In January 1983, in the year before Big Snow was executed, Basquiat went on an excursion to St. Moritz to visit his art dealer and friend, Bruno Bischofberger. Inspired by the sparkling, snow-filled Alps that surrounded him, Basquiat painted a number of works during this time that were evocative of the white and wintery scenes he encountered there. Basquiat was introduced to Andy Warhol by Bischofberger in 1982, and subsequently the two artists began to collaborate together. In the same year that Big Snow was created, the duo painted a vibrant large-scale canvas entitled Olympics. In both paintings, the five iconic Olympic rings are similarly rendered in vivid hues against the bright, white, snowy expanse of each backdrop. They allude, at once, to the Winter Olympics which had been twice hosted in St. Moritz in 1928 and 1948, the aforementioned Berlin Olympics of 1936, and the 1984 Summer Olympics which were held in Los Angeles, California, the very year these works were produced. Ever the purveyors and chroniclers of their contemporary moment, it is of little wonder that both Basquiat and Warhol were drawn to this pertinent and globally significant event. Basquiat was particularly captivated by the dynamism and vigour of the sporting world, and felt a great affiliation to boxing which dated back to his childhood when he would watch matches with his father, Gerard Basquiat. As his father recalled, “I was a big fan of boxing, and when he was a kid, there would be fights on television every Friday” (Gerard Basquiat cited in: ibid., p. 15). Countless of Basquiat’s paintings make both visual and textual reference to famous boxers of the time, from Cassius Clay and Joe Frazier, to Sugar Ray Robinson and Jersey Joe Walcott. The latter, a professional boxer who competed from 1930 to 1953 and held the world heavyweight title from 1951 to 1952, is honoured at the bottom left of the present work with a humorous, comic-strip-like caricature of a head which, having just been thwacked with a boxing glove (‘BLIP!’), is surrounded by dizzying, cartoonish stars.
The spiralling green line in Big Snow zips across the picture plane like a ski track through soft plumes of snow. As if traversing space and time, it reads as a metaphorical link between the different sporting events and heroes represented and alluded to in the work. In this merging and coalescing of different temporalities, Basquiat seems to hint at a contemporary world still plagued by stiflingly outmoded attitudes towards race, as in the 1930s.
In spite of his own meteoric rise to fame and fortune in the 1980s, Basquiat encountered a great deal of discrimination during his lifetime. At the height of his success, he would famously walk around in paint splattered Armani suits, wads of cash bulging from his pockets, and yet nevertheless experienced deep-rooted racism due to the colour of his skin. As Keith Haring recalled, “Being black and a kid and having dreadlocks, he couldn't even get a taxi. But he could spend $10,000 in his pocket" (Keith Haring cited in: Michael Wines, ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat: Hazards of Sudden Success and Fame’, The New York Times, 27 September 1988, online). For Basquiat, this poignant paradox was nowhere better illustrated than in the arena of sports, where many African American athletes rose to stardom but were frequently exploited for their commodity value. Considering this dichotomy, curator Dieter Buchhart notes, “At a time when black Americans were still lynched for hitting white men, the physical victories of black men over their white counterparts were powerful moments in the African American consciousness. In Basquiat’s visual vocabulary, the boxing match thus serves as a synonym for the ‘race war’ between black and white” (Dieter Buchhart, ‘Against All Odds’ in: op. cit., p. 15). This is powerfully demonstrated in an Untitled painting from 1983, housed in the collection of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, which depicts a boxing champion, arms spread wide in a pose of victory. A halo encircles his head, while his face is ambiguously masked by a white, skull-like façade, provocatively insinuating the ongoing race struggle in America at the time.
The mask, as a polysemous symbol and one of the great hallmarks of Basquiat’s visual language, recurs as a motif throughout the artist’s oeuvre. Indeed, in Big Snow, the head of Jesse Owens has been crudely rendered as a mask-like block of mahogany brown paint, with two vacant holes for eyes. The image self-consciously draws a dialogue between traditional African masks, with their purportedly apotropaic and mythical properties, and the work of avant-garde painters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, who were greatly inspired by so-called ‘primitive’ art. In works such as the present, Basquiat potently challenges such pre-existing tropes by reclaiming the image of the mask, as a self-referential emblem, in recognition and celebration of marginalised and disenfranchised groups. As Buchhart has stated, “Basquiat’s artistic genius reflects the pulsing setting of his times – New York in the 1980s – as well as attacks against humanity within the context of colonialism, slavery and racism present in his contemporary society” (Dieter Bucchart cited in: Charlotte Jansen, ‘The legend of Jean-Michel Basquiat’, Fold Magazine, 2018, online).
To the left of the canvas, Basquiat has drawn an intricately rendered and annotated diagram of an almost bionic-looking foot. Pertaining to an earlier painting from 1983, entitled Black Horse Jesse Owens, and labelled with the names of the Greek heroes Mercury and Apollo, the image conjures a sense of Owens’s machine-like power and forceful stamina, elevating him to god-like status. The artist explored the structure of bones and body parts almost incessantly throughout his oeuvre and had an erudite knowledge of the human form. This dated back to his childhood when, after being hit by a car at the age of seven, Basquiat’s mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy: its impact on his artistic practice was nothing short of profound.
Described by the author Hans Werner Holzwarth as “the balancing act between the ‘High’ tradition of Western art and the supposed ‘Low’ of the everyday culture of a black experience”, the merging of image and word is deeply emblematic of Basquiat’s pioneering technique (Hans Werner Holzwarth cited in: ibid). Inspired by artists such as Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, Basquiat’s inclusion of text in his artworks harks back to his graffiti days in the 1970s as part of the street-art duo SAMO©. Taking the essence of the streets to the studio, Basquiat would later paint with endless energy on anything he could get his hands on, from wall space and discarded cardboard to old television sets and refrigerators, elevating the quotidian to ever new heights. Pulsating with energy and emotionally charged, the tactile qualities of his paintwork – at times scrawled, at others dripping, smudged or seemingly sprayed – retain and exalt the vital immediacy of graffiti art. Indeed, in the present work, three smears of paint, in hues of forest green, rosy pink and umber, imbue the painting with an archetypal sense of urgency, vitality, and speed. The painting also exemplifies Basquiat’s use of the copyright sign, which he employed as a sardonic, tongue-in-cheek critique on America’s capitalist, consumer-driven society where everything and anything could be bought or owned: strategically placed besides both Jesse Owens and Jersey Joe Walcott’s names, Basquiat’s message is thus abundantly clear. Exhibited in three important exhibitions in Paris and Rome, Big Snow vividly embodies the raw, visceral syntax of Basquiat’s ground-breaking style.
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