Yvon Lambert Gallery, Paris
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1996
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 3rd edition, Vol. II, Paris 2000, p. 132, no. 2, illustrated in colour
Bronze is imbued with a mood of ancient significance and alchemical reverence. Its title speaks of precious metal; of prehistoric trade; of a sense of inherent value and gravitas far more significant than modern currency. This sense is exacerbated by Basquiat’s use of gold – an immensely important colour and material that, for the artist, signified the sense of triumph, transformation, value, and egotism that was rapidly pervading his career. By 1982, the artist felt that his work had become a sort of alchemy: just as the mystical alchemist could conjour gold from nothing, so too could Basquiat turn even the most instinctive artistic gesture into money and success. As Basquiat recounted to Henry Geldzahler about his paintings of this time: “I was writing gold on all this stuiff, and I made all this money right afterwards” (Jean-Michel Basquiat in conversation with Henry Geldzahler, Interview, January 1983, online). Bronze is imbued with a sense of ancient significance by its composition, with a single head executed in fierce black, brown, and white contrasting against a variegated background of pink, beige, grey, and gold. We are reminded of Byzantine icons which showed Saints and figures of biblical reverence depicted flatly against shimmering gilded backgrounds. We think of Grecian urns, showing Gods and nymphs as flat black silhouettes against backgrounds of deep terracotta. We can even recall the portraiture of the Renaissance. Indeed, in the curlicues and hatchings surrounding the painting's central head, we are specifically put in mind of Caravaggio’s Medusa – a blueprint for the brand of emotional impact and visceral power with which Basquiat charged his work.
Bronze is a clear demonstration of the influence that African culture had upon Basquiat’s work. Indeed, it was one of his earliest and most overt engagements with a theme that would occupy him for the rest of his life. The central visage seems directly derived from the ceremonial masks and figures of West Africa, with eyes and mouth abbreviated into hollow ellipses, cheekbones indicated with individual teardrop ovals, and forehead adorned with a pyramidal ornament. We are reminded of the Fang Heads of Gabon, which share their powerful dark silhouette with this work, tapering from broad forehead to jutting jaw. Meanwhile, in the flat line defining the brow of this figure, and in the manner that the nose is delineated in sharp perpendicular lines, we can recall the Nkisi Power Figures of the Songye peoples from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which were endowed with spiritual significance and bestowed fertility upon the villages in which they were held. Elsewhere, in the ornamentation on the forehead of Basquiat’s central face, and particularly in the hatchings and curls that peel off towards the upper stretcher bar, Bronze is redolent of the Kpeliye’e Face Masks of the Senufo peoples from the Cote d’Ivoire, which are carefully carved with raised and incised scarification patterns, and adorned with crowns of feathers and manes of raffia fibre.
Basquiat had been a regular visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as a child, which holds fantastic examples of each of these objects. In adulthood, the artist’s interest in this field grew stronger and more erudite, as he developed a close relationship of immense mutual respect with Robert Farris Thompson, the renowned Professor of African art at Yale. Basquiat and Thompson were introduced by the hip-hop artist Fab 5 Freddy; Thompson was wholly and immediately enamoured by Basquiat’s ferocious painting style and has written about his work at some length since, contextualising it within the context of the African tradition. Thompson recognised the power of works such as Bronze, describing them as: “Incantations of his blackness, incantations of what he was afraid of… He’s like a classical African drummer, just translating his nervousness into art. It was as if he was trying to turn his fears into creative energy” (Robert Farris Thompson cited in: Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, New York 1998, p. 249).
Of course, African culture had more than just aesthetic relevance for Basquiat. As a young black man growing up in New York in the late 1970s, he was intensely aware of race, and intensely aware of African American history. Born to a Puerto Rican mother and a Haitian father, Basquiat could trace his personal lineage to the slave ships that brought his ancestors to the Caribbean from West Africa. Indeed, some years after he created Bronze, in 1986, he fulfilled a lifelong fantasy and visited the Cote d’Ivoire. Basquiat’s Swiss gallerist, Bruno Bischofberger, organised an exhibition in Abidjan to mark the occasion, and afterwards the artist travelled to rural Korhogo – the capital of the Senufo tribe in the Northern part of the country. Bronze should be viewed as a significant early step on the path to the Cote d’Ivoire for Basquiat, demonstrating his absolute understanding of the cultural and aesthetic mores of the country even years before he travelled there. It is interesting to compare the present work, painted in the year that the artist truly broke into the international art scene, with Riding with Death, a work he completed very shortly before his premature death by overdose. Both feature gold backgrounds and rarefied pared-back compositions; both make clear and poignant reference to African American cultural concepts; and both feature prominent skull-like motifs. Viewed together, these two works can almost be viewed as book-ends to an extraordinary career; demonstrations of the consistency and creativity with which this artist engaged in the themes that were most important to him.
In the creation of Bronze, as in the creation of all of his most important paintings, Basquiat was not only looking at African and Oceanic art, but also looking at the art of those who had looked at it before him. In the words of Tony Shafrazi: “When Basquiat began to invent and elaborate his alphabet of fragmented anatomical notations with sharp incisions of line in 1979-80, the fascination with non-European iconography and the significance of the objects themselves – from prehistoric cave drawings, to African and Oceanic art – had already become a thing of history, relics from a tired age… Basquiat incorporated these authentic symbols into the language of painting resulting in shockingly distinct contemporary works of art full of magical power and significance” (Tony Shafrazi, ‘Basquiat: Messenger of the Sacred and Profane’, in: Tony Shafrazi, Ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York 1999, p. 13). Pablo Picasso is the most apparent influence on the present work – another artist who flooded his art of a certain period with the iconography of West African cultures. Basquiat idolised Picasso and shared a number of his artistic traits besides this; his surety of line, his constant reinvention of style, and the effect that his forceful personality had upon his work and its immediate appreciation. Cy Twombly is also hugely important for Basquiat and was undoubtedly directly influential upon the creation of the present work; his precedent is notable in Bronze in the ferocity and instinctiveness of gesture, and particularly in the use of text. Basquiat used text in a manner that owed much to Twombly; his text was not intended to annotate or explain his figurative forms and abstract marks, but rather to co-exist alongside them. Both Basquiat and Twombly deployed text and image in symbiosis, allowing isolated words and phrases to suffuse interpretation with intangible mood. There can be no doubt that Twombly was on Basquiat’s mind during the creation of Bronze in October 1982, for in the summer of that year, he had become the youngest artist ever to be invited to show at Documenta in Kassel, where he exhibited alongside the modern master himself. Jean Dubuffet is another of Basquiat’s most significant predecessors. He was the prototype of the art-world outsider, whose oeuvre was based upon a fundamental and conscious break with the art establishment. He found creative succour in the art of children, the art of the mentally ill, and – poignantly in the context of the present work – in the art of African and Oceanic cultures. Dubuffet was a founder of the Art Brut movement alongside Charles Ratton – a gallerist who specialised in African art and artefacts. Thus, Dubuffet’s oeuvre was filled with reference to the masks, shields, and figures of non-European cultures that had made their way to mid-century Paris. He not only shared Basquiat’s complete depictive fluency, but also his appreciation for the raw power of these far-flung artefacts, revered as objects of immense spiritual importance by the cultures that created them.
Bronze appropriates the ancient spiritual importance of the African masks and figures that formed its inspiration. It is a golden exemplar of the unbridled genius and skill with which the artist was operating in 1982; the year in which he had produced work for six solo exhibitions and, as a twenty-two year old, exhibited alongside such heavyweights as Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, and Andy Warhol; the year in which he created so many works that were conceived with rich iconographic meaning and executed with unbridled confidence and conviction. As the aforementioned Robert Farris Thompson recounted in an essay in 1993, Basquiat described 1982 simply as the moment when “I made the best paintings ever” (Jean-Michel Basquiat cited in: Robert Farris Thompson, ‘Brushes with Beatitude’, in: Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1993, p. 50). For its seamless assimilation of numerous points of influence, sheer aesthetic power, and virtuosic brevity, Bronze is undoubtedly worthy of this description.
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