Contemporary Art

The Multitude of Meanings in Jean-Michel Basquiat's 'Leverage'

By Halina Loft

W hat does “leverage” mean to you? Is the word chiefly mechanical, bringing to mind a system of levers designed to lift and pull – maybe you think of economics, and the balance of debt to equity? Or, a third option: leverage signified as power. In his 1985 work Leverage, Jean-Michel Basquiat conducts a close examination of the word, considering it in the context of both art history and his own present: 1980s downtown New York, a landscape rife with socio-political injustice and systemic inequality.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leverage, 1985. Estimate $800,000 – 120,000.

The graphite, acrylic and paper collage was executed at the midpoint of Basquiat's magnific, all-too-short career; at the time of the work's completion, the artist was just 25 years old. In Leverage, Basquiat interweaves symbols and scrawlings with French, Spanish and English words. Each icon contains its own multitude of signifiers: the copyright symbols gesture sarcastically to ideas of cultural ownership; the drawing of a satellite brings to mind the space race, exploration and colonization; and the word-play connotes New York City's oft-fraught clash of cultures.

Two icons cut poignantly through the noise, demanding the viewer's gaze: the jet-black head and the crowning, mask-like bull. The head is a recurring motif in Basquiat's oeuvre, thought to symbolize the boundary between the exterior human presence and the interior, hidden psyche. The bull is another great hallmark of Basquiat's visual language, self-consciously drawing a dialogue between the African masks that inspired Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse to explore so-called Primitivism. In Leverage, Basquiat reclaims the icon of the mask as his own. As Artforum contributing editor Thomas McEvilley noted in the magazine's November 1992 edition:

"[The] primitivism of [Basquiat's] work was a canny reversal of tactics from the white art tradition, a reversal that resonates with assertions, ironies, and claims."
Thomas McEvilley, "Royal Slumming: Jean-Michel Basquiat Here Below", 'Artforum', November 1992. Print.

By speaking in the language of the art historical canon, Basquiat critiques our preconceived notions of cultural ownership and power. The result is a searing provocation which demands the viewer to consider the legacy of racial and economic injustices in contemporary society.

Bidding for Leverage will take place on 26 September at 2:00 PM EDT in New York, during Sotheby's Contemporary Curated auction. Register to bid now, and view the other works included in the sale.

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