Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2010
Bonn, Bundeskunsthalle, Ménage à trois: Warhol, Basquiat, Clemente, February - May 2012, p. 194, no. 15, illustrated in colour
Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario; and Bilbao, Guggenheim Museum, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, February - November 2015, p. 71, illustrated in colour (Toronto); and p. 73, illustrated in colour (Bilbao)
By the time Wire was created in 1983, Gray’s Anatomy had been present in Basquiat’s life for nearly twenty years. Aged seven, Basquiat had his spleen surgically removed after a serious car accident. In order to explain the injury, and to entertain him during his lengthy hospital stay, Basquiat’s mother gave him the anatomical textbook as a present. He was captivated immediately and his fixation on the archetypal diagrams and illustrations was enduring, eventually acting as the source material for countless masterpieces and even providing the name for his avant-garde noise-band Gray, which produced John Cage-inspired experimental tracks in the early 1980s. The influence of this scientific tome is keenly felt throughout the figure shown in the present work: in the sternum and ribs, which appear as an inverted pyramid of instinctive hatchings; in the guts, reduced to simply labelled shapes; in the knees, where the joints are abstracted into graphic swirls and loops; and in the mouth, where, in an onomatopoeic fusion between form and content, Basquiat inscribes the lower jaw with the word “T E E T H” in block capitals, spikily spelled out to suggest the snag of canines and molars. The influence of Gray’s Anatomy upon this work shows the manner in which this artist relied upon source material and creative stimulus; not as examples to imitate, but rather as points of departure – starting blocks from whence his unbridled depictive fluency could run.
This work is also important as an example of how text was just as important as image in Basquiat’s work, and of how the two were deployed in symbiosis. Indeed, having started his career as a graffiti writer under the pseudonym SAMO, it is easy to argue that, for Basquiat, text took precedence. His creative consciousness was honed scrawling isolated phrases on SoHo walls and subway cars and it was in this arena that he first achieved notoriety. In the present work, we not only witness the anatomical annotations of stomach, liver, and scapula, but can also discern an isolated phrase – “KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF THAT WIRE” – which is a direct quote, replete with speech marks, from White Heat, a 1949 gangster classic starring James Cagney.
This use of isolated text, deployed without context, explanation or illustration, moves us to think of Basquiat’s reverence for one of his artistic heroes – Cy Twombly. Just like Basquiat, whose city was New York, Twombly absorbed influence from an eclectic array of stimuli principally gleaned from the culture of Rome. Both Basquiat and Twombly created oeuvres that defy categorisation according to genre, and both executed their works in the same manner: with raw frenetic abandon, juxtaposing abstract passages with isolated figurative moments and snatches of text. Even at this early stage of his career, Basquiat was fluently toying with the precedent of modern masters such as Twombly, and indeed, was qualified to do so. During the year before this work was created, he had become the youngest ever artist privileged with an invitation to exhibit in documenta, where he showed alongside Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, and two of his art historical heroes: Andy Warhol and Cy Twombly. Thus, in this work we understand Basquiat as established – no longer the precocious outsider. His confidence in his own abilities is abundant not only in the surety of his draughtsmanship, but also in the ease with which he assimilates influence from classic cinema, anatomical drawings, and art history, into his inimitable and instinctive style.