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, and reproduced over the following pages – 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).
‘The morning after the opening, Basquiat rode triumphantly back to Brooklyn in a limousine. “It was about 6:30 and I was getting dressed,” says Gerard Basquiat, who had heard from his son only twice since he had left home. “Jean-Michel was wearing a pin-striped suit and came into the kitchen and he said, “Papa, I’ve made it”’’ (P. Hoban, ‘Samo is Dead,’ New York Magazine, 26 September 1988, p. 41).
Two swathes of black and white paint form a diptych on found hardboard: scrawled over a black wash on the left, a naïvely outlined car in light grey is captioned ‘PLUSH SAFE HE THINK’; on the white ground to the right, a cannon drawn in black points at the vehicle, a stack of cannonballs to its side and ‘SPORTS OPERA WEAPONS’ listed below. Untitled (Plush Safe He Think) is a cryptic image of threat, duality and conflict, capturing Basquiat’s anti-bourgeois sentiments: he who thinks he is safe in the plush embrace of his car will be disabused of his specious materialism. The concatenation of high and low culture in ‘SPORTS OPERA WEAPONS’ carries an undercurrent of violence and disruption: a remnant of ‘weapons’ can be glimpsed written again in red beneath the layer of black paint opposite, intimating the mercurial swiftness of Basquiat’s working method. His sidelong societal critique is directly linked to his early Lower East Side graffiti under the pseudonym SAMO©, finding a clear echo in the slogan ‘SAMO as an end 2 confining art terms. Riding around in Daddy’s convertable trust fund company.’ Indeed, Basquiat is filmed spraying ‘“PLUSH SAFE” - HE THINK’ on a wall in the movie Downtown 81, placing the phrase among his canon of recurring textual motifs. With its undercurrent of urban menace and keen compositional edge, Untitled (Plush Safe He Think) stands as a distilled totem of Basquiat’s enduring power. It is also an icon of the groundbreaking P.S. 1 show ‘New York/New Wave’ in February 1981: an era-defining exhibition that was to launch Basquiat to international stardom.
Curated by Diego Cortez, ‘New York/New Wave’ was perhaps the most important exhibition of 1980s New York. Aiming to seriously examine the crossover between music and visual art in New Wave culture with a focus on punk and graffiti-associated visuals, the show featured 119 artists including Andy Warhol, Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring. Basquiat’s erstwhile alter-ego SAMO© showed a work on metal in a room with other graffiti artists; confident in the then largely unknown young artist’s talent, Cortez also gave Basquiat his own wall for new works signed with his own name, amongst which was Untitled (Plush Safe He Think). The artist’s biographer Eric Fretz writes that ‘[t]he wall given to Jean-Michel was covered with drawings on paper, paintings on canvas, spray paint on foam rubber, works on wood, and other materials. Jean-Michel had by now developed his own iconography; his simple images of crowns, heads, airplanes, tepees, cars, and car crashes populated several works, along with his familiar lettering … Another car, painted white on black, included an ominous phrase also used in the New York Beat movie, “PLUSH SAFE – HE THINK”’ (E. Fretz, Jean-Michel Basquiat: An Autobiography, California 2010, p. 68).
This was one of the most crucial moments in Basquiat’s career. The influential dealer Henry Geldzahler recalls being blown away by Basquiat’s display: ‘I bought a painting on the spot … I could see how incredibly sophisticated the work was and how young the kid was. I overpaid: I gave him $2,000 for a collage on a door to show him he could trust the world a bit’ (H. Geldzahler, quoted in P. Hoban, ‘Samo is Dead,’ New York Magazine, 26 September 1988, p. 40). Gallery representation and the interest of major dealers swiftly followed, and Basquiat’s road to glory had begun. ‘The morning after the opening,’ Phoebe Hoban writes, ‘Basquiat rode triumphantly back to Brooklyn in a limousine. “It was about 6:30 and I was getting dressed,” says Gerard Basquiat, who had heard from his son only twice since he had left home. “Jean-Michel was wearing a pin-striped suit and came into the kitchen and he said, “Papa, I’ve made it”’ (P. Hoban, ‘Samo is Dead,’ New York Magazine, 26 September 1988, p. 41). Untitled (Plush Safe He Think) is a potent and economical statement of intent, capturing Jean-Michel Basquiat’s exceptional visual wit and verbal intelligence at this thrilling point in his transition from the streets to gallery walls.
JOHNNY DEPP’S ESSAY ON BASQUIAT
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.