JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT | Ero
- Jean-Michel Basquiat
- signed and titled on the reverse
- acrylic, oilstick and Xerox collage on canvas
Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above)
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2nd edition, Vol. I, Paris, 1996, pp. 288-289, illustrated in colour
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 3rd edition, Paris 2000, pp. 262-263, illustrated in colour (Vol. I), p. 222, no. 1, illustrated in colour (Vol. II)
Basquiat's urban and unique brand of intellectualised 'primitivism' was formed by a full spectrum of art historical and cultural sources: Jackson Pollock, graffiti art, Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, the religious and cultural influences of his family background, as well as the social context in which he lived and worked. Ero demonstrates Basquiat's ability, as a self-taught artist who possessed a vast visual and cultural knowledge, to create a fresh and entirely unique iconography. The present work is a prime example of Basquiat’s artistic expression, one “that is aggressive and rapid, yet thoughtful and literate, and which displays an expressive and intuitive control of gesture, colour, and composition that is combined with provocative images and relevant subjects that are rich in reference and allusion” (Richard D. Marshall, ‘Foreword and Forward: Jean-Michel Basquiat’, in: Franklin Sirmans, Basquiat, New York 1999, p. 24).
From early on in his career, Basquiat inserted the motif of African-American heroes, such as musicians and athletes, into his paintings. Thematically speaking, these figures functioned as vehicles for the artist to reflect upon his own cultural identity. Although Basquiat said he rarely made self-portraits, he included quasi-veiled autobiographical references in a great number of works, not least because the artist was affected by everyday racism himself, but because he identified with the heroes and saints he portrayed. Similarly, Ero can be seen as a self-portrait of sorts, as well as a reflection on society in the 1980s. The word ‘ero’ is Latin for ‘I will be’, thus showing Basquiat’s affinity with language and his engagement in self-reflection. The two figures that occupy the present composition are juxtaposed, not only by size and viewpoint, but also by painterly quality. To the left, a confident African American stands tall, his eyes transparent against the background and his face emotionless – somewhat reminiscent of the tribal masks depicted in many of Basquiat’s works. To the left of the composition another figure is shown in profile and with noticeably more detail. Similarly detailed portrayals can be found in Basquiat’s oeuvre in depictions of Andy Warhol or Pablo Picasso, great influences on the artist’s work. By portraying his own visage in a comparatively detailed manner, Basquiat places himself alongside these great modern masters. Indeed, for years he had been trying to do just that and in 1981 Basquiat's stated intent “to be a part of the family of (elitist) artists” was announced in Rene Ricard’s seminal Artforum article, ‘The Radiant Child’ (Jean-Michel Basquiat cited in: Rene Ricard, ‘The Radiant Child’, Artforum, December 1981, online).
Within Ero Basquiat’s signature collaged Xerox is present. Repeated over and over, the word 'carbon' takes on a significance similar to that of a mantra. Carbon – a non- metallic element considered ‘King of the Elements’ in the periodic table – is replete with inferred meaning. Perhaps self-referential, referring to the carbon-copy replication of the Xerox machine, its repetition may also serve as an allusion the chemical composition of diamonds – diamond is one of the few ‘pure’ forms of the chemical element. By inference, Basquiat’s newly acquired wealth and the value ascribed to works of art is present in a reading of this work as it is a recurring topic in many of his paintings. This is further compounded by the concurrent appearance of the Yen currency symbol and the abbreviated ‘one mill’, both of which can be seen as a criticism of the affluent capitalist system that Basquiat rapidly found himself thrust into. Another ‘pure’ elemental form of carbon is graphite, which is used for both drawing and writing; its allusion here serves to further emphasise Basquiat’s role as artist and author. Furthermore, the colour of graphite and carbon is black: its repetition and chromatic associations take on racial significance and can perhaps be interpreted as a reference to the artist’s skin colour. This deliberate juxtaposition of specific words and figurative depictions underscores the autobiographical and places Ero within the remit of self-portraiture.
By 1984, the year of this work’s creation, Basquiat was established as a key figure in the international art world. In the years running up to the creation of Ero he exhibited in seventeen group exhibitions and four major solo shows across America, Europe, and Japan, as well as being the youngest artist ever to be included at the documenta in Kassel. Represented primarily by Mary Boone and Bruno Bischofsberger, Basquiat was confident; no longer the precocious pretender threatening establishment norms, but the acknowledged prodigy, capable of producing devastatingly striking artworks that perfectly distilled the zeitgeist of 1980s downtown New York.