acknowledged artistic prodigy. Alive with colour, gesture, and texture, it shows the artist at his most confident. Spanning almost two and half metres, the composition brings together many of the artist’s signature themes and motifs: the human head, masks, the powerful use of language, alongside elements drawn from Western and Caribbean-African artistic traditions.
The head in Emblem, with bared teeth and flickering red eyes, is an iteration of the tribal mask motif oft seen in Basquiat’s output. It recontextualises the Western Modernist obsession with African sculpture as seen throughout the work of Picasso, an artist whom Basquiat greatly admired. We are reminded here of the African mask imagery in paintings such as Picasso’s seminal 1907 work, Les Demoiselles d’Avgingon. This striking bust sits atop what appear to be an elephant or mammoth; cartoonishly executed with curly trunks and a little hat. The trunk finds a visual echo in a phallic form that it confronts across the canvas.
At the centre of the composition, we find Basquiat’s idiosyncratic capitalised oil stick scrawl, “SCALO MERCI”, a reverberation of his pithy slogan “SAMO”, once sprayed onto the sides of New York subway trains. “SCALO MERCI” is Italian for “Freight Yard”, something he may have picked up passing through train stations in Italy when he exhibited in Modena, at Galleria d’Arte Emilio Mazzoli in 1981 and at the Galleria Civic del Commune in 1982. Born to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat was fluent in French, Spanish, and English, a polyglot who took delight in playing with language and the cryptic way it can resonate with the pictorial.
“Basquiat’s canvases are aesthetic dropcloths that catch the leaks from a whirring mind. He vacuums up cultural fall-out and spits it out on the stretched canvas, disturbingly transformed.”
Emblem typifies the artistic confidence that Basquiat gained during a career cut tragically short by a drug overdose when he was aged just 27. In this work, the frenetic, chaotic energy associated with his earlier work is deployed in a more painterly, rarefied manner, with Basquiat relishing the opportunity to encounter the titans of 20th century art history on his own bombastic terms.
A further striking and rare aspect of Emblem is the revelatory discovery of one of Basquiat’s signature skulls beneath the white surface paint. Examination with a UV light has revealed the skull and other imagery by the artist, uncovering a previously unknown work.