Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg
Sale: Christie's, London, Contemporary Art, 24 June 1993, Lot 103
Private Collection, New York
Sale: Sotheby's, New York, Contemporary Art, 19 November 1997, Lot 55
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Replete with the iconography, colourism and street art vivacity synonymous with Basquiat's immortal oeuvre, Saxaphone reveals the artist at the height of his painterly powers. Firmly established at twenty-six as the brightest light of Neo-Expressionism, Saxaphone crucially evinces the artist's discovery of fresh symbolism and thematic content via an astounding intermingling of graffiti, abstract expressionist and popular imagery. Remarkably titled, a detail both unique within Basquiat's oeuvre yet utterly characteristic for its playful misspelling, Saxaphone at once celebrates the artist's passion for jazz and visualises Basquiat's personal meditations on the cycles of fame and fortune.
Extensively exhibited at the Sprengel Museum, Hannover as a long-term loan, Saxaphone stands among Basquiat's most iconic works, including Charles the First (1982) and Horn Players (1983), which rejoice in "the innovative power of black male jazz musicians, whom he reveres as creative father figures" (Bell Hooks, 'Altars of Sacrifice: Re-membering Basquiat' in: Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, New York 1994, p. 35). Saxaphone immortalises Basquiat's veneration of legendary jazz saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker, who is pictographically present via a tenor saxophone and a hand, which Basquiat regarded as the mystical locus of Parker's genius. Improvising and adapting diverse musical traditions, Parker emblamatised in music the electric hybridity that Basquiat achieved in paint. Emerging from within the South Bronx's Hip-Hop culture, Basquiat's own Haitian and Puerto Rican descent echoed the vibrancy of New York's Afro-Hispanic scene, whose cosmopolitanism provided a template for the integration of street art, pop culture, abstract- and neo-expressionism. The centrality of creolisation for Basquiat is evident in his fixation on the copyright symbol: more than a critique of art history's obsession with authorship and commercial success, Basquiat acknowledged the danger that proprietary claims posed to artists hunting the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), which would necessarily innovate and improve upon older models. With the mordant wit of a street artist, Basquiat then enacted a kind of visual syncopation, manically multiplying the symbol he disliked while crossing out words he most revered: "I cross out words so you will see them more - the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them" (the artist quoted in: Eric Fretz, Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography, Santa Barbara 2010, p. 102).
Possessed of an unimpeachable grasp on art history, Basquiat's naive style brilliantly responded to the cool minimalism that permeated Manhattan galleries in the early 1980s. Robert Farris Thompson describes Basquiat's talent thus: "Basquiat himself did not parody Abstract Expressionism, as Pop Masters sometimes did. As he fused his sources, his mood was more complex: humour, play, mastery, and stylistic companionship. He brought into being first-generation (Kline) and second-generation (Twombly) Abstract Expressionist citations and mixed them up amiably with cartoon, graffitero, and other styles" (Robert Farris Thompson, 'Royalty, Heroism, and the Streets: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat' in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992, p. 36). In Saxaphone, Basquiat's colouristic talent shines as saturated swathes of imperial purple sit elegantly against gold and yellow - a colour combination reserved in ancient Rome for the Emperor - accented by patches of deep blue and green applied in a manner rivalling Franz Kline. His pleasure in the textural possibilities of paint manifests alternating areas of impasto alongside drippy, watery passages that harness gravity and force the single, bold paint stroke into spawning a multiplicity of falling vertical lines. Ostensibly a graphic artist who compulsively filled space with words and forms jockeying rhythmically for the viewer's attention, Basquiat maintained a rigorous painterliness and unrelenting concern for the physical impact of his work. Executed in bodily scale, Saxaphone fills the visual plane, absorbing one's eye in the allusively narrative arrangement of representational, abstract and linguistic forms. Undeniably indebted to Cy Twombly in this respect, Basquiat carries forth the legacy of pursuing erudite and painterly content, executed with the refreshing authenticity of the drawn or graffitied line.
Peter Schjeldahl once described Basquiat's oeuvre as a "romance of recondite erudition," observing: "his paintings bristle with antic self-instruction in history, anatomy, mythology, and education itself" (Peter Schjeldahl, 'Jean-Michel Basquiat' in: Let's see: writings on art from the New Yorker, New York 2008, p.214). A voracious reader, Basquiat's ideographic style reflects a thirst for knowledge that is epitomised in Saxaphone by remarkably specific reference to astronomy. The words "ANDROMEDA" and "PEGASUS" name constellations deriving from the Greek pantheon, while "M31", "M32" and "TRIANGULUM" denote three modern galaxies. "LIGHT CURVE" is a formula that describes the volume of light produced by a celestial object over time, just as "ZENITH: OBSERVERS/ OBSERVATION PT" alludes to the principle that zeniths occur in relation to an observer. Saxaphone thus inaugurates Basquiat's mature push to extend his intellectual sphere of reference. From 1986 until his death in 1988, his opus retains its core signs, visible in Saxaphone: the basketball, the copyright sign, the SAMO tag of an "S" inside a house and the anonymous electrified protagonist, yet it also incorporates fresh material bespeaking a process of self-reflection and discovery.
Recalling that in 1986 Basquiat's meteoric ascent had reached an absolute zenith of renown, and that at twenty-six he remained resolutely addicted to opiates, failing to complete a rehabilitation program that year, one wonders if Saxaphone does not bear witness to Basquiat contemplating the unknown arc of his own life and career. Affined with Charlie Parker, who died at thirty-four, by virtue of addiction and artistic genius alike, Basquiat appears to contextualise possible life paths within the cyclical language of astronomy. Perhaps one's zenith is an ultimate and final goal; the phrase "MARMAROSA", invoking famed jazz pianist Michael "Dodo" Marmarosa, articulates an alternative path. Discharged from military service in the 'fifties following mental illness, he retired and disappeared quietly into old age. As father figures, Basquiat undoubtedly sought to understand his own grappling with fame and mortality through the lens of their experiences. Saxaphone weighs this evidence and undeniably affirms Basquiat's commitment to embodying at once Rimbaud's poète maudite and a contemporary global art phenomenon, irrespective of the cost.
Distinguished by its curious shape and radiant hue, a single line of bright yellow paint undulates across the canvas, linking Charlie Parker's disembodied hand with the edge of the image. Like a band of celestial radiation, or Ariadne's golden thread showing Theseus a path through the Minotaur's labyrinth, this luminous line weaves throughout the canvas, uniting the disparate elements of Basquiat's life and symbolic repertoire into a single constellation under the banner of Saxaphone.
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