‘Nothing can replace the warmth and immediacy of Basquiat’s poetry, or the absolute questions and truths that he delivered. The beautiful and disturbing music of his paintings, the cacophony of his silence that attacks our senses, will live far beyond our breath. Basquiat was, and is music ... primitive and ferocious’
Christie’s is delighted to present an outstanding group of eight works by Jean-Michel Basquiat from the collection of the celebrated actor, producer and musician Johnny Depp. Spread across the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening and Day Auctions, this carefully-curated selection of early paintings and drawings testifies to Depp’s visionary engagement with one of the twentieth century’s most powerful artistic forces. Assembled over the course of more than twenty-five years, the works offered for auction stem exclusively from the early 1980s: the pivotal period that saw Basquiat’s transformation from clandestine street artist to global superstar. Channelling the creative energy that fuelled the musical and artistic underbelly of post-punk New York, the works represent a time capsule of this meteoric period. Together, they bear witness to the birth of a revolutionary visual language – a raw poetry of gestures, words and symbols – that would come to explosive fruition in Basquiat’s canvases of 1982. From the electrifying tableau Pork, executed on a discarded door, to the remarkable double self-portrait illustrated on the cover of Larry Warsh’s 1993 volume Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks, each work in the collection represents an expertly-chosen, jewel-like artefact from Basquiat’s early years. Widely exhibited in many of the artist’s most important retrospectives, they stand together as a connoisseurial survey of the moment that launched Basquiat’s stratospheric, though tragically all-too-short, career.
Since the 1990s, Depp has cultivated a close, personal relationship with Basquiat’s works, seeking out pieces that resonate with his understanding of the artist. United by their passionate commitment to their respective fields, the two share a fearless creative drive: a relentless desire to push the boundaries of their art forms. In Basquiat, Depp has identified something of a kindred spirit: an artist who was not afraid to work against the grain, to project his persona into every aspect of his output, and to channel his voice through multiple artistic media. Like Depp – a talented guitarist, who has performed with Marilyn Manson and Alice Cooper – Basquiat’s work was driven by a powerful affinity with music: a rhythmic and lyrical impulse that ran deep in his veins. Depp’s eloquent essay on Basquiat – commissioned by the gallerist Enrico Navarra in 2000 – testifies to a profound connection with this aspect of the artist’s aesthetic. ‘Nothing can replace the warmth and immediacy of Basquiat’s poetry, or the absolute questions and truths that he delivered’, he writes. ‘The beautiful and disturbing music of his paintings, the cacophony of his silence that attacks our senses, will live far beyond our breath. Basquiat was, and is music ... primitive and ferocious’ (J. Depp, ‘Basquiat Paintings – for Enrico – under the influence of Pork’, in E. Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, p. 17).
‘GELDZAHLER: What is your subject matter?
BASQUIAT [pause]: Royalty, heroism, and the streets’
‘During the year of 1981 [Basquiat] made the transition from a profusely talented and promising artist working on the street to a world-class painter, poised to become one of the most influential artists of his time’
‘If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption it would be Jean-Michel. The elegance of Twombly is there from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet’
‘Every time you went to a good loft party, visited the apartment of someone interesting, or attended the performance of a talked-about new band, it seemed that SAMO had been there first. His disconcerting but riveting haiku-like street poetry marked the walls of every building where artists and musicians congregated’
With its cacophony of raw, symbolic forms scrawled upon the caustic surface of a wooden door, Pork is a towering icon from the pivotal year of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s practice. From wild gestural streaks of acrylic and oilstick, interspersed with schismatic linear forms and dislocated fragments of text, a new visual language pulses its way into being. It was in the heady, post-punk euphoria of 1981 that the twenty-one-year-old Basquiat – who, up until this point, had operated under the epithet SAMO – made the critical transition from anonymous graffiti artist to international superstar. Executed upon a fragment of urban debris, the work stands as a relic from the final days of his street-based existence, before the dealer Annina Nosei offered him a studio in the basement of her gallery. Like the walls, billboards, windows and even refrigerators that functioned as his original canvases, the door – complete with original hinges and panes of glass – represents a contemporary architectural ruin, infused with the electrifying spirit of 1980s downtown Manhattan. With its primal rhythmic vitality and dissonant collision of graphic forms, it captures the chaotic creative energy that pounded through the city’s streets, lofts, studios, TV screens and speakers. A primitive, masked head looms large at the centre of the work, its Christ-like halo of thorns prefiguring the messianic self-portraits that Basquiat produced later that year. ‘Pork’ – a prevalent term within Basquiat’s lexicon – is daubed above it in thick black letters. Definitive elements of his enigmatic urban poetry linger in the background like hieroglyphics: crowns, mysterious codes and foreign inscriptions. Bridging the gap between the itinerant wanderings of the artist’s youth and the dizzy heights of fame that would consume him over the course of the following year, Pork has been included in major retrospectives of Basquiat’s work, including those held at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1992- 1993) and the Fondation Beyeler, Basel (2010). The work was acquired by Johnny Depp in 1998 – the year that the actor starred in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Basquiat’s derelict door reflects the Zeitgeist of the city in which he made his name. During the late 1970s, New York had been suffering from economic stagnation and foreclosure: whole swathes of the city – in particular Soho, Tribeca, the Lower East Side and the East Village – were abandoned by white-collar workers and businesses in favour of the suburbs. At the same time, critics lamented the loss of innovation and avant-garde flair in the realms of popular culture and mainstream art. It was against this backdrop of privation that a new underground artistic current began to emerge: from the discarded neighbourhoods and tenement buildings grew an ‘anti-golden age’, led by young street artists, writers and musicians whose spontaneous combustion of punk and new wave culture breathed new life into their environment. As Jeffrey Deitch explains, ‘The streets were animated with stark handmade posters for band performances, and spillover from clubs made the surrounding streets into a no-budget punk version of sidewalk cafes. Walking the blocks of the Bowery almost any time of day or night you were likely to run into an artist or musician of your acquaintance.’ It was within this context that the young Basquiat first came to light: a mysterious graffiti artist known as SAMO, who relentlessly tagged his pseudonym upon the city’s crumbling façades. ‘Every time you went to a good loft party, visited the apartment of someone interesting, or attended the performance of a talked-about new band’, Deitch recalls, ‘it seemed that SAMO had been there first. His disconcerting but riveting haiku-like street poetry marked the walls of every building where artists and musicians congregated’ (J. Deitch, ‘1981: The Studio of the Street’, in Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the Streets, exh. cat., Deitch Projects, New York, 2006, p. 9).
It was not until 1981 – the year of the present work – that SAMO would reveal his identity before a global audience. His name had first been mentioned in the press the previous year, but to the majority of New York, he was still something of an enigma. His inclusion in Diego Cortez’s New York/New Wave exhibition at P.S.1 brought him to the attention of the dealers Bruno Bischofberger and Annina Nosei: partnerships that would effectively launch his career. Shortly afterwards, he had his first solo show at the Galleria d’Arte Emilio Mazzoli in Modena, Italy. By the end of the year, he had moved from the streets to a large studio in the basement of Nosei’s Prince Street gallery, and was enjoying a prestigious international exhibition programme. As Deitch writes, he had made the transition from ‘a profusely talented and promising artist working on the street to a world-class painter, poised to become one of the most influential artists of his time’ (J. Deitch, ‘1981: The Studio of the Street’, in Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the Streets, exh. cat., Deitch Projects, New York, 2006, pp. 10-13). In December, the critic René Ricard published his essay ‘The Radiant Child’ in Artforum: the first extensive examination of Basquiat’s work, and a now legendary assessment of his early oeuvre that firmly positioned him in the upper echelons of the art historical canon. ‘If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption it would be Jean- Michel’, he wrote. ‘The elegance of Twombly is there [and] from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet’ (R. Ricard, ‘The Radiant Child’, Artforum, Volume XX, No. 4, December 1981, p. 43).
Pork is a vibrant demonstration of this description: with its rough-hewn surface, visceral immediacy and trembling linear forms, it bears witness to the combined legacy of both artists. Twombly’s intuitive command of line and conscious submission to chance merges with Dubuffet’s raw, textural surfaces and primitive reductions of the human form. Basquiat’s uninhibited, gestural application of paint stood in marked contrast to the calculated mechanisms of screen-printing that had dominated American Pop Art during the previous two decades. At the same time, the work represents a repository of the diverse influences that, over the next few years, would come to be identified as key components of Basquiat’s visual language. His fascination with anatomical structures, in particular, was rooted in the copy of Grey’s Anatomy that he devoured as a child, along with Paul Richer’s Artistic Anatomy, books on Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso, as well as Burchard Brentjes’ book African Rock Art. This wide-ranging referential compass – spanning cave painting to Modernism and beyond – collided with elements of his own visual and sonic surroundings: cartoons, jazz, hip hop culture and – perhaps most importantly – graffiti. The crown of thorns, in this regard, is simultaneously evocative of an electric current, wired directly into the figure’s nervous system. As Diego Cortez has written, ‘[Basquiat] constructs an intensity of line which reads like a polygraph report, a brain-to-hand “shake.” The figure is electronic-primitive-comic’ (D. Cortez, quoted in R. D. Marshall and J-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, vol. 1, Paris 2000, p. 160).
In counterpoint with this pictorial barrage, Basquiat weaves an enigmatic poetry via a combination of mysterious ciphers – grids, diagrams, shapes, letters – and words in a variety of languages. His use of the word ‘pork’ throughout his oeuvre – along with ‘ribs’, ‘pig’, ‘lard’, ‘poultry’, ‘milk’ and so on – has been variously linked to his fascination with contemporary commerce, in particular the dissemination of food products: a phenomenon written into very fabric of the city through the peeling posters and advertising campaigns that adorned its streets. The recurrent phrase ‘peso neto’ – the Spanish translation of ‘net weight’, which appears in the lower right hand corner – has been similarly understood as an extension of his interest in systems of currency and trade. Ultimately, however, Basquiat’s textual tapestries resist interpretation: rather, they function like musical timbres – spikes of humour and splashes of gravitas through which he channels his persona onto the surface before him. Over time, they would come to represent a kind of mythology: fragments of dissipated meaning culled from his own urban legend. As Marc Mayer has written, ‘[Basquiat] papers over all other voices but his own, hallucinating total control of his proprietary information as if he were the author of all he transcribed’ (M. Mayer, ‘Basquiat in History’, in Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, 2005, p. 48).
JOHNNY DEPP: BASQUIAT PAINTINGS – FOR ENRICO – UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF PORK
On a turbulent flight out of Vienna, en route to Paris, I was asked to write a couple of pages about the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The passengers on this bumpy journey – Enrico Navarra, Sebastian Moreu, and myself were in the throes of what happened to be an enormous Austrian pork hock... at least we hoped it was. We’d acquired the beast at a small, run down, carnival-like market on the edge of Vienna. Our feast was primitive and ferocious. Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that it had been at least 24 hours since any solid had slithered down my gullet and my appetite was ravenous. And now, here we were, bearing down on this greasy pig meat and all too grateful for it, even as the plane dipped and jilted us around like kewpee dolls. The brain has been fed well that day, having just seen a collection of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s works and then on to another museum for a quick peak at a huge Warhol exhibition. All this information, in the matter of a few hours, is enough stimulation to drive any man to the nearest carnival-like market and throw down all of his coin for as much pork as humanly possible. So we did just that...
Between bites, Enrico brought up the idea of me writing something for the new and updated big book of Basquiat paintings he was about to re-publish. He said that if I wrote the piece, I should, at all costs, try to avoid writing about Basquiat’s life. Everyone, it seems, has a tendency to write more about the man than the work itself. This seemed fair enough, especially since I didn’t know the guy and had never met him, so the only thing that I really have is my opinion and my take on the legacy of what he left behind... in art. That, and of course, we seemed to share the same affinity for pork products. However, it is almost impossible to speak about his works without it becoming a crude dissection of the man. On any canvas or drawing, he spilled himself... maybe even without wanting to. His thoughts, his feelings – however fleeting, unfinished or incomplete are captured in that moment when he connected with his target. Early drawings show that he even literally shed his own blood onto the paper as proof of his commitment to the piece, his art... an acceptance of his destiny. A blood fusion, like a voodoo ritual, making the man and his art inseparable, an unholy bond merging the two into one.
If we really get down to brass tacks here, we can begin by saying that Basquiat is not for everyone. Much like pork is not for everyone. You either get it, or you don’t. One either loves with a passion, or despises with a vengeance. I’ve never heard of anyone saying, ‘Well, he’s okay, I guess...’ No, to my knowledge, that doesn’t happen with Basquiat. This is a very difficult result to achieve in any art form. The capability of not merely floating nicely in the middle, like a medium-tempered, semi-well-intentioned, virtually-invisible neighbor, whose passivity grates on one’s very being, but rather, the ability to speed like a bullet into the brains and bodies of the many jaded, and therefore ruined, intellectual art-hag and simpleton alike. That is the objective. It is a game of hit or miss. And when this motherfucker hits, he hits hard, on many levels.
There are some of his works that kill me and some that do absolutely nothing for me. But once you are touched by him, you are burned into either a kind of emotional stillness, or you may find yourself on the verge of doubling over into a painful belly laugh. Because as much honesty and history and life experience that he spewed into his drawings, paintings, objects, writings, whatever ... he had a killer sense of humor. Even in some of his most poignant works, his devilish sense of the absurd came through like gangbusters, completely unfiltered. As did his heartfelt disappointments in the human race, and his hopes for it. The signature imagery that comes to mind: the crown, the halo of thorns, portraits stripped of flesh, vital organs pumping blood- blue veined or devoid of any life, his childhood heroes Hank Aaron and Charlie Parker, etc., sainted for all eternity, the homage to his ancestry, endless references to his childhood ... he splayed himself open like a can of sardines for all of us to pick at, as he, in fact, devoured us.
He was never truly able to hide his feelings or influence in the work. He openly acknowledged Cy Twombly, Picasso, the word juxtaposition of William Burroughs and Brian Gyson, Andy Warhol, Leonardo da Vinci, Be Bop Jazz, T.V. programs and cartoons. He sometimes even used the drawings of his friends’ children as inspirations. His deep understanding and profound confusion with the American culture that he practically drowned himself in, was also an infinite reservoir from which he could draw upon for his chaotic assaults.
Looking at these works, one cannot escape without feeling the almost perverse sense of care taken to raw detail with what seems an acute distracted concentration. However crude the image may be or how fast it appears to have been executed – every line, mark, scratch, drip, footprint, fingerprint, word, letter, rip and imperfection is there because he allowed it to be there.
His paintings and drawings come alive for me every time I look at them, and if Jean-Michel Basquiat had stuck around for a bit longer, I like to think that he might have eventually moved into animation, for a time at least, combining his music, his language and drawings into an arena seemingly more palatable to the rank and file, but one that would have opened the floodgates for his messages to attack the masses. Something akin to Lenny Bruce’s ‘Thank You Mask Man’, an ingenious weapon that enabled him to scatter his divine tirades out into the world without the hammer of censorship slamming him hard.
Had Jean-Michel Basquiat lived through the fatal times that eventually took him away from this world, there’s no telling what he would’ve been able to do. The possibilities are endless.
Nothing can replace the warmth and immediacy of Basquiat’s poetry, or the absolute questions and truths that he delivered. The beautiful and disturbing music of his paintings, the cacophony of his silence that attacks our senses, will live far beyond our breath. Basquiat was, and is music ... primitive and ferocious.
Published in E. Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, pp. 16-17.