Lot 36
  • 36

Jean-Michel Basquiat

2,500,000 - 3,500,000 GBP
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  • Jean-Michel Basquiat
  • Water-Worshipper
  • signed, titled and dated 1984 on the reverse
  • acrylic, oilstick, silkscreen and metal on panel
  • 209.6 by 274 by 10.2 cm.; 82 1/2 by 108 by 4in.


Mary Boone Gallery, New York

Galerie Beaubourg, Paris

Private Collection, France

Sale: Sotheby's, Paris, Art Contemporain, 7 December 2010, Lot 9

Acquired directly from the above by the present owner


New York, Mary Boone-Michael Werner Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1985

Paris, Galerie Beaubourg, FIAC, 1988

Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Peintures, Sculptures, Oeuvres sur Papier et Dessins, 1989, pp. 42-43, illustrated in colour

Marseille, Musée Cantini, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Une Rétrospective, 1992, p. 121, illustrated in colour

Tokyo, Mitsukoshi Museum; Marugame, MIMOCA, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1997, pp. 62-63, illustrated in colour

Milano, Fondazione La Triennale di Milano, The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show, 2007, p. 274, no. 138, illustrated in colour


Michel Enrici, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 1989, p. 85, illustrated in colour

Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. I, Paris 1996, pp. 198-99, illustrated in colour

Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. I, Paris 2000, pp. 192-193, illustrated in colour

Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. II, Paris 2000, p. 206, no. 3, illustrated in colour


Colour: The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate. Condition: This work is in very good condition. All surface irregularities are in keeping with the artist's working process. No restoration is apparent when examined under ultra-violet light.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

A work of commanding authority that exudes a visceral sensation of power and vitality, Water-Worshipper truly epitomises Basquiat’s commanding fluency in a unique painterly idiom: a re-interpretation of American abstraction through the lens of pop culture, autobiography, and cultural heritage. Evoking the artist’s tripartite ethnicity and multilingualism, Water-Worshipper is imbued with diverse allusions to Haitian mythology, African identity and American cultural history. Painted onto panel and propped up by slatted wooden planks, the proportions and sculptural dimension to this work extol a sense of monumentality, a physical presence matched by the weight of Basquiat’s choice of subject:  cultural oppression and the history of slavery, a theme that runs throughout Basquiat’s greater oeuvre.

Water-Worshipper is imbued with profound and multifaceted layers of potent symbolism which fuse elements of Basquiat’s diverse cultural heritage with historical references. The emblem on the right is a direct appropriation and transformation of the logo found on vintage packets of Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes. The heraldic lifebuoy usually encircling a white bearded sailor is here replaced with that of a black manacled slave who appears as though imprisoned against an ocean where two ships occupy the waters – undoubtedly a highly symbolic allusion to the slave trade. With his upraised arms, the poignant slave figure seems to be simultaneously railing against his fate whilst asserting his authority despite circumstances. Furthermore, the doll-like figure on the left – also with arms held aloft - appears reminiscent of the Kachina dolls of American Indians. With their arms upraised these two characters bespeak a global narrative of oppression, a dialogue that unites the mal-treatment of ethnic minorities under a single blazing sun. Basquiat enriches this narrative through a further metaphorical allusion to the traditional culture of his Haitian heritage: the figure on the right takes on double symbolic value in also representing the voodoo goddess of the waters, Yemendja, to whom a special cult was devoted. A fearful god, she presides over the waters striking fear into the hearts of sailors and fisherman alike. In African culture this goddess is known by the name of Mami Wata and is often represented, as in the present work, holding a snake.

Executed in 1984, this remarkable work bears witness to the very year Basquiat reached full artistic maturity at the age of just twenty-four. In the previous year alone Basquiat had shown his work in 17 group exhibitions, had 4 major solo exhibitions in America, Europe and Japan, and was the youngest artist ever to be included in the prestigious Whitney Biennial. The creative confidence that this success instilled resulted in a newfound clarity of purpose and execution. The highly assured utilisation of paint and the reduced yet profound artistic language employed within Water-Worshipper can arguably be seen as manifestations of these alterations in style. Reflected here in the powerfully orchestrated composition, Water-Worshipper significantly veers away from the frenetic cacophony of Basquiat’s earlier work towards a more discerning symbolic formula of distinct form and colour. Rather than depriving the composition of meaning, this act of reduction positively enriches the poetic capacity of Basquiat's aesthetic, imbuing his work with greater focus. In contrast to many earlier examples of Basquiat’s work, within Water Worshipper the entirety of the background is coated in a thickly textured layer of paint, leading to an intense richness of colour and imbuing the work with an overall sense of harmony and cohesion. The use of wooden boards at the base of the present work reflects the influence of Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines, in which quotidian found objects play a role of key significance in composing the entirety of the work. Dieter Buchhart examines the similarities between Basquiat’s oeuvre and that of Rauschenberg: “Like Rauschenberg, everyday objects were no longer transformed into two-dimensional pictorial space and projected into a different order, but transposed simply as they were, retaining their original form, identity, and three-dimensional presence” (Dieter Buchhart in Exhibition Catalogue, Basel, Foundation Beyeler, Basquiat, 2010, p. XV).

Articulated with a gestural and chromatic power to rival the goliaths of Abstract Expressionism and infused with an appropriation of every-day materials and consumer-iconography synonymous with Pop art, Water-Worshipper masterfully synthesises the history of subjugation at stake within Basquiat’s own inheritance alongside the cultural oppression that comprises a facet of America’s wider collective consciousness. In an interview with the French publication Liberation in 1986, Basquiat alluded to the concept of ‘cultural memory,’ declaring that: “I have never been to Africa. I am an artist who has been influenced by the environment of New York. But I possess a cultural memory. I don’t need to search [for it], it exists” (Jean-Michel Basquiat in conversation with Démosthènes Davvetas in: Libération, 17 June 1986, n.p.).