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  • Provenance

    Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
    Mary Boone Gallery, New York
    Private Collection, Spain
    Private Collection, Switzerland
    Sotheby's, New York, 18 May 2000, lot 190
    Private Collection
    Christie's New York, 12 May 2004, lot 391
    Private Collection
    Koller Auktionen AG, Zurich, 24 June 2005, lot 3091
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    New York, Mary Boone Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 5 - 26 May 1984, no. 6 (illustrated)
    Hong Kong, Gagosian Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 21 May - 10 August 2013

  • Literature

    Kate Linker, 'Jean-Michel Basquiat Mary Boone Gallery', Artforum, 1984, pp. 90-91 (illustrated)
    Richard Marshall, Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, vol II, Paris, 1996, no. 4, pp. 132-133 (illustrated, p. 132)
    Richard Marshall, Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, vol II, Paris, 2000, no. 4, pp. 216-217 (illustrated, p. 216)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Executed in 1984, the present work stems from the height of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s explosive and prolific career, having honed and consolidated his, now iconic, stylistic and symbolic imagery. Creating a shared visual language that appears across the various works from Basquiat’s output, the artist’s leitmotifs create a unanimous wealth of imagery that are spontaneously reinterpreted and reworked throughout his oeuvre. One chosen subject, the legendary jazz musician Charlie Parker, surfaced several times, eponymously addressed by Basquiat as ‘Bird’, Parker’s infamous nickname. Bird as Buddha, a powerfully personal work, signifies the artist’s connection to the jazz virtuoso and presents a poetic reflection on the symbiosis of soul and fearlessness.

    Several parallels can be drawn between Charlie Parker and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Leading a distinguished but short-lived career that was prematurely cut-short as a result of his untimely death, Parker was one of the most prevalent names in his field at the time Basquiat was working, and had a profound influence on the artist’s work. Addressing the theme in prominent works such as Bird on Money, 1981, and Horn Players, 1983 (The Broad Collection, Los Angeles), Basquiat’s concern with the subject celebrated in the present work lies at the forefront of his oeuvre. Not only was the jazz doyen depicted in the works themselves, it was rumoured that Basquiat would also listen to his music in his studio, a poignant accompaniment to the present work. Most importantly though, both Parker and Basquiat can both be seen to elevate and intellectualise their respective art forms. Parker was working to overturn the lingering racism and cynicism surrounding jazz as a lesser form of music, while Basquiat challenged the prevailingly white art establishment as a mixed race and multicultural young artist.

    In Bird as Buddha the artist knowingly aligns himself with an art-historical tradition that he rarely confronted: formalised portraiture, as opposed to the artist’s more frequent études or studies of figures. This is further substantiated by Basquiat’s ironic title, referring humorously to a history of painters’ tendencies to paint their subjects ‘as’ something else. Parker himself is totally unrecognisable without Basquiat’s titular accompaniment, scrawled on the back of the canvas. His face itself, distorted beyond recognition, supposedly depicts the mergence of Parker with Siddhārtha Gautama, known later as the founder of Buddhism. Almost comic in its representation, with its lurid grimace purporting to be a wide, beaming grin that arguably embodies Parker’s buoyant, extroverted personality and lifestyle, the portrait is both vivid and expressive in fusing the two visages. In combining the Buddha, his religious principles of ‘samsara’ (the transferral of energy after death), with Parker, whose tragic death at a young age shook the jazz community, Basquiat explores the cyclical nature of art; he positions himself as an inheritor of artistic energy – the next to carry the baton - within the tradition of genre-defining artists. Parker’s presence on the canvas is a sign of religious reverence for the artist; Basquiat chose to resurrect the jazz icon nearly thirty years after his death, embracing him not only as a source of inspiration but also pioneer, as a fellow artist destined to pave the way in breaking tradition.

    The composition, with its bold, central figure and typically vibrant colour palette, is in itself an outstanding piece from Basquiat’s oeuvre; the artist achieves the stark contrast of the turquoise and azure bringing the golden yellows, burnt-oranges and purple-reds of the face into sharp, highlighted relief, framed and further illuminated by a white-hot outline. This bold use of line distinguishes Basquiat from his preceding generation of portrait-painters, animating and highlighting the distorted face. It also demonstrates the influence that the American Abstract Expressionist’s had on Basquiat’s painterly approach, particularly with regards to his mastery of colour and employment of tonal contrast. With the background being deliberately subsidiary to the central, prominent form, the artist further elevates the composition with expansive fields of bright, rich blue, haloed around the crest of the subject’s head as well as appearing in the space between his legs and in the lower right quadrant. Other areas of the canvas reveal a muted palette, applied with effortless, spontaneous brushstrokes; this is balanced by the more uniform areas of paintwork surrounding the head and the tighter detail in the facial area, which we naturally gravitate towards. This contrast creates an illusion of space and depth, of foreground and background, despite the vague indications of light and shade encourages the viewer to imagine the space in which the figure may be occupying. Once again, in homage to formal portraiture, the figure becomes the central focal point for the composition. Possibly the result of pictorial layering, one of Basquiat’s most important practices, the figure is nearly incorporeal until two-thirds of the way up the space of the canvas, at which point we can finally discern his shoulders.

    Infused with the spirit and energy of jazz, from Basquiat’s musical heroes to its rhythm and notation, the present work, steeped in its reverence of artistic and religious symbolism, pays fitting homage to a kindred artistic genius. Bird as Buddha exemplifies Jean-Michel Basquiat’s iconic oeuvre, and remains a testament to his legacy as one of the most significant and ground-breaking artists to emerge from the second half of the twentieth century.

  • Artist Biography

    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. 

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Ο ◆19

Bird as Buddha

signed, titled, inscribed and dated '"BIRD AS BUDDHA BHUDDA"' Jean-Michel Basquiat 1984' on the reverse
acrylic and oilstick on canvas
160 x 152.4 cm (62 7/8 x 60 in.)
Executed in 1984.

£2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

Sold for £2,529,000

Contact Specialist
Henry Highley
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4061 [email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 27 June 2018