Self-Portrait

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  • Provenance

    The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York; Robert Miller Gallery, New York; Private collection, Paris

  • Exhibited

    New York, Museum of Modern Art, Allegories of Modernism Contemporary Drawing, February 15 – May 5, 1992; New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Works in Black and White, November 15, 1994 – January 7, 1995; Musee d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, Passions privées: Collections particulières d’art moderne et contemporain en France, December 16, 1995 – March 24, 1996, p. 152 (illustrated); New York, Brooklyn Museum; Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art; and Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts, Basquiat, March 11, 2005 – February 12, 2006, p. 151 (illustrated)

  • Literature

    R. Marshall and J.L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 1996, vol. 1, pp. 112 – 13 (illustrated); R. Marshall and J.L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, third edition, pp. 96, 106 and 107, no. 3 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Jean-Michel Basquiat, Self-Portrait
     
    Titled “SELF PORTRAIT” across the back of the canvas by the artist himself, in this early work, one of Basquiat’s most intimate and autobiographical pictures, the painter depicts himself as a man-child. The materials and the anatomy of the figure directly evoke the style of children’s drawings, and yet the picture manifests a depth of self-analysis that has few rivals in modern and contemporary art. Moreover, the painting’s frame, hand-made by the artist from scraps of a door frame, nailed and tied together with twine, gives it all the more personal a charge. It is a votive and reliquary, a tabernacle of memory and desire, hope and loss. And it makes the work as much a fetish or a sculpture as a painting.
     
    Working primarily with crayon-like oil stick, the artist consciously calls upon the simple forms of children’s art. He traces out a crude anatomy, with circles for knees and clubs for hands and feet. It is an outstanding example of Basquiat’s wide-ranging fascination with the power of primitive styles, including prehistoric rock-paintings, as well as tribal and voodoo traditions. Yet there is exceptional depth and complexity in his psychological self-portrayal, conveying all the ambiguity of human character. At first, the depiction seems to emphasize goodness. The figure stands square to the canvas in direct and open presentation. He hides nothing. He smiles. A halo floats above his head. But these initial impressions grow more ambiguous upon longer viewing. The boyish body and the frank disposition are countered by the exposed skeletal rib cage and the flaccid but adult-sized penis, highlighted in blue — death and sex emerge from the child’s frame. The innocent face, begging for love, threatens to change into a frightening mask, while the smile carries a latent charge of mischief, as though he might get into trouble the moment you turn away. And the halo is formed of barbwire: a modern crown of thorns. The world over, the child is a figure of absolute innocence and of uncontrolled impulse. Both manifestations are equally present in Basquiat’s extraordinary and powerful painting.
     
    As the halo makes obvious, Basquiat here draws on the tradition of self-portraiture that refers to scenes from the life of Christ. Deeply rooted in European art, this tradition begins with Dürer. The simple pose of the figure harks back to a classic form in Christian imagery. “Ecce Homo” — Behold Man — said Pontius Pilate when he displayed Christ to the crowd after his scourging and before the crucifixion. This moment inspired some of the most powerful images in Western art of a lonely and tormented figure standing exposed. One famous example is Rembrandt’s print of the scene; it also stimulated deeply moving paintings by Caravaggio, Titian, Mantegna and many others. In a step with tremendous implications for the history of later art, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Watteau transformed the scene of Ecce Homo into a type for the Artist, innocently offering himself and his work to the mocking derision of the hostile and unenlightened crowd (fig 1).
     
    This image of the artist as outsider and naif was taken up and embraced in the twentieth century by painters of different character and for different expressive ends. One part of this tradition in modern art has been to emphasize the artist as a figure of childlike spontaneity, directness, and creativity. Images of this kind, not so much Ecce Homo, but Ecce Puer — Behold the Boy — were invented most notably by Henri Rousseau and Paul Klee (fig 2) in the early part of the twentieth century, and more recently by Jean Dubuffet (fig 3). Dubuffet, of course, had an immense influence on Basquiat, as has been often acknowledged. These are generally cheerful pictures, in which the avoidance of sophisticated technique is meant to convey simplicity and immediacy.
     
    But another tradition of self-portraiture in modern art finds much more disturbing potential in the tradition of Christological imagery. Dürer began this mode of interpretation, drawing himself as a figure of Jesus holding a flail: the protagonist in that picture is simultaneously both victim (Christ) and sinner (Dürer), and the look on his face conveys a kind of psychological or spiritual horror. One important modern exponent of this line of interpretation is Egon Schiele, for whom the tradition was a chance to express his alienation and isolation (fig 4). Schiele evokes the image of Ecce Homo in order to demonstrate his distance from salvation. He is only like Jesus in his torment and his mortality. Schiele seems to declare: Ecce monstrum, behold the outcast, unredeemed and unredeemable.
     
    With instinctive and unerring economy, Basquiat combines both traditions, depicting himself as a child and man, innocent and imp, loving, charming, and yet shadowed by id and mortality.
     
    Basquiat, around 1981 and 1982, made a number of pictures in which a dark figure stands at the center beneath a crown of barbwire, with a grimacing mask for a face, and a skeleton for a body, exposed as in an X-ray. Some of these pictures are bigger or more colorful than the present painting. None is more essential, more complex, or more powerful.

  • 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.

    View More Works

8

Self-Portrait

Executed in 1982
Acrylic, oil stick and paper collage on canvas mounted on tied wood supports.
48 x 81 in. (121.9 x 205.7 cm).
Signed, titled and dated ‘ “SELF PORTRAIT” 1982 Jean Michel Basquiat’ (on the reverse).

Estimate
$4,000,000 - 6,000,000 

sold for $4,562,500

Carte Blanche

8 November 2010  6pm
New York