Private Collection, United States
Sotheby's, New York, 27 February 1990, Lot 305 (consigned by the above)
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Eds., Jean-Michel Basquiat, 3rd edition, Vol. II, Paris 2000, p. 218, no. 7, illustrated in colour
In this painting the workings of an extraordinarily creative mind are on full view. Stream of consciousness cartoon doodles and Pop culture references merge with anatomical sketches and quotidian transcriptions snatched from Basquiat’s everyday life. A list of ingredients from a bar of chocolate sits beside an anatomical sketch of a stomach, near which the word ‘MALNUITRITIOUS’ can be found lurking underneath diaphanous layers of strident yellow paint. Alongside these, Basquiat has listed the functions of a television remote control complete with diagrams for volume settings, a grid for numbered buttons, and + and - for picture quality. Indeed, below this diagram we find the present work’s title underlined: REMOTE COMMANDER.
Basquiat needed constant stimulation whilst he worked; whether in the form of reference books, comics, magazines, music, or even the company he kept whilst painting, his surrounding environment became the interwoven threads of a complex cultural tapestry. Part of the baby-boomer generation, Basquiat was born into an era of post-war prosperity in the US; coming of age in a post-Warhol era at the dawn of MTV, he famously liked to draw in front of the television. Larry Gagosian used this as a metaphor for the artist’s sponge-like approach to picture-making, describing him as an “an open channel” through which every stream of culture flowed and coalesced (Larry Gagosian cited in: Henry Louis Gates Jr., ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’, in: Exh. Cat., New York, Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, 2015, p. 17). We can certainly discern the effect and traces of televisual stimuli in the cartoon figures and icons that populate the collaged Xeroxed drawings in Remote Commander. Echoing Surrealism’s experiments with automatism and its suppression of conscious control, Basquiat’s drawings and succinct linguistic notations are the product of an open mind in free-association; they present an unfettered and untrammelled connection between the hand, eye, and brain, and they communicate the inseparability between Basquiat’s art and his life.
Synthesising and juxtaposing myriad cultural referents – from the toy packaging (Basquiat was an avid collector of antique toys) of ‘JUMBO SNAKES’, anatomical diagrams, and snatches of phrases and sentences such as ‘TEETH BECOME BLACK’ and the crossed out ‘ROOSEVELT MARCH 4 1933’ – Basquiat’s collage of drawings emphasises the importance of repetition, replication, and most of all, the pre-eminence of words. As American literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. has explained, “Language, like painting, was his craft, and he practised it simultaneously as one who knows its secrets like a scribe and as one discovering its magic as if for the first time… Basquiat could see and hear what the average city dweller couldn’t: the perpetual ticker-tape parade of slogans, images, and conversational sounds bites floating through the air” (Ibid., p. 29). Basquiat himself said as much: in Cathleen McGuigan’s famous 1985 New York Times article, ‘New Art New Money’, Basquiat is quoted saying that he uses words “like brushstrokes” (Jean-Michel Basquiat cited in: Cathleen McGuigan, ‘New Art New Money’, New York Times, 10 February 1985, online).
Utterly enamoured with the Beat poets, Basquiat used to carry well-thumbed copies of Jack Kerouac’s Subterraneans and William Burroughs’ Junkie around with him. The painter’s manipulation of language has frequently been likened to the Dada-ist cut-up technique popularised by Burroughs and Brion Gysin during the 1950s and ‘60s – an aleatory approach to writing in which finished lines of text are spliced together to engender an entirely new literary composition. In many ways the coeval work of Robert Rauschenberg forms a visual counterpart to this literary development. In 1954 Rauschenberg began to include disparate found objects in his very first Combine paintings, in 1958 he began to juxtapose images printed in newspapers and magazines in the series of solvent Transfer Drawings, and between 1962 and ’64 he would silkscreen these found images onto canvas. Fused together via an expressionistic application of paint and scratched graphite hatchings, Rauschenberg’s re-presentation of found, ready-made, imagery engendered an entirely new pictorial statement that foregrounded the evocative potential of chance juxtapositions and mirrored the overload of visual stimuli brought on by the newly accelerated pace of modern, urban, life.
Basquiat’s work forms a synthesis of these two milestones in the history of twentieth-century art and literature. His seamless marriage of text and image, his use of Xerox as a means of incorporating the mechanical and ready-made, and his fluent application of Ab-Ex styled painterly marks together offered a much needed anodyne for the navel-gazing sterility of Minimalism. Throughout the 1970s and up to the early 1980s, the self-referential intellectualism eptiomised by Robert Ryman’s white paintings and Donald Judd’s empty aluminium boxes had inadvertently transformed art appreciation into an inaccessible and elite club. Born in reaction to this aesthetic asceticism, Basquiat’s work screams out at you, both pictorially and verbally; his works are there to be read and de-coded, and his liberal use of strident colour, assured hand, and compositional virtuosity is both utterly seductive and undeniably original. It reflects the TV-watching, channel-surfing, attention-deficit, rebel-attitude of a counter-cultural generation that emerged during the early 1980s, as UK punk turned into New York's New Wave. As the graffiti artists and subway taggers became the early MCs and DJ pioneers of hip-hop – whose sampled sound-bites, spoken words, and electronic drum machines reflected perfectly the artistic vanguard that developed out of street culture – Basquiat was there at the fine-art forefront. Like nascent hip-hop, his work gave a voice to the marginalised and under privileged. Ultimately, the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat are a prodigious amalgam of art-historical erudition, searing contemporaneity, and the heroic dream of making it big against the odds.
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