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

Santo 3

Details
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Santo 3
signed, titled and dated 'Jean-Michel Basquiat SANTO 3 82' (on the reverse)
acrylic, oilstick, wax crayon and paper collage on canvas with exposed wood supports
36 x 36 in. (91.4 x 91.4 cm.)
Executed in 1982.
Provenance
Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1982
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Joanna Szymkowiak
Joanna Szymkowiak

Lot Essay

This work is accompanied by a certificate issued by the Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s technical virtuosity is unfurled in an effortless, muscular display in Santo 3, an iconic touchstone of 1982. The skeletal human figure is exquisitely rendered, while Basquiat’s signature three-pointed crown rests atop its bare skull. The limited palette of black, red and blue is a clever reference to the copy of Gray’s Anatomy given to Basquiat by his mother, Matilde, when he was a young child. Santo 3 also features the unique, artist-made frame that Basquiat constructed out of wood slats, which he leaves exposed rather than concealed behind the painting’s surface. These innovative stretcher paintings are relatively rare in Basquiat’s oeuvre. “Santo,” meaning “saint” in his mother’s native Spanish tongue, refers to a small subset of Santo paintings that Basquiat created in 1982. These key paintings forge a bond with the pantheon of heroic figures that proliferated in 1982, which is widely considered the artist’s most productive year.  

In Santo 3, the power of Basquiat’s line as it wends its way around the contours of the figure seems to sizzle with an electrical charge. Alive and buzzing, Basquiat’s markings exemplify the spontaneity of graffiti, in its scrawled, rapid-fire precision and intuitive, stream-of-consciousness approach. The lively anatomical figure wears a grimaced, mask-like face, and his muscled torso provides a vehicle for Basquiat’s virtuosic execution of veins, bones and internal organs. The figure’s left arm is shriveled in comparison to the more muscular right arm, which hangs limply by his side. Basquiat often included cleverly disguised autobiographical elements in his work, and the figure’s shriveled arm may relate to the broken arm he himself suffered after being hit by a car at the age of seven. It was then that his mother gave him Gray’s Anatomy. Basquiat seamlessly weaves together these autobiographical asides with characteristic skill in Santo 3. A flawlessly organized composition, the imagery tumbles forth in a controlled but relentless torrent. Cartoon arrows and action lines infuse the painting with wry humor, while obscure words from the artist’s unique personal lexicon are sprinkled throughout. Wide swathes of black paint surround the figure on all sides, a characteristic framing device from the series made with a sly nod to the paintings of Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock. He renders the iconic three-pointed crown in red oilstick atop the figure’s skull, which proceeds down the back of his head to form a comic-book-style starburst pattern—a clever jab of irony that pokes fun at his own fame.

Basquiat’s burgeoning stardom reached a fever pitch in 1982, the year that Santo 3 was painted. He spent 1982 jet-setting around the world, appearing at major exhibitions, as each built upon the success of the next: Annina Nosei in New York, Gagosian in Los Angeles and Bischofberger in Zürich. That summer, he was the youngest artist ever exhibited at documenta VII in West Germany, where his work was shown alongside such venerable artists as Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol. Basquiat had also moved into a sizable loft apartment on Crosby Street in lower New York. Having previously painted in the basement of Annina Nosei’s nearby gallery on Spring street, the apartment on Crosby marked the first time that Basquiat occupied a space large enough to paint in. Looking back on this period Basquiat would later recall, “I made the best paintings ever” (J.M. Basquiat, quoted in C. McGuigan, “New Art New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist,” The New York Times Magazine, February 10, 1985, p. 74).

By the autumn of 1982, however, Basquiat was rather at a crossroads. Having been fêted as the enfant terrible of the SoHo art crowd, Basquiat struggled internally with his newfound celebrity status, and sought a return to his grittier, urban roots from his early days as the street artist SAMO. He embarked upon a group of homemade stretchers where the wood slat supports were clearly visible rather than concealed behind the canvas surface. He showcased many of these innovative stretcher paintings later that November at the Fun Gallery in the East Village, where they were met with critical acclaim. “Jean-Michel’s show at the Fun Gallery was his best show yet,” wrote art critic Nicolas Moufarrege. “He was at home...the paintings [were] more authentic than ever” (N. Moufarrege, quoted in P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, London, 2015, p. 145).

In preparation for the Fun Gallery show, Basquiat had worked feverishly for months from his loft on Crosby street. Often waking around noon, Basquiat and his assistant scoured the streets for raw materials, crafting stretchers and frames from whatever they could salvage—leftover construction materials, unusual fabrics, carpet tacks, rope and odd pieces of wood. Working late into the night, Basquiat allowed the imagery percolating in his encyclopedic brain to unfurl in beguiling stream-of-consciousness outpourings that demonstrated his facility with an entire host of subject matter. Adhering to the format that Basquiat had adopted in the Santo series, Santo 3 is rendered in acrylic and oilstick on paper, which has been laid down on canvas and framed with the handcrafted wood stretchers that consumed him at the time. It features a handpainted black border, where the rough, uneven edges and copious drips lend a gritty feeling to the painting despite its impeccable technical skill.

Though he dropped out of school at a relatively young age and had never received proper artistic training, Basquiat was nevertheless brilliant, and his knowledge on a fathomless array of topics was seemingly limitless. Basquiat’s mother, Matilde, played a prominent role in her son’s unusual—yet formative—education. As a young boy, they frequently visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, so often so that Basquiat later claimed he had their collections memorized. If the artist was stuck on a painting, he would routinely take his materials uptown to the Met, where he would sketch from their collection, only to return home and complete the painting’s missing motifs. Growing up in a bilingual household, Basquiat, too, was immersed in several different languages, and he switched effortlessly between them during ordinary conversation. Basquiat’s mother was Puerto Rican, and Santo may be his attempt to reference the rich, cultural heritage of his mother’s side of the family. Despite its meaning as “saint” in the Spanish language, the painting may also refer to the small wooden statues known as santos common to Puerto Rico, which Basquiat may have known from his youth.

Santo 3 remains a lingering physical relic from a crucial, formative era, as Basquiat reached deep into his box of tricks to produce a beguiling creation rife with the cryptic words, phrases and imagery for which he is best known. In Santo 3, his list of sources is virtually fathomless, including—but not limited to—Pablo Picasso, primitive African sculpture, comics, ancient Egyptian architecture, Gray’s Anatomy and the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. He includes the enigmatic phrase “AOPKHES©?” and a stylized depiction of an Egyptian pyramid in the area above the figure’s head, and in rendering the skeletal creature’s face, he seems to have placed a rigid mask that sits atop its skull. Such a portrayal cleverly references the early modernist paintings of Pablo Picasso, who in turn engaged with African masks. Recent scholarship suggests that Basquiat used the mask motif throughout his career as a way to reference his own identity as a young black artist confronted with a predominately white art establishment. (In Santo 3, the words “POLARITY©?” and “VERSUS” support this notion.) As the art historian Jordana Moore Saggese has suggested in her recent essay, “As a successful black artist in an overwhelmingly white art world, he must have worn many masks himself” (J. M. Saggese, “The Heads of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, October, 2018, p. 94).

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