- Jean-Michel Basquiat
- signed, titled and dated 1984 on the reverse
- oil on canvas
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1997
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. II, Paris 1996, p. 132, no. 2, illustrated in colour
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. II, Paris 2000, p. 216, no. 2, illustrated in colour
Dominated by a slapstick sketch of a penguin with a top hat and bow tie, on a luxurious gold background Trophy purports the artist’s ingenious blend of wit and polemic urban iconography to establish a compelling sub-textural dialogue. The work's unique assemblage of three distinct symbols, recall the urban iconography of his former SAMO days. A key reference for this graffiti vernacular was Henry Dreyfuss’s 1972 Symbol Sourcebook, a lexicon of signs and symbols that included a chapter on “Hobo Signs”, as well as a chapter on "Home Economics and Communications Symbols". The image of the suited penguin is here recorded as the symbol for items that need to be kept frozen, along with the symbol for a stretch stitch, appropriated by Basquiat in the left centre of the composition. The "Hobo Signs" – scrawls and symbols left on buildings and fences by hobos and homeless people as a way of communicating with one another – included cryptic messages, such as "dangerous neighbourhood", "vicious dog here", "nothing to be gained here" or "easy mark, sucker" – the symbol to the right of the penguin. Interestingly, the top hat was a common motif and code for: "a gentleman lives here" or "these are rich people". Precursors to the pervasive vigilante scrawls of the graffiti artists of Basquiat’s generation, this coded symbolic vocabulary maintained a formative role in the artist's painted language. Like personal hieroglyphs they reveal Basquist’s complex worldview that encompasses the hard-hitting social concerns of class struggle and racial discrimination; not least within art itself. Referring to his entry into the art scene and art history in general Basquiat remarked that: “I realised that I didn't see many paintings with black people in them” (Jean-Michel Basquiat cited in: Cathleen McGuigan, ‘New Art, New Money', The New York Times, February 10, 1985).
Demonstrating the symbolic potency and cryptic allure that underscores Basquiat's enduring significance within the history of painting, Trophy exemplifies Basquiat at the height of his career. Having garnered the patronage of New York’s most influential gallerists during the early 1980s, Basquiat quickly established himself as a visionary of international repute who signalled a new direction in the neo-expressionist visual lexicon. Despite being one of the youngest artists to have ever been invited to exhibit at the prestigious exhibition documenta 7 in 1982, and gaining the formidable Andy Warhol as a mentor, Basquiat was plagued with self-doubt yet driven by ambition. As early as 1983 Andy Warhol is recorded as saying that Basquiat was anxious about becoming a “flash in the pan” (Jeffrey Deitch cited in: Taka Kawachi, King for a Decade, Kyoto 1997, p. 107). Subsequently Trophy moves away from the expressionistic bathos of his earlier canvases, and explores a refined selection of humorous and socially loaded symbols.
Basquiat's deliberate focus on the reductive essentials of representation is perhaps most pertinently expressed through his bold use of gold. The artist loved to compare his work with alchemy. Just as the mystical alchemist could conjure gold from nothing, his artistic touch could turn even the most primitive of forms into money and success. The lavish gold background of the present work provides both reasoning for the title (trophies are usually thought of as gleaming golden cups) and serves as a focal point for this sense of self-aggrandisement: by scrawling over it with the caricatured combination of Dreyfuss's hobo signs and quotidian household symbols, the artist asserts the ultimate value of his authorship and revels in the notion that his mark-making, previously considered vandalism, could even enhance the value of gold. The colour grew to almost magical significance in the eyes of Basquiat. In his own words "I was writing gold on all this stuff, and I made all this money right afterwards” (Jean-Michel Basquiat cited in: Henry Geldzahler, 'Art: from Subways to SoHo, Jean-Michel Basquiat', Interview, Vol. 13, January 2013, n.p.). Furthermore, the gold background exemplifies the influence of his friend and mentor Andy Warhol and draws clear parallels to Warhol's 1962 painting Gold Marilyn Monroe, which now resides in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Having first introduced gold leaf into his shoe drawings of the 1950s, gold and silver played an important part in Warhol's oeuvre: from the mesmeric environment of the his silver-foiled Factory, his installation of Silver Clouds at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1966, through to his Gold Marilyn Monroe of 1962 and his 1963 series of silver Liz and Elvis’, in which Warhol used a simulacrum of precious metal as tribute to the iconic status of the 1950s silver screen idols.
Articulated with a chromatic power to rival the goliaths of art history and infused with an appropriation of consumer-iconography and every-day symbols synonymous with the best of Pop art, Trophy imports a multi-faceted narrative steeped in symbolic potency. As lauded by Jeffrey Deitch, Basquiat’s unique combination of cultural references offers us an insight into his idiosyncratic psychological space: “His works have a quality that seems to draw you in; it is like they offered some kind of clue to solving the puzzle of what’s in his mind. It sounds easy, but it is quite difficult for an artist to achieve that. The words, symbols and body parts that he uses all come together to form an expression of what he is thinking of as an artist...” (Jeffrey Deitch cited in: op. cit., Kyoto 1997, p. 143).