Acquired by the present owner in the year of its execution, this painting has remained in the same illustrious private collection - indeed, the same collection that was the privileged first owner of the artist’s 1982 masterpiece Dustheads - for nearly thirty-five years. Moreover, as evidenced by its prominent illustration on the front page of Rene Ricard’s seminal 1981 essay "The Radiant Child," which thrust Basquiat into the public consciousness and established his place at the forefront of aesthetic innovation in the contemporary art landscape of the 1980s, World Crown is of prime significance to the earliest moments of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s momentous career.
Governing the composition and commanding our full attention are two raw, violent figures engaged in fierce physical conflict. The genius result of a collection of rapid bursts from Basquiat’s spray-paint can further articulated by the painterly bravura reminiscent of his august Abstract Expressionist forebears, the forms of these two adversaries float against a ground of dazzling golden yellow. Teeth bared in unabashed antagonism and fists raised in active animosity, these two warrior kings battle for pictorial primacy and solidify their position within the artist’s pantheon of legendary portrayals of fighters such as Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jersey Joe Walcott, Jack Johnson, and of course Muhammad Ali, formerly Cassius Clay. At once confrontational and immediate, the all-consuming energized anxiety and apparently speedy execution of the present work hints at the behavior of someone used to working on the move. Forged by an artist at the very incipit of his mature career, the style and iconography is simply astounding in its authorial assurance and charisma, mediating a critical passage between imagistic cacophony and compositional economy. This is painting unrestrained by convention and constitutes the crystallized eulogy to a young and brilliant spirit at the moment that he launched his groundbreaking practice onto the New York art world.
Muhammad Ali, who famously coined his own moniker as “The Greatest” at the age of twenty-two when he became world heavyweight champion for the first time following his stunning knockout of Sonny Liston in 1964, held special inspiration for Basquiat. His legendary rhetoric and championing of causes outside of the ring - specifically racial equality, peace, tolerance, and justice - proved a clarion call to the African American diaspora during the Civil Rights era and the struggle for racial equality. When he refused to be drafted for military service in Vietnam, publicly stating that “no Vietcong ever called me nigger,” he was stripped of his boxing titles and was banned from boxing professionally during the normally prime years between ages 25 to 29. Nevertheless, he later regained the world heavyweight title three times, the only man ever to do so, and was involved in the most historic boxing matches of all time, notably “The Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman held in Zaire in 1974 and “The Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier in the Philippines in 1975, both of which stand as sensational and historic victories for Ali. On occasion, he also theatrically took to wearing a crown, such as before his fight against Henry Cooper in London in 1963, and for the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1969.
The scene depicted in World Crown is rife with the voracious spirit and indelible intensity for which Muhammad Ali was so widely celebrated. It is thus easily read as a fitting homage to “The Greatest” and his status as ultimate icon and muse for this most groundbreaking of Contemporary artists, a champion in his own right. Even the piercing eyes and brandished teeth of the figure on the right are reminiscent of Ali’s countenance; this combatant confronts the viewer with penetrating insistence and a fierce gladiatorial stance. Crudely delineated with a stark and prostrated fixity, the sparring warriors of the present work emerge with the intensity and bellicose energy of a contemporary boxer. Basquiat often painted himself as a participant in his work and World Crown shares many of the traits found in works openly designated as self-portraits, particularly the proliferation of the artist’s identifying three-pointed crown, here shown twice. In Radiant Child, and as strongly illustrated by the accompanying reproduction of this painting, Rene Ricard drew pointed attention to this motif and its resonance for Basquiat, writing that "the crown sits securely on the head of Jean-Michel's repertory so that it is of no importance where he got it bought it stole it; it's his. He won that crown." (Rene Ricard, "Radiant Child," Artforum, December 1981, p. 37) Rendered in the jet-black of Basquiat’s oilstick, confronting an adversary depicted in a blush tone uncharacteristic of the artist’s oeuvre, the dominant figure in World Crown becomes a physical embodiment of Basquiat’s formative concerns of race, identity, and mortality. Here Basquiat’s figure acts at once as self-representation and as an emblematic stand-in for the struggles of the black man in a white dominated society. Renowned Basquiat critic and historian Fred Hoffman has posited that the figure Basquiat battles in World Crown may reference the artist’s friend and contemporary Keith Haring, further emphasizing this painting’s deep biographical and personal import. Indeed, the composition and figural delineation recalls a work on paper in the Schorr Family Collection also commonly regarded as a portrait of Jean-Michel fighting Haring. In his observations of art history, Basquiat recalled rarely, if ever, seeing any depictions of black people in paintings. It is no surprise then, as a black artist functioning in a white dominated art world, that he championed black figures from throughout history, and honed a voice for inequality as well as a creative vision that served as a means of self-discovery.
The wildly fashioned background predominated by a near-Fauvist yellow hue laid down with intense, gestural brushwork, shows Basquiat's acute awareness of his position in art history and evokes the compositions of Abstract Expressionists such as Philip Guston, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning. There is no perspectival discipline or spatial recession to the composition; rather it is focused on surface, color, and expressiveness. Meshing figure and ground together, oilstick marks and swathes of paint transmute the implosion of form into pure energy. The artist has etched the oilstick into the background, transferring his energy into depicting the aggressive stance and personality of his warrior-boxers. There is no calm moment within the painting - it is pure nervous energy with the background an extension of the psyche of the figures and by implication the artist himself. It was with raw spontaneity that Basquiat captured in World Crown a freshly urban and wholly unique brand of intellectualized 'primitivism' which was informed by a full spectrum of art historical and cultural sources from Leonardo da Vinci, graffiti art (both modern and ancient), Cy Twombly, Jean Dubuffet, Pablo Picasso, and the gritty urban environment of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan.
Via myriad allusions to his childhood and ethnic inheritance passed through the prism of art history, Basquiat masterfully scrutinized the aesthetic language of Modernism from a unique cultural vantage point. Fused with the graffiti style which first brought him the attention of the New York art establishment, Basquiat's inimitable symbolism is enmeshed in a complex matrix of signifiers steeped in indigenous and ancient artistic traditions of African tribal art and channeled through the influence of Picasso, Twombly, and the Abstract Expressionist masters. Self-taught and formatively nourished by countless childhood visits to the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, the archaeological excavation of Basquiat's multifaceted visual lexicon reveals a voluminous integration of art history's wider topography. Distinctly evocative of his encyclopedic absorptive relationship with visual culture, World Crown embodies a distinctive and commanding essay on the reductive referential power of Basquiat's commanding orchestration of culturally loaded sign and symbol. Indeed, World Crown is an absolute expression of Basquiat's full artistic powers of creation.
Jubilantly demonstrative of the extraordinary year of artistic breakthrough within Basquiat’s career, World Crown represents a remarkable exemplification of the supreme artistic conviction that propelled him to prominence. A truly outstanding example of Basquiat's terse aesthetic, the present work neatly encapsulates the artist's primary concern with the human figure, as well as revealing a direct engagement with his autobiographical struggle and his interest in art-historical precedents. Like a breath of fresh air, Basquiat's art broke rank with, usurped and, ultimately, became the canon, and was subsequently devoured by critics, dealers, and collectors alike. His legacy continues to this very day: the potent exuberance of World Crown is as challenging today as it was in 1981.
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