A superb example of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s genius, Portrait of Jean Kallina demonstrates the artist’s considerable skills as a draughtsman. In this complex and intriguing work, Basquiat brings together a wide range of motifs to produce an intimate and personal portrait of his subject—his close friend at the time, Jean Kallina. More extensively rendered than some of his more rudimentary compositions, each of the individual elements is layed out like a patchwork of memories - recollections of a time, a place and a friend - permanently preserved in Basquiat’s inimitable style.
Jean Kallina first met Basquiat in Milan in 1984. She had moved to Italy earlier that year to begin a career as a photographer and Basquiat was in the city with Andy Warhol for the opening of an exhibition. The pair met at a party and immediately connected, spending much of their time over the next week in each other’s company. While they were staying in Jean’s apartment, Basquiat asked her to sit for a portrait: the resulting drawing forms the left portion of the present work. On the right side, the artist attached sheets from his notebook, which contained drawings he’d done during his trip—an airplane, the interior of a hotel room—alongside a number of illustrations that Basquiat specifically produced of objects that were personal to Jean, or that reminded him of her—the picture of her sneakers, for example, complete with bugs about to be trodden underfoot. He then adorned the surface with various words and phrases of things that had grabbed his attention, or of things that he associated with Jean. The phrase “Mona Lisa” was included, as she recalled, because Basquiat asked her to sit in the same pose as the fabled painting by Leonardo da Vinci. At the end of his stay, Basquiat gave the work to Kallina and it remained in her possession for nearly a decade. The pair continued their friendship upon their return to New York and remained close friends until the artist’s death in 1988.
Like many of his most distinguished works, Portrait of Jean Kallina is a complex construction. Divided into two distinct halves, the present work displays two very different forms of portraiture. The left half features a traditional rendition of its subject, a striking tussle-haired figure dressed in a blue shirt and looking directly out from the surface with an enigmatic smile. On the right, the sheets from Basquiat’s notebooks are compartmentalized by a thick black line that surrounds each image, isolating it from the next one, yet at the same time acting to highlight and enhance its importance. The support is made up from two large sheets of paper upon which Basquiat has affixed a number of these smaller sheets and collaged elements. This approach is then enhanced by the rapid brushstrokes that he uses to cover the various pieces of paper with the sense of raw energy that is often found in the artist’s work. The sheets are then adhered to surface, allowing the viewer to see the space between these sheets, a gap that is enhanced by the way that Basquiat paints right up to the jagged edges, creating a stark white void and adding a distinctly sculptural quality to this particular work.
Basquiat recognized the importance of draughtsmanship as a skill that was fundamental to an artist’s ability to communicate effectively. This can be seen most prominently in his careful rendition of Jean Kallina’s face, which is rendered with the artist’s unique form of chiaroscuro—a high degree of realism that is often absent in some of Basquiat’s more elementary figures. The face also includes the flashes of brilliance for which Basquiat’s figures are so admired; with minimal means the rapid strokes produced by the artist’s hand are able to capture the very essence of his subject. Basquiat scatters outlines and words that tumble across the surface of the work, matching the abundance of ideas for which the Italian master was famous. In Portrait of Jean Kallina, Basquiat mixes together signs and signifiers, in both word and graphic form, into one richly diverse and visually striking work.