Scorched upon the surface of the paper with electrifying immediacy, the four bristling craniums of Famous Negro Athletes confront the viewer with the full force of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s singular graphic vernacular and artistic mark. Executed in 1981, the present work marks the pivotal early moment directly preceding the then-unknown artist’s meteoric ascent to international acclaim; here, Basquiat summons the searing graphic intensity which defined the monumental scrawls of his downtown alter-ego, graffiti-poet SAMO©, to infuse his page with the exhilarating intensity and unfiltered grit of 1980s Lower Manhattan. Even at this early date, Famous Negro Athletes testifies to the young artist’s extraordinary command of both image and text as charged tools within his graphic arsenal, Basquiat deftly manipulating culturally loaded signs, symbols and phrases to create his own potent calling card. Within his rarefied output from this seminal early date, the origin story of Famous Negro Athletes is truly extraordinary: initially emblazoned as a graffiti mural in downtown New York, Basquiat executed Famous Negro Athletes on paper as a gift for Glenn O’Brien, legendary art critic and famed luminary of New York City’s creative underground of the 80s and 90s. A key advocate for Basquiat in the early years, O’Brien was amongst the first to recognize the young graffiti poett’s virtuosic formal abilities, and would go on to become a close friend of the artist over the course of the 1980s. When asked how he discovered Basquiat in those early years, however, O’Brien remarks: “It’s like talking about who discovered that the atomic bomb happened. He was unavoidable. I mean, he was so forceful that it wasn’t a matter of discovery. He discovered himself. He was a force of nature. He was determined to get there.” (Glenn O’Brien cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Deitch Projects, Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the Street, May 2006, p. 15) Testifying to the significance of the present work, Famous Negro Athletes has been included in a number of seminal exhibitions of Basquiat’s output, including The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show, organized by the Fondazione La Triennale di Milano in 2006-2007, the exhibition Basquiat, organized by the Fondation Beyeler, Basel and Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2010-2011, and, most recently, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, organized by the Brooklyn Museum, the High Museum of Art, Atlanta and the Pérez Art Museum, Miami in 2015-2016.
Held in Glenn O’Brien’s personal collection since its execution in 1981, Famous Negro Athletes serves as enduring testament to the creative partnership forged between Basquiat and O’Brien over the course of the 1980s. Recalling his first introduction to Basquiat’s work, O’Brien describes: “I had seen SAMO written on walls and doors all over the place, and I was doing a piece about graffiti art and graffiti for High Times, so I interviewed him. It was early 1979 I think. I had already talked to Ali and Lee and Fred and various so-called [graffiti] writers, but I wanted to talk to SAMO, because what he was doing was different. It wasn’t just a tag; it had content.” (Glenn O’Brien, Ibid., p. 14) At the time, O’Brien was the host of the weekly public-access television program TV Party, a late-night variety show that introduced its teenage audience of insomniacs to figures like Robert Mapplethorpe, Debbie Harry, Chris Burden, and, eventually, Jean-Michel Basquiat, among other iconic downtown figures. In 1980-81, O’Brien hired Basquiat to star in the now-legendary film project Downtown 81 as, fittingly, a charmingly struggling young artist in New York City. Describing Basquiat's magnetic appeal, O’Brien reflects: “He was fun. A delight. A riot… Just when you thought he couldn’t get any better: boom, something came over the work, and he had a whole new way of drawing a head, or a mask, or he’d tackle some new theme.” (Glenn O’Brien cited in Ibid., pp. 176-177)
Enduring as both idiosyncratic commentary and skull-like talismanic icon, the motif of the ‘black athlete’ which dominates the present work appears as a key conceptual anchor throughout Basquiat’s oeuvre. Countless of Basquiat’s paintings and works on paper – particularly from these early years – make visual and textual reference to famous black athletes of the time, from Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) to Jersey Joe Walcott, Jackie Robinson to Hank Aaron. Within Basquiat’s graphic lexicon, the familiar names and images of these figures function as quasi-canonized icons of popular culture; simultaneously, the inscrutable faces of Famous Black Athletes engender a powerful scrutiny of a society which offers so few professions in which marginalized groups are permitted to excel. Glenn O’Brien notes: “The piece was political in the sense that it presented so simply how society expected black people to be athletes and not painters.” (Glenn O’Brien cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Deitch Projects, Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the Street, May 2006, p. 19) Exemplifying the virtuosic manipulation of signs and symbols that has come to define his extraordinary artistic legacy, the deliberately misspelled scrawl of ‘ATHELETES’ emphasizes Basquiat’s manipulation of words as both graphic and phonic elements, as the artist simultaneously draws upon the word’s function as recognizable signifier and satirizes its subsequently implied meaning. Poised on the brink of his own meteoric rise to critical and commercial acclaim, it is fitting that the young Basquiat was considering the myriad paths, promises, and pitfalls of fame, in all its guises. As so eloquently concluded by O’Brien, however: “He wasn’t out to get rich –he was out to win. He painted for the world title: heavyweight champion of the world and grandmaster.” (Glenn O’Brien, “Basquiat: The Show Must Go On,” 2013, n.p.)
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