Irony of Negro Policeman

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  • Provenance

    Collection of Dan and Jeanne Fauci
    Gagosian Gallery, New York
    Private Collection

  • Exhibited

    New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 21 October 1992 – 21 February 1993
    Beverly Hills, CA, Gagosian Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings & Drawings, 1980–1988, 12 February – 14 March 1998
    New York, Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat, 11 March – 5 June 2005, then travelled to Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art (15 July – 9 October 2005), Houston, Museum of Fine Arts (18 November 2005 – 12 February 2006)
    Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Basquiat, 9 May – 5 September 2010, then travelled to Paris, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (15 October 2010 – 30 January 2011)

  • Literature

    Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992 – 93, p. 84
    R. D. Marshal, J. L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris, 1996, vol. II, p. 64, No. 6 (illustrated)
    R. D. Marshal, J. L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris, 2000, 3rd ed., pp. 88 – 89, No. 4 (illustrated in colour)
    Basquiat, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2010, p. 53 (illustrated in colour)

  • Catalogue Essay

    In the majestic Irony of Negro Policeman from the pivotal year of 1981, Jean-Michel Basquiat expounds upon the most important theme in his oeuvre, the issue which underlines his entire artistic premise: race. As an artist of mixed racial origin, the plight of black people in America fascinated Basquiat throughout his tragically short but highly prolific career. Whether in dealing with sports stars, musicians or himself, Basquiat constantly placed the black figure at the centre his artistic dialogue. His figures are heralded, commemorated and honoured as kings, heroes and martyrs valiantly battling against the odds to overcome the cynical oppression of the white man and his oppressive establishment. However, in a twist rarely seen within his oeuvre, Basquiat turns the tables to offer a sharp and biting critique on members of his own race in Irony of Negro Policeman.

    Against a stark white background, a black man emerges dressed in a midnight blue police uniform. His face is like a mask upon which his cap acts like a cage imprisoning his identity. This is Basquiat’s depiction of a fellow African American who has sold out to the white establishment. Basquiat’s traitor has joined an institutionalized form of whiteness, collaborating to enforce the exact laws created by whites to enslave blacks. By titling the work “IRONY OF NEGRO PLCEMN” next to the black face and also inscribing what may be read as ‘PAWN’ in the lower right corner, Basquiat is clearly suggesting that he deems it ironic that the oppressed should wear the uniform of the oppressor.

    Painted in the same year and executed in the same size and format, La Hara is a companion work to Irony of Negro Policeman. However, instead of depicting a slouched and dazed black officer it depicts a brutal looking skeletal of a white cop whom Basquiat has entitled ‘La Hara’, Puerto Rican pejorative slang for the police. Basquiat’s black policeman in Irony of Negro Policeman with its huge rounds eyes, gaping mouth and grid like cage around its face certainly looks more like a deer caught in headlights entrapped in an unfamiliar position, body and place than a fearsome law enforcer. Having committed the ultimate sin, the Judas-like betrayal of his race, one can sense the heavy, psychological burden weighing on Basquiat’s anonymous black policeman. However, in light of Basquiat’s infamous journey through the 1980s art world we must ask ourselves if this figure is not just an anonymous black man but rather a self-portrait.

    With his oeuvre as the ultimate testament, it is no secret that Basquiat’s greatest existential fight in life was his identity and his struggle for acceptance as a black man in a white art world. An examination of Basquiat’s short adult life reveals that Irony of a Negro Policeman can be read as profoundly biographical. Basquiat’s artistic career began in the mid 70s when just a teenager along with his friend Al Diaz he graffitied poetry and imagery under the pseudonym SAMO © in lower Manhattan. The art of graffiti was on the rise and Basquiat rode the wave making a name for himself in a very short period of time but soon he would turn his back on the movement by taking his raw expression from the streets to the gallery. With one foot in the art world, Basquiat developed a relationship with the curator Diego Cortez who managed to include him in the seminal New York/New Wave group show at PS1. This would lead to Basquiat’s first gallery solo show in Modena, Italy but once again Basquiat turned his back on a friend when he cut out Cortez to work directly with the New York gallerist Anina Nosei. Nosei provided Basquiat with a stable studio space in the basement of her gallery and an endless supply of materials allowing Basquiat to create some of his most important masterpieces including the present lot, Irony of a Negro Policeman. It was 1981–82 and Basquiat was working at the height of his powers exercising his inner most demons in compositions layered with meaning and imagery derived from a seemingly endless stream of consciousness and from an unrivalled ability to comprehend, digest and synthesize the history of art and the world around him.

    Around this period, Basquiat poignantly dealt with the issue of race and more specifically the notion of black enslavement by the white establishment in several key works including St Joe Louis Surrounded by Snakes and Profit I both from 1982. As a counter to Irony of Negro Policeman, St. Joe Louis Surrounded by Snakes depicts the halo-crowned boxer Joe Louis resting during a pause in the ring surrounded by ‘snakes,’ his trainer and advisor from the white establishment whose financial greed infamously ruined the fighter. From the same year, the monumental Profit I carries the same message. A self-portrait, it represents the black artist with a halo-crown as a crucified hero who is being ‘held up’ by his art dealers of the time, Nosei in New York, Gagosian in Los Angeles, Bischofberger in Zurich and Mazzolli in Modena, extorting every last penny from his success. Yet it was Basquiat himself who sought out this societal and financial success, who dropped old friends at the turn of a hat to climb the social ladder and who spent extravagantly on designer suits only to cover them in paint. In these three works, St. Joe Louis Surrounded by Snakes, Profit I and the present lot, Irony of Negro Policeman, Basquiat’s psychological dilemma becomes imminently clear. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Basquiat is tormented between achieving his ultimate goal of being accepted as an artist in the white art world and being true to his racial roots, to honour his martyred heroes like Jackie Robinson and Charlie Parker without himself committing the martyrdom. This torment would lead Basquiat to famously live fast and hard and like so many of the stars he admired, such as Jimi Hendrix, burn out at the cruelly young age of 27.

    In February of 1985, Jean-Michel Basquiat featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine with the headline: ‘New Art, New Money – The Marketing of An American artist’. Given that five years previously, Basquiat was living on the streets tagging subways, many would see this as the ultimate sell-out: he had become the black figure in the blue policeman outfit. But far from being confused and star struck, he chose to depict himself as the black artist who conquered the white art world. Regally seated on his throne with a cool, dismissive air, he holds his brush like a weapon and his naked foot rests on the fallen chair in a parody of images of white hunters posing with their boots in cadavers while on safari. The reality however was far different. Around the time of the New York Times publication, Basquiat, who by this time only dated white women and was said to ignore his fellow African-Americans at parties, thought he had reached the social and art world pinnacle in collaborating with Andy Warhol. The reviews however were extremely cynical and negative claiming Warhol was only using the young Basquiat for his own ends. Seemingly no longer so self-assured, the erratic and temperamental Basquiat was extremely hurt and abruptly ended his collaboration with Warhol. He would slowly enter into a state of extreme depression and drug dependency which would lead to his ultimate demise in August of 1987.

    As a tremendous existential portrait, Irony of Negro Policeman, is reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X from 1953. Both visually depict a screaming head entrapped within a grid like cage. Although neither painting is entitled as a selfportrait both can be inferred as containing significant auto-biographical references for their respective authors. Whereas Basquiat was tormented by his race, Bacon struggled with the acceptance of his sexuality having been brought up a strict Catholic. But whatever the underlying struggle was, it allowed each artist to create portraits which depict man at his primal core with all of his complexities, paradoxes and inner most demons laid bare for the world to see.

  • Artist Bio

    Jean-Michel Basquiat

    American • 1960 - 1988

    One of the most famous American artists of all time, Jean-Michel Basquiat first gained notoriety as a subversive graffiti-artist and street poet in the late 1970s. Operating under the pseudonym SAMO, he emblazoned the abandoned walls of the city with his unique blend of enigmatic symbols, icons and aphorisms. A voracious autodidact, by 1980, at 22-years of age, Basquiat began to direct his extraordinary talent towards painting and drawing. His powerful works brilliantly captured the zeitgeist of the 1980s New York underground scene and catapulted Basquiat on a dizzying meteoric ascent to international stardom that would only be put to a halt by his untimely death in 1988.

    Basquiat's iconoclastic oeuvre revolves around the human figure. Exploiting the creative potential of free association and past experience, he created deeply personal, often autobiographical, images by drawing liberally from such disparate fields as urban street culture, music, poetry, Christian iconography, African-American and Aztec cultural histories and a broad range of art historical sources.

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Irony of Negro Policeman

acrylic and oilstick on wood
182.9 × 121.9 cm (72 × 48 in)
Signed and dated ‘Jean Michel Basquiat 81’ on the reverse.

£6,000,000 - 8,000,000 

sold for £8,161,250

Contemporary Art Evening

28 June 2012