Lot 29
  • 29

Jean-Michel Basquiat

3,800,000 - 4,800,000 GBP
4,338,500 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Jean-Michel Basquiat
  • Tenor
  • signed, titled and dated 1985 on the reverse
  • acrylic, oilstick and paper collage on canvas
  • 254 by 289.5cm.; 100 by 114in.


Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich

Acquired directly from the above by the present owner


London, Serpentine Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1996

Basel, Fondation Beyeler; Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Basquiat, 2010-11, pp. 168-69, no. 159, illustrated in colour


Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, (and travelling), Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1993-94, p. 199, illustrated in colour

Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. II, Paris 1996, p. 140, no. 5, illustrated in colour

Exhibition Catalogue, Malaga, Junte de Andalucia, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1996, pp. 78-79, illustrated in colour

Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. II, Paris 2000, p. 234, no. 5, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

Composed of an impressively executed combination of paper collage and bold painterly gestures, Tenor masterfully distils the quintessence of the socio-cultural concerns and vibrant stylistic techniques that characterised Jean-Michel Basquiat’s works of the mid-1980s. Four disembodied bird heads hover in an almost circular arrangement around the central form of a monstrously oversized rodent, whilst a skeletal black figure - accompanied by a spider floating eerily alongside - dominates the right hand side of the composition, seemingly exercising dominion over the surrounding creatures. The outstretched arm and assertive position of the primary figure invites associations with the concept of the powerful warrior persona which recurs within several of Basquiat’s major early works, such as Warrior (1982), whilst further inviting intriguing connotations of self-portraiture: an alter-ego provided by Basquiat himself.  The presence of animals – a relatively unusual occurrence within Basquiat’s work compared to the prevalence of figural imagery – recalls the style and ideas contained within a medieval Bestiary: a compendium of animal lore and symbolism. The central positioning of the oversized rodent at the heart of the composition provides a thoroughly modern take on historical symbolism, perhaps referencing the prevalence of rats within the bustling conurbation of New York, whilst the crows arguably allude to the presence of scavengers within the city. The pithy choice of title, Tenor, arguably references Basquiat’s fascination with Jazz musicianship, an interest which connects to the frequent eulogisation and celebration of illustrious black figures within his work.

At the lower right corner a smaller, mask-like head perches atop the merest suggestion of a corporeal body, teeth bared threateningly in an expression reminiscent of that of a tribal mask: further, powerfully expressive, heads recur within examples of the Xerox reproductions that form the background of Tenor. Marc Mayer analyses the effect of these mysterious, often disquieting, illustrations of heads that are one of the most significant motifs within Basquiat’s painting: “There are his emaciated, scarified, and almost extra-terrestrial griots – a term for West African bards. Chilling fetishes, they exploit an American fantasy of an unrecorded ur-Africa of fear and sorcery” (Marc Mayer, ‘Basquiat in History’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat, 2005, p. 45). Powerfully wrought, the mask-like faces depicted within Tenor – both the visages existing on the surface and those within the Xerox copies - succeed in conveying a variety of intense emotions despite their ostensible simplicity of line and detail.

Tenor is a major work within the context of a series of paintings Basquiat began working on in the mid-1980s, in which the artist employed Xerox images of a selection of his earlier works to adorn the background of the canvas. The present work ranks alongside such important works of this period as Glenn (1984) in its compositionally striking arrangement of painted motifs and collage: the selection of Xerox images within both works is closely complementary, with Basquiat choosing identical images in several cases. Richard Marshall argues that Basquiat’s appropriation of the potentials of collage and other closely connected techniques such as silkscreen can be linked to the impact of the works of Andy Warhol (with whom Basquiat was collaborating in the mid-1980s) and Robert Rauschenberg: “Rather than directly influencing him… Warhol and Rauschenberg, like other artists that Basquiat looked to, gave him a kind of art historical permission for his own endeavours” (Richard Marshall, ‘Repelling Ghosts’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Jean-Michel Basquiat, p. 21). Tenor reveals Basquiat’s highly skilful exploitation of the extensive potential of the innovative Xerox technique to create a work of striking compositional resolution and astonishingly complex detail. The result is an effective summation of many of the key motifs which had appeared within earlier paintings, as well as the addition of yet another intriguing layer to Basquiat’s already multi-faceted levels of symbolism.

Tenor was created at a moment when Basquiat had reached an absolute pinnacle of celebrity and recognition, following his rapid rise to artistic prominence since 1981 when his works were first exhibited in public. Represented in 1985 by two of the leading gallery owners of the day, Bruno Bischofberger and Mary Boone, Basquiat’s paintings attracted almost hysterical acclaim when exhibited, and seemed to epitomise the cultural zeitgeist of 1980s New York, a city unabashedly dominated by conspicuous consumption. Basquiat’s dominance and conquest of the New York art world was reinforced by his presence on the cover of The New York Times Magazine on February 10 1985, accompanied by an effusive article written by Cathleen McGuigan. McGuigan declared: “The extent of Basquiat’s success would no doubt be impossible for an artist of lesser gifts. Not only does he possess a bold sense of colour and composition, but… he maintains a fine balance between seemingly contradictory forces: control and spontaneity, menace and wit…” (Cathleen McGuigan, quoted in ibid., p. 246). McGuigan’s reference to ‘menace and wit’ appears particularly apposite in the case of Tenor, in which the seemingly threatening nature of the facial expressions and figural attitudes is brilliantly countermanded by the element of humour conveyed by the floating bird’s heads and the vastly oversized mouse. In its brilliantly energetic and spirited combination of painterly techniques and Xerox, as well as the extraordinary vibrancy and dynamism of its composition, Tenor deserves to be considered an important and significant example of Basquiat’s mid-career production.