Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

Self Portrait as a Heel

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Self Portrait as a Heel
signed, titled and dated '"SELF PORTRAIT AS A HEEL" Jean Michel Basquiat 1982' (on the reverse)
acrylic and oilstick on canvas
50 x 40 in. (127 x 102 cm.)
Painted in 1982.
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
R. Marshall and J. L. Prat, eds., Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1996 (vol. I, p. 64, no. 5, illustrated in color); (vol. II, p. 86, no. 5, illustrated in color).
Galerie Enrico Navarra, eds., Jean-Michel Basquiat, ed. 3, Paris, 2000, pp. 110 and 134 (illustrated in color).
Edinburgh, The Fruitmarket Gallery; London, Institute of Contemporary Arts; Rotterdam, Boymans-Van Beuningen Museum, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paintings 1981-1984, August 1984-March 1985, p. 23 (illustrated in color).
Paris, Musée de la Seita, Jean-Michel Basquiat, peintures, dessin ecriture, 1993, p. 44 (illustrated in color; also illustrated on the cover).

Lot Essay

Jean-Michel Basquiat's bold and expressive canvas was born out of the urban landscape of New York in the 1980s. Just as the city has become a melting pot of cultures from around the world, the strong, muscular style of Self Portrait as a Heel reflects Basquiat's compelling use of ideas and images drawn from his own personal experiences and the city around him. From the gritty urbanity of street art to the work of the modern masters found in the city's great museums, Basquiat has a highly developed appreciation for visual imagery that surrounded him and uses it to produce a powerful self portrait of a young man who is as complex as the city that inspires him.

This work contains subjects and themes that Basquiat returns to again and again - heads, figures, words, symbols and discarded items found littering the streets. Majestically dominating Basquiat's 1982 Self Portrait as a Heel is the figure of a man with dreadlocks flowing Medusa-like in the wind, flared nostrils and exposed teeth. The human figure is central to Basquiat's art, at times it is expressionistic, at times it is primitive and child-like but it always distinctly Basquiat. In this painting the powerful face is reminiscent of a medicine man or even a shamanistic African mask that could have been used in a tribal healing ritual to ward off evil spirits, a factor which might also allude to the title of the painting. The word "heel" in the title could be interpreted as either a contemptible person or a misspelling of the word "heal", as in the verb "to cure".

Themes of identity and autobiography are deeply rooted in Basquiat's work. Born in Brooklyn in 1960 from parents of Puerto Rican and Haitian descent, the artist grew up during a time of continuing inner-city race riots and continued questioning about what it meant to be an American. Basquiat's outlet for his questions was his canvas. Painted when he was only 21 years old this extraordinarily confident image fills the canvas with a contradictory mixture of anger, self-assurance and deprecation. Engaging the viewer with direct eye contact, the large head exudes confidence but the lack of discernable arms suggests a sense of powerlessness, an inability to be able to express himself fully and of being unable to defend himself if necessary.

The expressive quality of Basquiat's Self Portrait as a Heel is also inherent in his painterly technique. The rapid brush strokes, areas of over-painting and animated drips of liquid paint are the results of a painting executed in flurry of creativity, akin to Pollock's Action Paintings. There is also a sense of deep-seated existential unease. In a 1983 interview, the artist admitted that his work, 'is about 80 anger' (quoted by G. Mercurio, 'The Moon King', The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show, Milan, 2006, p. 32). While not overtly political, Basquiat was fully aware that his paintings would have been one of the few ways the voice of urban black youth would have heard in the predominantly white dominated art world.

Although Basquiat's artistic roots were in the anti-establishment street art scene, he had a detailed knowledge of traditional art history. After dropping out of school at the age of 15, he enrolled in a program in which gifted youngsters, who'd had difficulty in adjusting to a mainstream education, used the city's museums and institutions instead as their classroom. His regular visits to the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum were to prove invaluable as he began to search for ways to express his ideas and techniques for trying to get his message across. As he matured he found a strong connection to artists like Pablo Picasso and Jean Dubuffet who, he felt, shared his aesthetic and thus gave him the confidence to explore his own unique style.

Basquiat was particularly influenced by late work of Pablo Picasso. In 1981 New York's Pace Gallery staged an exhibition of Picasso's late Avignon paintings. In these works the aging Picasso returns to drawing and painting in a childlike fashion with a series of distorted figures, bold colors and lack of perspective; a style that reverberated with Basquiat and something he found appealing. Picasso's long affinity with primitivism and his loose, energetic and unrestrained paint application have clear parallels with Basquiat's own style; an affinity which Basquiat felt validated his own style and encouraged him to continue creating works of strong visual impact.

Against the stark white primed background, Basquiat has cast a beautiful jet black, free-form shape which finds its many pinnacles in the swirling dreadlocks which revolve around the top of his head. The multiple references in the images and words are further exemplified by the scrawled trademark of the American comb manufacturer, Ace Combs, which resides beneath his lower dreadlock, together with two beautifully simple line drawings of combs. Basquiat's ambiguous presentation of this copyrighted phrase sets up an amusing contradictory allusion to his own sense of stylized blackness: his dreadlocks. His use of a painterly language here cements together the highly charged, brittle images he has chose for the surface.

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