Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

Blue Heads

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Blue Heads
acrylic and oilstick on canvas
72 x 117 in. (182.8 x 297.1 cm.)
Painted in 1983.
Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Private collection, Geneva, 1983
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 18 November 1999, lot 95
The Mugrabi Collection, New York
Anon. sale; Phillips de Pury, New York, 13 May 2004, lot 26
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Galerie Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, vol. II, pp. 172-173, no. 1 (illustrated in color).
H. Hans-Jürgen, "Basquiat: Museum Würth, Künzelsau," Kunstforum International, January/March 2002, pp. 342-343.
N. Siegal, "Urban Legend," Art + Auction, September 2005, p. 154 (illustrated in color).
Basquiat, exh. cat., Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris, 2010, p. 120 (earlier state illustrated in color).
Galerie Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2010, Appendix, pp. 34-35.
Tokyo, Seibu Museum, Mary Boone and Her Artists, October 1983, p. 23 (illustrated in color).
Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris, Figuration Libre France/USA, December 1984-February 1985, p. 32 (illustrated).
Künzeslau, Museum Würth, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings and Works on Paper, The Mugrabi Collection, September 2001-January 2002, pp. 72-73 and 144 (illustrated in color).
Lugano, Museo d'Arte Moderna, Jean-Michel Basquiat, March-June 2005, pp. 59 and 162 (illustrated in color).
Fondazione La Triennale di Milano, The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show, September 2006-January 2007, p. 250, no. 118 (illustrated in color).
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Lot Essay

Vivid with its dramatic expanse of cerulean blue, Blue Heads is a monumental composition by Jean-Michel Basquiat distending over the breadth of four adjoined canvases. A large panoramic painting of wall-like proportions, Blue Heads seemingly breaks free of its fine art confines to join the ranks of heavily grafittied street walls or billboard signposts. Further embellishing this urbanizing effect is the artist's deliberate reworking of the canvas-obliterating a considerable amount of under-painted imagery with large 'white'-wash-like sweeps of paint producing brilliant color fields and conjure mental associations with the painterly abstractions of artists like Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock. Proliferating with the artist's signature motifs of skulls, masks, and dark figures, Blue Heads is laden with layers of paint opening the composition to Basquiat's frenetic working process-offering a glimpse into his active young mind.

Demonstrating Basquiat's own schizophrenic working process, photographic evidence illustrating early stages of Blue Heads confirms the manner in which the artist approached his painting. Simultaneously working on In Italian--now a part of The Peter Brant Foundation--Basquiat brushes red paint on to the exposed support of the Brant picture while Blue Heads rests against the opposing wall. Barely recognizable, the idle canvas possesses minimal traces which would be preserved in the finished composition. Originally executed on only three canvas panels--a forth would later be added--over a primarily yellow base, Basquiat's initial composition consist of a single reptilian head on the outer left panel and a cyborg-esque profile on the larger outer right pane. On the completed left panel, only trace remnants remain of the reptilian figure, now largely over-painted in the work's namesake blue with a foreboding shadowy figure on top. And yet, through Basquiat's frantic brushwork, he has opened windows into his process, exposing the outlined vestiges of the creatures menacing grin. Nevertheless, whereas the reptilian figure has been edited out of the composition almost completely, Basquiat's rudimentary cyborg head has been revisited with a renewed, blue, and impenetrable layer of flesh. As with the left side panel, Basquiat here too has left windows of yellow paint, exposing the surface beneath. More aptly than on the left canvas, the exposed under-paint emerges in the center of the main figures seemingly impermeable cranium--perhaps a metaphor set up by the artist as a window into his own mind by means of his own artistic process.
Moving to the central panel of the artist's original composition, one can most easily observe the frenetic nature of his working process. It is in this central panel that Basquiat first began to apply his overlay of blue pigment, and yet as though in mid-stroke he has seemingly abandoned the blue over-paint to focus attention on the adjacent painting. What is also evident from this central panel is that the first element of the final composition to be fully realized was the single white, ominous head, staring directly out of the picture plane. A quick study of the two paintings in the photograph, as well as in their final manifestations, reveals a particular interest or fascination with art brut-like motif of the head at the time of the two works creation. In both Blue Heads and In Italian the forward-facing, ovoid eyed visages appear approximately in the same area of the composition, and from the photograph, at the same distance from the bottom of the canvas--as though the artist confident in the first head, shuffled two steps to the neighboring work and executed the second. In fact, other similarities emerge within the two paintings that seem to illustrate certain motifs that the artist was drawn to in their execution--as in the latter-like spine of the black skull that is repeated throughout the left panel of In Italian.
The final telling detail of the artist's process is the addition of the fourth panel in the finished work. Detecting a need to monumentalize his painting, Basquiat added a final--larger canvas to the extreme right of the painting. Examining the bottom portion of the canvas, it becomes evident that the base layer of paint is not that of the three original panes, but rather a pink, fleshy pigment. It is in this panel that the artist's most sumptuous and brilliant use of paint emerges within the monochrome plane. Employing color architecturally, creating blocks of opaque pigment, bound by stark, raw ribbons of tinted painterly mortar--evoking an over-painted city wall created from layers of graffiti, covered and retagged--a direct reference, of course, to the artist's own involvement in street art. Basquiat was skillful with color, using pigment with an unbridled temerity. In fact, throughout the composition, sheer painterly expressions emerge in the form of drips, and the subtle gestures of the artist's brush. And, while the overall canvas recalls the vibrant monochromatic colors favored by Warhol, Basquiat's mentor, collaborator, and the master of American Pop, Basquiat's applied surface defies his mentor's icy mechanical reproduction with an unusual type of Expressionism akin to Franz Kline's impassioned brushstrokes or the veins of color that course Clyfford Still's sumptuously painted canvases.
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' (J. Basquiat 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. As such, Basquiat confidently built on the heritage of these painters, as well on a rich visual lexicon of African masks, Voudoun and Santria figurines from the Caribbean, Christian icons, and even cartoon imagery, synthesizing these diverse sources into a language that was distinctly his own.
The entire act of creating was a performance for Basquiat. The improvised, abrasive quality of Blue Heads resonates with the experimental, neopunk music that he had explored as part of the band Gray. A pastiche of Basquiat's mental musings, Blue Heads contains his recognizable gesture of pictorial obscuration. Coining it his "own version of pentimento," Basquiat eclipses his skull motifs with an energetic application of bright cobalt while a small aperture of yellow emerges through the dominant blue (J. Basquiat quoted in J. Clement, Widow Basquiat, Edinburgh 2000, p. 40). In a conscious borrowing of an Old Master technique, Basquiat once explained his method: "I scratch out and erase but never so much that they don't know what was there" (Ibid). This pictorial strategy gives his distinct vernacular a certain ambiguity, which is further amplified by his verbal graphics and textual plays as a stream of consciousness flowing from the artist's dark and unsettled mind. Basquiat combined high art with elements from street culture and the rough primitivism of graffiti in order to create his own unique iconography. Through its brushstrokes, symbols, and words, Blue Heads encapsulates the vitality and dynamism that is so characteristic of Jean-Michel Basquiat's energetic spirit.

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