Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

Reel Basquiat

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Reel Basquiat
stamped three times with the Estate of Andy Warhol Stamp; stamped twice with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. stamp and numbered 'PO50.870' (on the overlap)
silkscreen ink and synthetic polymer paint on canvas
90 x 70 in. (228.6 x 177.8 cm.)
Painted in 1984.
Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art; London, Anthony d'Offay and Düsseldorf, Achenbach Kunsthandel, Andy Warhol: Portraits of the Seventies and Eighties, 1993-1994, p. 39 (illustrated in color).
Dublin, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Beyond the Pale--Art and Artists on the Edge of Consensus, September 1994-February 1995.

Lot Essay

Spanning the height of the majestic canvas saturated in a high-keyed red, the off-kilter juxtapositions of time-lapse photography and collaged parts create an iconic automaton of assembled images and techniques. Andy Warhol's larger than life-sized portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of a series of portraits Warhol made of the artist in 1984, is based on a sequence of Polaroid photographs Warhol took in August 1983, which pieces together the young artist's athletic body in a pose inspired by Michelangelo's David. By rendering Basquiat as a constructed image, Warhol captures the universal portrayal of desire, casting the younger man in a range of idealizations, from the Greek kouros to the Renaissance contraposto, emblematic of Basquiat's elevated status in the art-world at the time as well as Warhol's infatuation with him. From his seminal portraits of Hollywood icons like Marilyn Monroe to Elizabeth Taylor, Warhol was obsessed with the superficial nature of appearance and attractiveness, as he stated, "Beauty really has to do with the way a person carries it off" (Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), New York, 1975, p. 66).
Reel Basquiat embodies a sly wink at the classical ideals of both strength and youthful human beauty, an allusion to the history of art from Greek times to the Renaissance in which standing heroic male nudes were regarded as the ideal figure of masculinity. Warhol's jokey version, a take not only on the past but also on the modernist notion of composition, of parts rendering a whole, is here exposed for its own fragility, its contingency. After all, Warhol's own fiery career trajectory-his own fifteen minutes of fame-seemed to be cooling. Basquiat's career was apparently on the ascendant, in contrast to his own. Could the parts, stacked so precariously, its pieces mimicking the brittleness of an ancient monument, be a warning, slashed into misalignment as its own memento mori?
As if drinking from a fountain of youth, Warhol's career had rebounded in the 1980s, due in part to his relationships with an increasing number of younger artists who emerged onto the New York art scene. Among them was Jean-Michel Basquiat, who Warhol first met in 1980, and the pair soon developed an unlikely friendship. Like Warhol, who, during press interviews gave contradictory statements about his past, Basquiat fabricated a persona that was contradictory. Seeming to emerge from the group of underground graffiti artists on the streets of the city, Basquiat chose "SAMO" as his tag, an acronym for the street slur, "same old shit," and wove a story of himself as a Caribbean-born ghetto kid who lived in a box on the streets of New York. Basquiat was, in fact, the educated son of a middle-class Haitian lawyer from the borough of Queens and a well-educated mother of Puerto Rican descent. Warhol liked the provocative Basquiat, who frequently rebelled against both the conventions of the art world and the law; it gave the elder artist a new edge as well as a direct line to a younger generation. People speculated aloud whether Warhol was using Basquiat or whether Basquiat was using Warhol. Basquiat defined a new genre of art and expression and Warhol admired him for his ability to paint the grime and grit of New York city street culture. Conversely, Basquiat admired Warhol for his ability to make him a celebrity. The two formed an incomparable relationship that dominated the art world, as fellow artist Ronnie Cutrone remembered: "It was like some crazy-art world marriage and they were the odd couple. The relationship was symbiotic. Jean-Michel thought he needed Andy's fame, and Andy thought he needed Jean-Michel's new blood. Jean-Michel gave Andy a rebellious image again" (R. Cutrone, quoted in v. Bockris, Warhol: The Biography, Cambridge, 2003, pp. 461-2). This unlikely pairing soon became a fixture on the New York art-world party circuit and the "couple" was frequently pictured together on the cover of magazines, on television, and in the newspapers. Basquiat became a member of Warhol's entourage and was credited with renewing Warhol's interest in painting on canvas, which had declined somewhat since its heyday in the 1960s.
In many ways Reel Basquiat might be seen as a unique collaboration of sorts between two of the 1980s most inimitable artists. Yet, the play of tension between the artists is also palpable in the present work. Warhol was amazed by the ease with which Jean-Michael composed and constructed his paintings, and somewhat cowed as well as alarmed, so that the exhortative element in this work cannot be ignored. For while portraiture was for Warhol the genre that defined his career, each portrait while seeming to withhold explicit characterization, in fact reveals something essential about the sitter. Warhol's depiction of Basquiat, although ostensibly a celebration of the beauty and larger-than-life mythic stature he had attained, also wittily and wisely-and presciently-undercuts this stardom by painting into the work a foreshadowing of his ultimate fall. Basquiat's death from a heroin overdose only a few years later in 1988 could have been as little foreseen as his own a year earlier in 1987 after minor surgery. How uncanny Warhol's comment, "I realized that everything I was doing must have been [about] death" (Quoted in After the Party: Andy Warhol Works 1956-1986, exh. cat., Dublin and London, 1997, p. 69).
A towering tour-de-force of painting and signature silk-screen techniques, Warhol's Reel Basquiat, also suggests the ultimate irony, casting the young Basquiat as kouros and himself as sculptor in a precarious duet of teetering stop-action-like camera stills, red paint, and mutual empathy. An exceptional canvas, Reel Basquiat, draws on both the reel and the real to weave a dynamic portrait of one of the most significant partnerships in contemporary art.

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