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Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
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Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)


Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
signed, titled and dated '"PYREX.JAW" NOV. 1983 Jean Michel Basquiat' (on the reverse)
acrylic and oil crayon on canvas
66¾ x 63in. (170 x 160cm.)
Executed in November 1983
Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1983/84.
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Lot Essay

There is a deceptive orthodoxy and authority to Pyrex Jaw, executed in 1983. With its declamation of demonstrating the 'Proper Boxing Stance', with illustrations of 'Left Jab' and 'Rabbit Punch', this appears to be the reincarnation of a textbook diagram, brought back to life through Basquiat's strange street-born iconography. The arms of the boxer, shown in numerous different positions, appear like strange tentacles, demonstrating the various ways of holding oneself or hitting another.
The boxer had long held a fascination for Basquiat, and especially black boxers. Various characters from the history of boxing - Cassius Clay, Sugar Ray Robinson and especially Joe Louis - had featured again and again in his art, often presented with a crown or halo, showing them in all their glory as black heroes. By doing this, Basquiat had been creating a visual mythology, a new canon of heroes and celebrities to replace the establishment white figures whose presence in and unfair dominance of popular culture Basquiat found so oppressive.
In Pyrex Jaw, we are presented with the manic reincarnation of the textbook view of the perfect fighter. This universal athlete, able to adopt all the positions necessary for a boxer, has adopted an outlandish aspect through Basquiat's depiction. The title hints at the boxer's indestructibility, taking the phrase 'glass jaw', with all its implications of fragility and weakness, and converting it into something tough, something durable. This fighter may not be a named hero, but Basquiat has nonetheless created and conjured up a god able to execute all the right moves to perfection. Pyrex Jaw pretends to be a picture to look at and to learn from, an example of what is good and right, as is emphasised by the repeated use of the words 'Proper Boxing Stance'. However, it is clear from the madness of the stereotype boxer and the overt craziness of his face that this intention has been betrayed.
Basquiat disrupts further Pyrex Jaw's impression of authority through the use of the grid that covers the work that has clearly been created by hand, no straight lines in sight. This adds a scientific air to the image, which appears to strive towards an impression of precision: Basquiat's deliberately scrawled and un-stencilled lines betray the same authority that they pertain to lend. They create a strange mesh, giving the painting a dense and intense visual texture.
At the centre of this rough grid stands the boxer, but his torso and (two of the) arms have hardly been coloured at all. They appear almost ghostly and immaterial, contrasting vividly with the rest of the coloured background. Meanwhile, the painting of the head has involved the densest grid-pattern of all, giving it a scarred ghoulish and otherworldly air, perhaps revealing the artist's growing interest in his roots, in the art of Puerto Rico, Louisiana and perhaps most importantly Haiti. Basquiat has presented an image from the world of sport yet has filled it with an alien and hieratic power, the many arms appearing spread in an arcane, almost ritualistic manner. The raw and iconic power of this figure, with its skull-like head and red eyes, has overtones of voodoo - of the darkest and most potent forms of black culture and black power. This is not a devil, but a flawed and shimmering earthen god.
During 1982 and 1983, Basquiat's art had undergone several transformations, raising it from its graffiti origins while never allowing itself to forsake them completely. More and more during this period, he had adopted a new, vigourous Pop idiom. He had for years used source materials as the basis for his pictures, and had developed his own unique visual lexicon of personal and universal symbols through which he depicted his world. During this time, his iconography absorbed the world around him. He would store in his mind images from popular and consumer culture, as well as more obscure sources such as anatomy and anthropology text-books. In Pyrex Jaw, the reference to 'Fig. VII (7)' in the bottom left implies that this work was based, like many others, on a source image from a textbook, in this case a boxing manual. At the same time, the strange lines that articulate the body itself seem like some strange skeleton, perhaps relating to Gray's Anatomy, one of the longest-standing and most important sources for Basquiat.
Basquiat has not merely reproduced his source in the manner of some of the Pop Artists. Instead, he has created a strange and evocative bastardised version. The boxer at the centre, with his monstrous number of arms and striated, skeletal head, gives it the impression of being some creature. This is not the cold, generic demonstration figure, but instead something stranger - something darker.
In Pyrex Jaw, Basquiat has combined Pop methodology with his own street-art. But also vivid here is the influence of Cy Twombly's work. This is clear not only in the scrawled words, the repeated, incantation-like use of the phrase 'Proper Boxing Stance', but also in the grid itself, and the texture that it lends. Twombly often uses techniques such as this to create an impression of scientific process, although he does so in order to illustrate the arbitrary nature of so much human thought. Basquiat adopts Twombly's use of a scribbled, mock-scientific visual idiom, but uses it in a more direct way to highlight the absence of perfection in the supposed text-book boxer.
Basquiat's transformation of his source images is highlighted in the bottom right of Pyrex Jaw by the diagram showing the necessary footwork for the 'Proper Boxing Stance', which appears expressly to refer to Warhol's famous Dance Diagrams. This is particularly pertinent because it was in 1983 that his friendship with Warhol truly began, a friendship that would come to colour the works of both artists. Although their art was wildly different, in many ways both were chewing the same bone from different ends, using and abusing the images and icons of popular culture to their own artistic ends. While each was doing this in a completely different way, and to completely different effect, they shared much of the central ground of sources, a pair of magpies collecting the visual detritus of society and weaving gold from it. But the key difference between these artists is the tone, the mood. Warhol's art, especially later in his career, has little or none of the darkness and rawness that makes Basquiat's work so distinctive. Basquiat was an artistic accuser, attacking the complacency of all that was status quo, be it within the artworld, or in society itself.

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