Masterfully layering potent graphic forms, intricate symbolism, and viscerally charged painterly bravura, Cabra irrefutably demonstrates Basquiat’s commanding mastery and use of culturally loaded signs and symbols in his paintings. Distinctly evocative of his encyclopedic absorptive relationship with visual culture, the present work invokes with remarkable specificity one of Muhammad Ali’s most historic triumphs: his victory over fellow heavyweight boxer Oscar “The Bull” Bonavena, in their epic face-off in December 1970. In this now mythic boxing match, Ali – returning to boxing from a three year hiatus – defiantly faced his opponet, ignoring the racially charged slurs Bonavena slung in the highly publicized spectacle of psychological warfare. The legendary outcome of the match is immortalized by Basquiat upon the present work: inscribed above the glaring bull’s skull, the roughly scrawled hieroglyphic letters “TKO” invoke Muhammad Ali’s victory when, in the fifteenth round, Ali knocked his opponent to floor to achieve a “Technical Knockout” (TKO), ending the match and cementing his legacy as amongst the most celebrated and mythic figures of the Twentieth Century. In a vibrant maelstrom of saturated pigment, furious oilstick, and fiercely bold symbolism, Basquiat canonizes Ali’s iconic victory against The Bull, immortalizing not only his supreme athletic showmanship, but also, the athlete’s triumph over racial oppression and subjugation. Undoubtedly, one of the most psychologically searing and powerful examples of the artist’s early output, Cabra serves as rallying cry for both artist and hero, driving both forward into the magnificent pinnacles of their careers.
Memorializing a pivotal moment in the young artist’s extraordinary artistic career, the incendiary scarlet canvas of Cabra powerfully embodies the raw and indomitable force of Basquiat at his most ambitious. Today, Basquiat’s meteoric ascension from graffiti artist on the streets of downtown New York to icon of the 1980s art scene is legendary; a high school dropout, the artist first made his name and mark upon downtown Manhattan as the notorious graffiti vandal/hero SAMO, before the discovery of his prodigious talent in late 1981 launched him into a spotlight of critical acclaim and breathtaking notoriety. Over the course of 1982, this once-in-a-lifetime artist would receive his first solo exhibition with Annina Nosei in New York, followed quickly by Larry Gagosian in Los Angeles, Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich, and, most astoundingly, an invitation to attend the international exhibition Documenta 7 in Kassel as the youngest artist of more than 176 to present his art. Evoking contemporaneous masterworks Untitled, 1981, in the collection of the Broad Museum, and Untitled, 1982, now in the Maezawa collection, the visceral impact of the searing skull-like visage is absolute and immediate, the central and solitary form serving as blazing emblem and self-portrait for the burgeoning artist. Describing the young Basquiat, scholar Marc Mayer recounts, “an articulate and prolific spokesman for youth: insatiably curious, tirelessly inventive, innocently self-deprecating because of youth’s inadequacies, jealously guarding his independence…His work is likely to remain for a long time as the modern picture of what it looks like to be brilliant, driven, and young.” (Marc Mayer, “Basquiat in History,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat, 2005, p. 57)
Jubilantly demonstrative of Basquiat’s triumphant artistic breakthrough of 1981-82, Cabra belongs to the artist’s select pantheon of legendary portrayals of the Twentieth Century’s most infamous boxers and black athletes. The triumphs and achievements of such men as Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jersey Joe Walcott, and Jack Johnson, over opponents and racial prejudice alike, served as a crucial inspiration for the young artist; in particular, Muhammad Ali, whose legendary rhetoric and championing of social justice outside of the ring proved a clarion call to the African American diaspora during the Civil Rights era and the struggle for racial equality. Basquiat was highly aware of such injustices, once remarking, "I realized that I didn't see many paintings with black people in them…the black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings." (Jean-Michel Basquiat quoted in Cathleen McGuigan, ‘New Art, New Money,' The New York Times, 10 February 1985, n.p.) Executed in the year following Ali’s formal retirement from boxing, the indelible intensity of Basquiat’s fervent oilstick evokes the voracious spirit of the iconic boxer himself, the fierce gaze challenging the viewer with confidence of a proven champion. The young artist’s homage to Muhammad “The Greatest” Ali is solidified in the painting’s title: translated from Spanish, Cabra means “Goat,” or “Greatest of all time.” Intricately weaving layers of meaning between the searing white ropes of the crude boxing ring emblazoned upon his canvas, Basquiat brands this arena as the podium – and battle ground—for Ali, icon and hero to innumerable young black Americans.
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