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  • Provenance

    Mary Boone Gallery, New York; Private collection, New York

  • Exhibited

    Indianapolis Museum of Art, Painting and Sculpture Today 1984, May 1, 1984 - June 10, 1984

  • Literature

    Indianapolis Museum of Art, ed., Painting and Sculpture Today 1984, Indianapolis, 1984, p. 2 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Charged with a nervous, frantic energy, pulsating with a vibrant palette and brimming with fierce lines and brushwork, Thirty-Sixth Figure thoroughly exemplifies the brilliance of the early artistic production of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the enfant terrible of the 1980s NewYork art world. Inhabiting the entire picture plane is fleetingly rendered, coarsely delineated black and white figure that glares towards the viewer with a forceful, piercing stance. A hostile note is introduced by way of the figure’s shape, ominously evocative of a large bullet. The image of an angel, a recurring leitmotif in Basquiat’s visual lexicon, is also suggested by a sanctifying halo that crowns the bullet’s head. With its combatively outstretched, stick-like arms, the skeletal form seems to be struggling to wake from a ground of gold, punctuated with rough swaths of highly saturated reds, blues and greens. Such a confluence of disparate images and raw treatment of the subject conjures up a sense of brutality and angst that typifies many of Basquiat’s lively yet conflicted characters.
    Having long abandoned his graffiti pseudonym of SAMO in 1980 and subsequently undergone a natural shift to canvas painting, Basquiat successfully transposed before a spellbound art world the loud energy of the street into the gallery vicinity. Thirty-Sixth Figure was painted in 1983, a critical year for Basquiat not only in terms of an outstanding artistic grace but also of his rapid ascendance to celebrity. In that year, Basquiat had a one-artist show at Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles and was one of the youngest artists ever to be included in theWhitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial Exhibition. It was also through his then girlfriend Paige Powel, an editor at Interview magazine and great admirer of his work, that Basquiat befriended Warhol. 1983 saw the onset of a collaborative relationship between the two artists that provoked great contention about white patronization of black art but which would eventually help to consecrate Basquiat’s stardom in the art world. The present lot is testimony to the artist’s expanded vocabulary that developed thereby, his signature style encompassing a multifaceted convergence of his diverse interests and energies, a synthesis of street drawing onto canvas, the profile of his autobiography and references to painterly styles of established Modernist artists.
    Basquiat’s well-versed knowledge of art history informs much of his oeuvre. Amongst his myriad influences, the physicality of Abstract Expressionist work was paramount, where the blunt, vigorous application of paint proved to be a powerful vehicle to convey the artist’s innermost thoughts and ambitions. In particular, the fierceness of Pollock’s early paintings appealed significantly to Basquiat, as both artists found great relief in flouting the constricting conventions of high art.The fearless forms contained within the present lot also echoes the gritty, thick impasto found in the work of Dubuffet, whose own style drew on the hasty urgency of graffiti art, whereas the angel’s mask-like face bring to mind Picasso’s reclamation of tribal art.
    It is significant that many artists admired by Basquiat were drawn to primitivism as an expressive rupture from the cold formalism that marked much of Western modern art. But in many ways the multi-ethnic Basquiat worked from the memory and legacy bequeathed by his own ancestry. As critic Bel Hooks maintained in 1993, Basquiat was “grappling with both the pull of a genealogy that is fundamentally Black” (B. Hooks, “Altars of Sacrifice,” Art in America, NewYork, 1993, p. 71). The present lot, then, demonstrates Basquiat’s staggering ability as a self-taught artist to creatively amass, conflate and deconstruct his vast visual and cultural network of knowledge to generate an entirely fresh, unique style.
    In many ways Basquiat’s canvases communicated the artist’s ongoing protests against ideological injustice and oppression he witnessed in American society. The angel, drawn from Christian artistic tradition, occurs in the present lot as a metaphor of Basquiat’s own calling as an artist, a means to explore his condition. The raw, scrawled black and white lines that make up the figure are visual intimations of the cruel antagonism faced by the artist even within the art establishment, “The images are nakedly violent. They speak of being torn apart, ravished. Commodified, appropriated, made to serve the need of white masters, the black body as Basquiat shows it is incomplete” (B. Hooks, “Altars of Sacrifice,” Art in America, New York, 1993, p. 71).
    Born to a Puerto-Rican-American mother and Haitian-American father, Basquiat made constant allusions to his struggle as a black man at odds with white society. “More than anything else, Jean-Michel’s work is very much a sweeping account of the black American experience through a young man’s eyes. Other people may have different opinions, but I think that’s what it was. There were several influences, but that was his angst. He was a barometer of society, even though his community of friends and artistic collaborators were mostly white” (S. Mallouk, Suzanne Mallouk Remembers, Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981 The Studio of the Street, NewYork, 2006, p.102).
    As evidenced in the present lot’s title, Basquiat also demonstrated a constant preoccupation with religion.The number thirty-six is of particular significance in Jewish folklore, where it refers to the number of lamed vovniks or hidden righteous people in whose merit the world was ensured continued existence at any given time.Typically poor, obscure and unknown by the rest of the world, they bear the burden of all sorrow and sin to keep God from destroying the world. As such the title hints at Basquiat’s struggle in a white, Eurocentric society. Chillingly, the saintly connotations evoked by the title are alarmingly undercut with the presence of the bullet-like form and skull face, prophesying the omnipresent weight of mortality. Thirty Sixth Figure is a truly outstanding example of Basquiat’s unrepentant aesthetic, boldly encapsulating the hybrid iconography he developed in the early 1980s from his rich and diverse heritage. Conflating bellicose imagery with that of sainthood, the thirty-sixth figure is an embodiment of Basquiat himself; the work speaks powerfully of the hagiographic power which keeps the artist’s legend alive and relevant today as it was in 1983.

  • 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 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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Thirty-Sixth Figure

Acrylic on canvas.
60 x 48 in. (152.3 x 121.5 cm).
Signed and titled “Jean-Michel ‘Thirty Sixth Figure’“on the reverse. This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity. 

$1,500,000 - 2,000,000 

Contemporary Art Part I

13 Nov 2008, 7pm
New York