Jean-Michel Basquiat - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 13, 2014 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Mary Boone Gallery, New York
    Private Collection
    Christie's New York, Contemporary Art Sale, May 12, 2004, lot 391
    Private Collection

  • Exhibited

    New York, Mary Boone Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984

  • Literature

    Jean-Michel Basquiat,exh. cat., Mary Boone Gallery, New York, 1984, no. 6 (illustrated)
    R. Marshall, J. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris: Galerie Enrico Navarra, 1996, vol. II, p. 132, no. 4 (illustrated)
    R. Marshall, J. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris: Galerie Enrico Navarra, 2000, p. 217, no. 4 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    "I don't think about art when I'm working. I try to think about life." Jean-Michel Basquiat

    At the height of both his fame and prolificacy in 1984, Jean-Michel Basquiat churned out works on canvas, wood, and variety of other mediums with astonishing speed. By this time, he had already consolidated a substantial amount of the symbology that he is now known for: his x-rayed anatomy, his use of crowns and religious motifs, his spare and cryptic lettering, and, of course, his veneration of storied childhood heroes. Stylistically, however, Basquiat rarely repeated himself, as it was his neo-Expressionist tendency to improvise while working. This system of measured spontaneity has bequeathed to us a fantastic variety of related imagery, where two visually dissimilar works can possess a wealth of common icons. One such favored subject, the legendary jazz musician Charlie Parker, surfaced again and again, eponymously addressed by Basquiat as “Bird”—Parker’s equally famous nickname. Bird as Buddha, 1984 represents one of Basquiat’s most eloquently personal works: a meditation on the marriage of spirit and heroism.

    Similar to Basquiat’s own artistic precocity, Charlie Parker led one of the most distinguished careers in jazz despite passing away at only 34. Basquiat would unfortunately share this early fate, but not without finding a kindred spirit in the figure of Parker, who influenced Basquiat’s art in multiple aspects. In addition to making frequent appearances on his canvasses themselves, Parker’s music often filled the room of Basquiat’s studios (he was rumored to listened to an endless stream of Parker recordings while he worked). But their marriage of minds does not stop there—both Parker and Basquiat are responsible for intellectualizing their art forms to a major degree: Parker worked against the lingering racism of minstrelsy and jazz as solely entertainment, while Basquiat worked against the prevailingly white art establishment as a mixed race and multicultural young artist.

    Upon the canvas, Parker’s form is certainly unrecognizable without Basquiat’s titular accompaniment, scrawled on the back of his canvas. Working in a rash and breathtakingly exciting manner of application, Basquiat makes the present lot stand out within the scope of his oeuvre, partially due to its singular and central figure, but also due to the chromatic luxuriousness of his palette. The latter aspect gains its fabulous variety from Basquiat’s dichotomy of two main colors in the background of his figure: at the upper corners of his picture, blocks of gray lend the painting a rare chromatic symmetry for Basquiat’s work. His brushwork, quick and lightly textured (signaling relatively diluted acrylic), is present and plentiful, the many cascading gestures of white and black like so many hairs on the back of an aging scalp. Alternatively, Basquiat offsets his duller pigment with pockets of bright blue, haloed around the crest of the subject’s head yet also appearing in the space between his legs and in the lower right quadrant. Basquiat applies the blue coloring with far more unity of texture and color, implying a slower, more meticulous process. Taken together, both the blue and gray give us an impression of an interior space that the subject is currently occupying—the bright blue light of day shines behind him.

    Yet Basquiat’s infinitely complex background details are obviously second to his central figure as the point of focus. Establishing his subject centrally, Basquiat knowingly plays into an art-historical tradition that he rarely tackled: full-frontal portraiture (the act of portraiture is further substantiated by Basquiat’s title—a winking send-up on the history of painters’ tendencies to paint their subjects “as” something else). Aside from self-portraiture, many of Basquiat’s pieces tend to fall into the realm of etudes, or studies on the figures inherent as opposed to formalized portraits.

    Bird as Buddha, 1984, however, is in a realm of its own. Surrounded by a golden hue shimmering around his ghostly body (and possibly the result of pictorial layering—a key practice of Basquiat’s), 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, scrawled in a gorgeous symphony of burnt orange, white, red, and dark purple highlights. Basquiat’s creative use of the line in his painting could be perceived as heterodox to the generations of portrait-painters who came before him: thick and white, it functions to animate the face of his subject while focusing the vision of the spectator on the upper portion of the picture. The face in question, eyes closed, grinning, oblivious to pain, belongs to a curious hybrid of subject. Though supposedly a representation of both Charlie Parker and Siddartha Gautama, known later as the founder of Buddhism, the face is almost eerily comic, fusing pieces from each legendary figure into a mask of ecstasy. Painted in widely varying shades of red, orange, and yellow, the face is hairless, save for a pair of darkened eyebrows. But the enormous smile is infectious, clearly a nod to Parker’s own gregarious yet manically indulgent lifestyle. To the right and below, Basquiat gives us a single literal tribute to Parker’s nickname, as a bird’s leg juts out of a receding body in a few strokes of gray.

    This fusion of iconography was not new to Basquiat; he often enthroned himself as a Christ figure in his work, or juxtaposed a variety of cultural figures with dissonant pieces of symbolism upon a canvas. But in merging the Buddha, whose belief in migrating energy after death is a tenet of his religion, with Parker, whose tragic death at a young age rocked the nascent jazz community, we find Basquiat exploring the cyclical nature of art, positioning himself as the inheritor of a long tradition of epoch-making artists. The literal incorporation of avian anatomy is an extension of the historical spirituality built into the picture: a placement of an animal alongside a human being is a reminder that we share the same finite energies from the perspective of the Buddha. Basquiat’s mixed religious/iconic schematic serves to negate the notion of Western religious dichotomy, where religion and spirituality serve more as models of morality than practical systems of understanding our place in the world.

    It is not surprising that Basquiat chose to employ a variety of colors to illustrate this unique method of understanding himself and his work. While he relied upon particular tropes and motifs in his work, “one exceptional feature of Basquiat’s use of color is the baffling fact that he had no signature palette to speak of; nor, for that matter, was he prone to repeating particular combinations, so curious he was to try new relationships.”(M. Mayer, “Basquiat in History”, Basquiat, Edited by M. Mayer, New York, 2005, p. 47) His bright layers of blue and blazing yellow serve to highlight the intense spiritual nature of Bird as Buddha, 1984.

    This marvelous variety of color should not be mistaken a spur of the moment irreverence, however. One of the most prodigious public misunderstandings of Basquiat’s work is a perceived intentional break with the past. Yet, as we find in the present lot, Basquiat owes a great deal of his painterly approach (especially in color) to the American Abstract Expressionists. Especially in his early career, “he set out to establish himself as an artist, and began by learning about the painting styles and techniques of established twentieth century artists that he admired, in particular, Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly.”(R. Marshall, “Jean-Michel Basquiat and His Subjects”, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, p. 15) In Willem de Kooning’s Bolton Landing, 1957, we find a chromatic structure quite similar to Basquiat’s in its liberal use of yellow, blue, and grey—a curious combination of colors, yet breathtaking in the hands of these two artists. This flirtation with color field painting would enchant de Kooning for the next twenty years, while Basquiat moved far beyond it in his last four years of work.

    Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park No. 79, 1975, also finds a chromatic unity with Basquiat’s Bird as Buddha, employing pale blue as its overriding central force and allowing yellow, grey, and white to erupt from its core. Diebenkorn’s use of pastel coloring also approaches that of Basquiat, whose chromatic severity is softened by his calmer tones.

    While those artists certainly functioned as stylistic influences upon the young artist, it would be erroneous to extol them as heroes in Basquiat’s sense of the word:

    “Basquiat’s “icons”, especially the more complex ones, seem improvised and spontaneous, as you would expect of an invocation, or of graffiti, for that matter…the many works in this “icon” category have a familiar ritual function, not unlike the West African sculptures and masks that Basquiat collected when he traveled there, the functional Vodoun and Santeria figures of his Caribbean roots that descended from them, or Western religious icons and statuettes meant to embody a given saint or represent Jesus Christ.”(M. Mayer, “Basquiat in History”, Basquiat, New York, 2005, p. 51)

    Charlier Parker’s presence on the canvas is a sign of religious reverence for Basquiat, embodying one of the most sacred relationships known to the artist. As a reliable artistic partner, Basquiat chose to resurrect the spirit of Parker nearly thirty years after his death, embracing Parker not only as a source of inspiration but also as a carrier of the torch—an artist destined to break the mold of established norms. Bird as Buddha, 1984 is a superb example of Basquiat’s endless spirit of collaboration—both in life and in death.

  • 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.

    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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Bird as Buddha

acrylic, oilstick on canvas
63 x 60 in. (160 x 152.4 cm)
Signed, titled and dated '"BIRD AS BUDDHA' Jean-Michel Basquiat 1984" on the reverse.

$4,000,000 - 6,000,000 

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Amanda Stoffel
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New York
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Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 13 November 2014 7pm