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Donut Revenge 

Donut Revenge 
signed, titled and dated '"DONUT REVENGE" Jean Michel Basquiat 1982' (on the reverse)
acrylic, oilsticks, and paper collage on canvas
243.2 x 182.2 cm. (95 3⁄4 x 71 3⁄4 in.)
Executed in 1982 
Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
Christie’s New York, 6 November 1985, lot 72
Marlborough Gallery, New York
Christie's, New York, 13 May, 1995, lot 52
Blake Byrne, Los Angeles (acquired from the above sale)
Private Collection, USA
Private Collection, Europe
Private Collection
R. Marshall & J-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat Volume 2, Paris, 1996 (illustrated, p. 92).
Civico Museo Revoltella, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Trieste, 1999, (illustrated in black and white, p. LXXI).
R. Marshall & J-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat Volume 2, Paris, 2000 (illustrated, p. 104).
Dieter Buchhart (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat: Made in Japan, exh. cat., Mori Arts Center Gallery, Tokyo, 2019 (illustrated, pp. 78-79).
New York, Gallery Schlesinger, Basquiat Paintings, November 1988.
Cincinnati, Contemporary Arts Center, Beautiful Losers, March - October 2004. This exhibition later travelled to Santa Barbara, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: Made in Japan, Mori Arts Center Gallery, Tokyo, September – November, 2019.

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Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡) Senior Vice President, Deputy Head of Department

Lot Essay

"His hand was swift and sure. The images that trailed behind it crackled and exploded like fireworks shot from the back of a speeding flatbed truck" Robert Storr

"If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption it would be Jean-Michel. The elegance of Twombly is there from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet" Rene Ricard

Towering almost eight feet high, Donut Revenge (1982) is a monumental figure painting from the pinnacle of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career. Amid a background formed of radiant, gestural swathes of pink, white, black, yellow and red paint, a striking character floats like an angel. Arcs of energy crackle from his outstretched limbs; one arm glows purplish blue, and the other emits smoky lines as if sizzling with heat. Above his head, a luminous halo spits pyrotechnic sparks, and a large speech-bubble blares with an illegible black scrawl. This element underscores the figure’s graphic intensity, which is indebted to comic-books and cartoons as much as to the Abstract Expressionists and Old Masters. His goggle-eyes, overlaid features and rotund body create a humorous impression, heightened by the inscription ‘little fat man with a chicken leg’ on his chest. Whether the figure makes for a martyr, voodoo effigy, self-portrait or a jab at the overstuffed 1980s art world is an open question; like the speech bubble’s unreadable marks, he is indisputably loud yet ultimately ambiguous. A masterclass in Basquiat’s collisions of art history, the work is anchored by its architectonic colour and electrified line, which come together to form a vividly charged and enigmatic picture.

1982 was a watershed year for Basquiat. At just twenty-one years old, and already famed for his personal charisma as much as his creative genius, he completed his transition from street graffitist to fully-fledged sovereign of the New York art scene. Since late 1981, he had been working in a studio beneath the SoHo gallery of Annina Nosei: there is a photograph of Donut Revenge in progress there, alongside other major paintings including Red Skull (1982). ‘Since Jean-Michel did not have a place to work and wanted to produce very large paintings, I allowed him to work in a storage area of the gallery that was below the exhibition space’, Nosei recalled. ‘It was an area in a large basement that had a huge skylight in the back. In the next few months, Jean-Michel produced a number of masterpieces that brought him to the attention of the entire art world’ (A. Nosei, quoted in Jean-Michel Basquiat: An Intimate Portrait, exh. cat. Castellani Art Museum, Lewiston 2003, n.p.). Nosei mounted the artist’s first ever solo show in March 1982, which was received with huge acclaim. Over the following months, Basquiat travelled the globe for solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, Zurich, Rome and Rotterdam, and showed at Documenta VII in Kassel, where he was the youngest artist within a line-up of contemporary masters including Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly. Reflecting upon this exhilarating period, Basquiat recalled ‘I had some money: I made the best paintings ever’ (J-M. Basquiat, quoted in C. McGuigan, ‘New Art New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist’, in The New York Times Magazine, 10 February 1985, p. 74). Donut Revenge was among them.

A number of key influences for Basquiat clamour in Donut Revenge. Set out in calligraphic oilstick, its figure and speech-bubble echo the bold, linear imagery and script of a comic-strip; an avid admirer of comics and cartoons since childhood, Basquiat freely incorporated such references throughout his work, transforming and recontextualising them—much like his Pop forebear Roy Lichtenstein— in order to explore the ways they reflected contemporary society. The figure also reflects a more Old Masterly lineage. With their haloes and crowns, many of Basquiat’s figures call upon the saints, messiahs and kings of art history, while at the same time conjuring black heroes of the artist—including jazz musicians, boxers and baseball players— whose identities he blurred with his own. The curious figure in Donut Revenge could be a superhero or angel; the incandescent backdrop heightens his aura of otherworldly power. He also appears vulnerable, however, seemingly lifted by a force-field beyond his control, and swelling like a balloon ready to pop. Whether through rapacious promoters, personal demons or the bigotry of the industries in which they worked, Basquiat knew that many of his idols had been destroyed or burnt out by their celebrity. Amid his own meteoric rise to fame and fortune, he felt these pressures all too keenly.

While he was in hospital following a childhood car accident, Basquiat’s mother had given him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy. It helped him to understand his body as it healed, and went on to become a key touchstone for his art. Many of his figures reveal their skulls, muscles and nervous systems, as if seen through an X-ray. Donut Revenge exhibits just such an anatomical vision. The figure’s face contains multiple superimposed features, with concentrically-circled eyes, a displaced nose, and one doubled, off-register mouth lensing onto a skeletal grin. Basquiat’s attention to internal workings can be viewed as part of a broader pictorial interest in peeling back the surfaces of the world at large. As well as hinting at a wounded self-image, the present picture’s many layers speak to a multi-channelled vision of reality, capturing the process of an artist who sampled, organised and synthesised data from multiple sensory dimensions—movies, music, books, New York street life, art history, his own subconscious—onto a single surface.

Towards the end of 1981, the critic Rene Ricard published his essay ‘The Radiant Child’ in Artforum. It was the first extensive study of Basquiat’s work in print, and a much-quoted assessment of his early oeuvre. ‘If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption it would be Jean-Michel’, he wrote. ‘The elegance of Twombly is there from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet’ (R. Ricard, ‘The Radiant Child’, Artforum, Volume XX, No. 4, December 1981, p. 43). Both Twombly’s lyrical scrawl and Dubuffet’s intense, primitivist figuration resound in Donut Revenge. The work equally conjures the exuberant paintwork of the Abstract Expressionists, which itself shares much with the gestural colour of graffiti: what Jeffrey Deitch called Basquiat’s ‘knock-out combination of de Kooning and subway spray-paint scribble’ (J. Deitch, quoted in Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1999, p. 324). In palette and technique, the present work’s backdrop has particularly close echoes of de Kooning’s windblown, light-filled paintings of the early 1980s. It is a thrilling reminder that both masters were at work at the same time in New York.

“Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation,’ Picasso said much later. ‘It is a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires. Men had made these masks and other objects for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces, in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it an image. When I came to that realisation, I knew I had found my way.’ The Guinean Invention was also a determining one for the adventure of Western modern art. According to William Rubin, Picasso’s purchase a Nimba during the 1920s inspired his execution of a series of portraits of Marie-Thérèse Walter. So did most of the other stars of Modern art history: Gauguin, Matisse, deVlamin ck, Giacometti, Modigliani, Brancusi, Léger, Baselitz, Warhol and, of course Basquiat.

The subject of Basquiat’s paintings is primarily inspired mainly by his upbringing and heritage, by his heroes from various walks of life, athletes, jazz musicians, sometimes self-portraits, rendered in a coarse, stick-man format. Basquiat tapped into African history, symbolism and stylisations in his artworks, to proclaim solidarity with his black roots. For example, his figures often have mask-like facial features which echo some traditional African masks, He combined these references to Africa with influences of street and graffiti art, to create a visual language and message that could be understood in context by his audience in the West. He used this language to speak of the brutality he lived and witnessed.

‘I cross out words’, Basquiat once said, ‘so you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them’ (J-M. Basquiat, quoted in Jean Michel Basquiat, Gemälde und Arbeiten auf Papier (Paintings and works on paper), exh. cat. Museum Würth, Künzelsau 2001, p. 54). The cryptic inscription in Donut Revenge is typical of the elusive dance Basquiat played with words, which he sampled, composed and transmuted as freely as he obscured them. A similarly unreadable legend appears in his iconic 1981 ‘skull’ painting Untitled (Broad Collection, Los Angeles), with its graphic lines almost—but not quite— becoming letters. The work’s title also appears to be a linguistic pun: another painting from 1982 is titled Do Not Revenge, perhaps indicating a free-associative origin for Donut Revenge. Basquiat’s imagination was richly aural as well as visual. Here, he lets the figure speak only in a tangle of noise, as if he is a visitor from another world. Whether it is a greeting, a cry for help or a message from beyond, the meaning is deliberately lost in translation. For all that, in a blaze of extraordinary colour and form, Basquiat’s own masterful voice rings loud and clear.

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