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Il Duce

Il Duce
signed, titled, inscribed and dated ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat NYC 82 “IL DUCE”’ (on the reverse)
acrylic, oilstick on canvas
152.4 x 152.4 cm. (60 x 60 in.)
Painted in 1982
Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zürich (acquired directly from the artist)
Private collection, USA
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2017
New York Now, exh. cat., Hannover, Kestner-Gesellschaft, 1982 (illustrated, no. 10, p. 41).
Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Pully/Lausanne, FAE Musée d’Art Contemporain, 1993 (illustrated, p. 40 and 126).
R. D. Marshall and J.-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, 1996, 1st edition, vol. 1, p. 94-95 and 389 (illustrated in color); 2nd edition, vol. 1, p. 118-119 and 392 (illustrated in color).
Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Trieste, Museo Revoltella Galleria d’Arte Moderna, 1999 (illustrated, p. 44-45).
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, 2000, vol. 2 (illustrated, no. 4, p. 112-113 and appendix 30).
G. Bria, “Jean-Michel Basquiat,” Modo, June-July 2005 (illustrated, p. 90).
Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Lugano, Museo d’Arte Moderna, 2005 (illustrated, no. 10, p. 32)
The 80s Revisited. From the Bischofberger Collection, Part II, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Bielefeld, 2011 (illustrated, p. 107).
Warhol & Basquiat exh. cat., Ishøj, ARKEN Museum for Moderne Kunst, 2011 (illustrated, no. 2, p. 75 and 102).
Ménage à trois. Warhol, Basquiat, Clemente, exh. cat., Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 2012 (illustrated, no. 4, p. 186 and 249).
Hannover, Kestner-Gesellschaft, New York Now, November 1982-January 1983.
Pully, FAE Musée d’Art Contemporain, Jean-Michel Basquiat, July-November 1993.
Trieste, Museo Revoltella Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Jean-Michel Basquiat, May-September 1999.
Lugano, Museo d’Arte Moderna, Jean-Michel Basquiat, March-June 2005.
Kunsthalle Bielefeld, The 80s Revisited. From the Bischofberger Collection, Part II, March-June 2011.
Ishøj, ARKEN Museum for Moderne Kunst, Warhol & Basquiat, September 2011-January 2012.
Bonn, Bundeskunsthalle, Ménage à trois. Warhol, Basquiat, Clemente, February-May 2012.
Zurich, Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Basquiat: Paintings and Drawings, June-September 2013.
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Lot Essay

“I cross out words so you will see them more, the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.” - Jean-Michel Basquiat

Painted in 1982, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s gleaming Il Duce is a striking portrait that encapsulates the artist’s groundbreaking painterly style, a dramatic form of expression that firmly established him as one of the most revolutionary artists of the twentieth century. Alongside Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, Basquiat transformed the genre of portraiture from an historic and rather staid form of artistic expression, to a highly charged and contemporary mode of painting which fizzes with painterly energy and excitement. As one of the artist’s sought after “head” paintings, Il Duce is packed with the artistic tropes that have come to distinguish his career: frenetic mark-making, a litany of enigmatic signs and symbols, and a dramatic use of color. Painted at the same time as his made his legendary trip to Modena in Italy, the present work belongs to a remarkable series of paintings which now form the core of the Basquiat’s oeuvre. Big, bold, and brash, they encapsulate the mature style of an artist who was at the peak of his powers of creative expression.

From the radiant surface of this large canvas, the face of a powerful and authoritative figure looms large. Rendered in black oilstick, his bold features are in stark contrast to the golden backdrop. His square jaw is matched by his equally square forehead, topped off with a crewcut of closely cropped hair. Thick-rimmed glasses enclose a pair of fiery eyes. Pools of multiple layers of red, blue, and white pigment which Basquiat lays down to produce a deep and penetrating stare. This layering technique is repeated in other areas of facial detail: the wide grimace of his ominous smile is made all the more dramatic by the halting combination of yellow and orange pigment that Basquiat uses, along with the bold flash of orange flecked with black used to indicate a swarthy, unshaven cheek.

Elsewhere in the composition, other elements are buried under the thick layers of paint. Sometimes they are more obvious—such as the moniker “IL DUCE” which Basquiat paints underneath the central head, partly hidden under layers of pigment, but just visible enough for it to be seen. In other places ghostly scrawls and scribbles of black oilstick are barely visible through schisms of gold paint. This embedding of elements within the composition is an important and deliberate device employed by the artist. “I cross out words so you will see them more,” he once said, “the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them” (J. Basquiat, quoted by R. F. Thompson, Basquiat, exh. cat. Beyeler Foundation, Basel, 1987, p. xxii).

Basquiat’s unique paint handling technique is on view throughout the entire surface of the painting. Although finished with a upper layer of metallic gold paint, this embellishment belies the complex arrangement of what lies beneath. Combining bold graphic marks, with swathes of liquid paint, Basquiat creates a sense of painterly tension that is almost palpable. This tension can be most seen in the bold sweep of painting that runs horizontally across the lower edge of the canvas, painted just below the face. Using the ‘wet-on-wet’ technique, the red paint combines with the yellow to produce striations of fresh green, shooting like fireworks across and upwards through the canvas.

With its prominent iconography, Il Duce belongs to a body of work that is central to Basquiat’s oeuvre, and subsequently the artist’s “head” paintings have become some of his most sought-after works. At times depicting his personal heroes, and at other times—depicting himself, they have some of the most succinct summations of both Basquiat’s artistic intentions and his process. As in the case of Il Duce, they are often motifs on which Basquiat lavishes most of his attention, constructing the features out of layer upon layer of painterly gestures. During this high-point in his career, the head became a favourite subject matter for the artist, and many of his most proficient paintings contain accomplished studies of both the physical and psychological characteristics contained within the human face. His skull-like masks are often regarded as a vanitas representing the fragility of life, something that would become all too prescient in the case of Basquiat, who would tragically die at such a young age. Just as Leonardo da Vinci was able to capture to a remarkable degree the individual psyche of the person he was drawing, so to was Basquiat able to summon up an almost autobiographical array of feelings, emotions and often frustrated anger in the course of his paintings. Indeed, although the precise identity of the figure in Il Duce remains mysterious (Basquiat often conflated several characters into one figure), it nonetheless contains all the bravado and youthful exuberance of an artist at the peak of his career.

One of the distinguishing features of Il Duce is Basquiat’s lavish use of metallic gold pigment. From the glimmering Byzantine mosaics that adorned the churches of ancient Christianity, to Gustav Klimt’s sumptuous use of gold in his 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (Neue Galerie, New York), and even Andy Warhol’s iconic Gold Marilyn Monroe (Museum of Modern Art, New York), artists have long used gold as an important an auspicious mode of expression. Basquiat first employed gold paint in depicting his iconic three-pointed crown, and Il Duce is one of a select group of works in the artist’s oeuvre that use it more explicitly, including Dextrose (1982), The Wolves (1982), Gold Griot (1984) and Riding with Death (1988). In addition to its aesthetic value, Basquiat was keenly aware of his own position as a young black artist in a predominately white art world, and often included cryptic symbols and phrases in his paintings that referenced the history of capitalism and its exploitation of the underprivileged. By enshrouding the figure within such an opulent setting, Basquiat might have alluded to the wealth and luxury that he observed as he ascended the ranks of the art world’s upper echelons in pictorial terms, blanketing his figure in a formidable expanse of gold to come to terms with what his own success might mean for him.

Il Duce belongs to a group of paintings completed around the time he made two trips to Modena, Italy, in 1981 and 1982. He was initially invited to Europe by Emilio Mazzoli to participate in his first ever oneman show after the dealer saw the artist’s work in January 1981 at the legendary New York/New Wave show at New York’s P.S. 1. After the initial trip in May ’81, he returned the following March and it was during this stay that he painted some of the most celebrated works of his career, including Profit 1 and Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump, currently on long-term loan to the Art Institute of Chicago.

1982 was also a marquee year for Basquiat as it saw him continue his meteoric rise within the New York art world and he was rewarded with his first solo show at Annina Nosei’s gallery. He also made an important trip to Los Angeles where he was introduced to—and proved to be a major hit with—influential collectors such as Eli and Edythe Broad, Douglas S. Cramer and Stephane Janssen. He was also the youngest of 176 artists to be invited to take part in Documenta 7 in Germany where the expressive nature of his lyrical lines was compared to that of the other master painter of the postwar period, Cy Twombly. This comparison to Twombly must have been particularly rewarding for Basquiat as he was the only artist whom Basquiat acknowledged publicly as being influential to his career, as Marshall explains, “From Cy Twombly, Basquiat also took license and instruction on how to draw, scribble, write, collage, and paint simultaneously. One of the few artworks that Basquiat ever cited as an influence was Twombly’s Apollo and the Artist (1975), and its impact is apparent in numerous loose, collaged and scribbled Basquiat works…” (R. Marshall, “Repelling Ghosts,” in R. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1993, p. 16).

The frenetic pace at which Basquiat would execute his paintings indicates that he wielded his paintbrush just as adeptly as a draughtsman handles his pencil. Throughout his body of work, the rapid coalescing of energetic brushstrokes, sweeps of spray paint, drips of pigment directly from the container and even swipes of paint dragged by the artists own fingers all demonstrate Basquiat’s rare ability to bring together a variety of techniques into one coherent image. Yet, Basquiat understood the significance of his expressive style was as much historical as it was aesthetic, for the artist not only knew how to draw, but also what this meant within the contemporary culture of pictorial representation in the 1980s. Just as Picasso developed his own unique language of pictorial representation, first with Cubism and later with his calligraphic alterations of the human figure, Basquiat’s style became a patented device too, “He papers over all other voices but his own,” Marc Mayer claims, “hallucinating total control of his proprietary information as if he were the author of all he transcribed, every diagram, every formula, every cartoon character—even affixing the copyright symbol to countless artifacts of nature and civilization to stress the point—without making any allowances for the real-life look of the world outside his authorized universe” (M. Mayer, “Basquiat in History,” Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2005, p. 46). Like other master draughtsman such as Picasso and Cy Twombly, Basquiat tried to reinvigorate the ancient tradition in an age dominated by idea of appropriation. As Marc Mayer goes on to discuss, one of modern art’s greatest dramas is the spectacle of an ancient craft trying to reassert its relevance and Basquiat’s visceral power, like that of his predecessors, was that he liked to propagate the myth that he lacked any conventional skill, yet his paintings and drawings would have made no sense if they were produced by a more cultivated hand.

Perhaps more than any other artist of his, or subsequent, generations, Jean-Michel Basquiat fundamentally altered the course of the artistic canon. Although coming from humble beginnings in Brooklyn, he was an extremely erudite practitioner and spent many hours reading and studying works in the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art on New York’s Fifth Avenue. He then combined the traditions of art history with his own personal experiences, and the music and club scene of 1980s New York and Los Angeles. The result was that during his brief but turbulent career, he produced an outstanding body of work abounding in highly expressive pictures which addressed the concerns of a new generation of younger artists, and laid the groundwork for countless others who followed.

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