Mugrabi Collection, New York
Hamiltons Gallery, London
Sale: Sotheby's, New York, Contemporary Art, 9 November 2005, Lot 42
Private Collection, Milan
Sale: Sotheby's, London, Contemporary Art, 21 June 2007, Lot 28
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Warrior is a masterful work by Jean-Michel Basquiat executed in 1982, the year in which he achieved his full artistic maturity and harnessed the full potential of his extraordinary talents. Depicting the combative warrior, the central motif that permeates the artist's oeuvre as a form of semi-autobiography, this painting affords a dense layering of Basquiat's technical, conceptual and polemical energies. Loaded with a complex network of ideas, stunning in both its execution as a painting and as a vehicle for the many tributaries of thought that inform Basquiat's process, Warrior stands out as one of the most energetic of the artist's early works; a bravura exhibition of painting that leaves the viewer simply spellbound. Positioned in the very top tier of the artist's cycle of full-length male figures, Warrior exemplifies Basquiat's magnificently heroic presentation of the grandly isolated human form. In this vein it advances a venerable tradition epitomized by the tragic protagonists of Picasso's Blue and Rose Periods, de Kooning's corporeally introverted series of Women, and the searing existential isolation of Bacon's full-length male figures of the 1960s and 1970s. Spectacularly forged in an array of media including oilstick, acrylic, and spray paint, the wooden panel support provides a powerful sense of three-dimensional solidity and posits the painting somewhat closer to a form of painted sculpture than easel painting per se. Indeed, alongside other paragons of Basquiat's painting from this time, such as La Hara and Irony of Negro Policeman, this wood substrate is strongly evocative of his work as a graffiti street artist when his painting embraced the landscape around him, from crumbling brick walls of Lower East Side alleyways to the shiny silver metal surfaces of Subway train carriages. With Warrior Basquiat brought the haptic urgency of his art from the street into the gallery and with it his singular revolution of contemporary painting.
In the centre of the picture plane, the raw, violent figure stands poised ready for battle. With his sword unsheathed and raised ready to strike in one hand, he is reminiscent of Renaissance depictions of courtly knights such as Carpaccio's Portrait of a Knight, 1510, where the prominent sword is a symbol of strength and authority. In response to such art historical archetypes, the monumental figure in Basquiat's Warrior confronts the viewer with penetrating red eyes and a fierce gladiatorial stance. Dominating the entire picture plane, the artist's raw, violent figure is crudely delineated: stick-like arms thrust outwards in an attitude that evokes the loaded image of Christ on the cross – a reading reinforced by the barbed constraints and jagged and thorn-like crown that surrounds the figure's head. The Christ-like Warrior emerges with the ferocity and combative energy of a contemporary Boxer. Here Basquiat's Warrior acts as an emblematic stand-in for the struggles of black man in a white dominated society. In his observations of art history, Basquiat recalled rarely, if ever, seeing any depictions of black people in paintings. It is no surprise then, as a black artist functioning in a white dominated art world, that he championed black figures from Egyptian times through to the 20th century, and honed a voice for inequality as well as a creative vision that served as a means of self-discovery. Indeed, Warrior shares many of the attributes one finds in works openly designated as autobiographical.
The face, mask-like in its construction, reveals emaciated, scarified eyes and clenched jaw, hinting at the artist's Haitian heritage and a spiritual, Shaman-like figure. Unequivocally inspired by the Cubism of his great hero Picasso, the figure also looks back to the older artist's own sources in primitive African art, in itself a validation of Basquiat's own cultural heritage. In particular, Basquiat's figure, with the haptic emphasis on the eyes and teeth, bears striking similarities to African tribal figures. In Warrior, the talon-like claws delineating the metatarsals are like the nails hammered into the sacred nkisi nkondi figurines native to the Congo, in which each nail represents an oath, each adding to the talismanic power of the icon. For Picasso, primitivism was an antidote to the conservatism of the academies; similarly Basquiat finds in his own recourse to primitivism a corrective to the chaste intellectual coolness of late modernism and a powerful mode of expressing overtly contemporary angst.
The wildly fashioned background with blocks of raw yellows and blues laid down with intense, gestural brushwork, show Basquiat's acute awareness of his position in art history and evoke the abstract compositions of Willem de Kooning in particular. There is no perspectival logic or spatial recession to the composition, rather it is all about surface, colour and expressivity. Meshing figure and ground together, oil stick marks and swathes of paint show the implosion of form into pure energy; just as the figure is built up with dense, muscular strokes of white, blue and dense black oil stick, the artist has etched the oil stick into the background, transferring his energy into depicting the aggressive stance and personality of the Warrior. There is no calm moment within the painting - it is pure, raw, nervous energy with the background an extension of the psyche of the figure and by implication the artist himself. Basquiat often painted himself and the present work shares many of the attributes found in works openly designated as self-portraits, particularly the artist's compulsive obsession with the inner machinations of the body.
Fascinated by anatomy ever since he was hospitalised as a boy after a car accident, the depiction of the human form here evinces Basquiat's preoccupation with anatomy. Seemingly viewed simultaneously externally and in x-ray, the figure's right side is fleshed out while his left side is left as a skeleton. While external features are described, such as the insinuation of dreaded hair, in places the form is entirely skeletal, as in the schematic rendering of the spine and rib cage. Internal organs are also suggested, the torso reading like a distorted diagram from Gray's Anatomy which Basquiat read as a child, the cavernous black space seemingly an indication of internal damage. This interest in the human body spreads to the background, where lattices of vigorously applied oil-stick patch the environment like scars.
A prolific draftsman, Basquiat's studio was littered with his sketches and notebooks. Basquiat made countless explosively expressive drawings of warrior-figures, seemingly in an effort to exorcise the demons within. These drawings, particularly the exquisitely gestural notebook sketch from circa 1981, were used and reused as constant reference points for his paintings. The raw spontaneity captured in these drawings is transferred onto canvas in Warrior in a freshly urban and totally unique brand of intellectualized 'primitivism' which was informed by a full spectrum of art historical and cultural sources from Leonardo da Vinci, graffiti art (both modern and ancient), Cy Twombly, Jean Dubuffet, Pablo Picasso and the gritty urban environment of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan.
Via myriad allusions to his childhood and ethnic inheritance passed through the prism of art history, Basquiat masterfully scrutinises the aesthetic language of Modernism from a unique cultural vantage point. Fused with the graffiti style which first brought him the attention of the New York art establishment, Basquiat's wholly inimitable symbolism is enmeshed in a complex matrix of signifiers steeped in indigenous and ancient artistic traditions of African tribal art and channelled through the influence of Picasso, Twombly and Abstract Expressionist masters. Self-taught and formatively nourished by countless childhood visits to the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum and Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, the archaeological excavation of Basquiat's multifaceted visual lexicon reveals a voluminous integration of art history's wider topography. Distinctly evocative of his encyclopaedic absorptive relationship with visual culture, Warrior embodies a distinctive and commanding essay on the reductive referential power of Basquiat's commanding orchestration of culturally loaded sign and symbol. Indeed, Warrior is an absolute expression of Basquiat's full artistic powers of creation.
Though maintaining the spontaneity of graffiti in its paroxysmal execution, by the time this work was created in 1982 Basquiat's transition from street to studio was fully crystallised. Painted during the period following Basquiat's breakthrough participation in the legendary New York/New Wave at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Centre, this work documents the year Basquiat attained the crucial support of Annina Nosei and focussed his efforts on monumental canvas painting. Using Nosei's Prince Street gallery basement as his studio, Basquiat held his first solo exhibition and crucially forged influential links with Bruno Bischofberger and Larry Gagosian. Moreover, prestigiously asked to take part in the legendary Documenta in Kassel alongside Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol, Basquiat became the youngest artist ever privileged with an invitation to exhibit.
Jubilantly demonstrative of this extraordinary year, Warrior represents a remarkable exemplification of the inimitable artistic conviction that propelled Jean-Michel Basquiat to prominence. A truly outstanding example of Basquiat's terse aesthetic, the present work neatly encapsulates the artist's primary concern with the human figure, as well as revealing a direct engagement with his autobiographical struggle and his interest in art-historical precedents. Like a breath of fresh air, Basquiat's art broke rank with, usurped and, ultimately, became the canon, and was subsequently devoured by critics, dealers and collectors alike. His legacy continues to this very day: the potent exuberance of Warrior is as challenging today as it was in 1982.
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