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The Collection of Thomas and Doris Ammann

His Glue Sniffing Valet

His Glue Sniffing Valet
signed, titled and dated 'JUNE 1984 - "HIS GLUE SNIFFING VALET" Jean-Michel Basquiat' (on the reverse)
acrylic, oilstick and graphite on canvas
86 x 68 in. (219 x 173 cm.)
Executed in 1984.
Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich
Acquired from the above by the present owner
J. Tully, "Barefoot Basquiat," ART/WORLD, March 1985.
E. Navarra et al., Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. II, Paris, 1996, pp. 232-233 (illustrated).
E. Navarra et al., Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. II, Paris, 2000, pp. 224-225, no. 6 (illustrated); appendix, p. 36.
J. M. Saggese, The Jean-Michel Basquiat Reader. Writings, Interviews, and Critical Responses, Oakland, 2021, p. 136.
New York, Mary Boone-Michael Werner Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, March 1985, n.p. (illustrated).
Lausanne, FAE Musée d'Art Contemporain, Jean-Michel Basquiat, July-November 1993, p. 73 (illustrated).
Santander, Fundación Marcelino Botín; Rome, Fondazione Memmo, Palazzo Ruspoli, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ahuyentando fantasmas/Fantasmi da scacciare, July 2008-February 2009, p. 117 (Santander, illustrated); pp. 102-103, no. 32 (Rome, illustrated).
Zurich, Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, The Power of Painting, November 2014-January 2015.

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Lot Essay

Towering over seven feet tall, His Glue Sniffing Valet, 1984, is a vivid fusion of New York street life and spiritual symbolism by Jean-Michel Basquiat. The artist depicts a figure in a wheelchair, arms spread wide, with a bottle in a brown paper bag in his lap; behind him, a dark, faceless silhouette inhales from another bag. Painted in stark, calligraphic strokes, the duo stand against a bright backdrop of broad-brushed off-white acrylic, above a field of scarlet. A leaf-shaped glyph shoots upwards from this red zone. Further red touches enhance the central figure, whose face—with narrow eyes, gritted teeth and dagger-like lips—recalls the African masks so prominent in Basquiat’s work of this period. Unusually for his paintings, the artist relayed a specific story behind the picture’s genesis. “I opened my door one morning last spring at about ten o’clock and there was a guy in a wheelchair, with the chair placed to get the maximum amount of sun”, he told Robert Farris Thompson in February 1985. “He tells me he’s a Cajun and behind him was his friend, sniffing glue. He was begging money and giving it to his friend. I gave him what he wanted and he tried to draw me close to him in gratitude. But he was dirty and I refused. Later I felt bad about that. He clearly was a visitation and I had to deal with him in paint … this is one of the few paintings where I am purely documentary” (J-M. Basquiat, quoted in R. F. Thompson, “Activating Heaven: The Incantatory Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat”, in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat. Mary Boone-Michael Werner Gallery, New York 1985, n.p). With typical syncretic verve—making nods to Abstract Expressionism, Modernist figuration and African art alike—the artist conjures the mystical aura of this encounter as well as the urban grit of downtown Manhattan. His Glue Sniffing Valet is a powerful apparition, alive with the color and magic Basquiat was able to draw from art history and the dynamic, variegated world around him.

In March 1985, His Glue Sniffing Valet was unveiled at Basquiat’s second solo exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery on West Broadway, New York, alongside other major 1984 works including Grillo (today in the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris), Gold Griot and Wicker (both held in The Broad, Los Angeles), and Flexible. By the time these works were painted, Basquiat—at just twenty-four years old—had attained near-mythic status as the post-punk king of the art world. He had emerged as a graffiti artist at the start of the decade, plastering his “SAMO” tag and cryptic slogans across downtown walls and buildings. Breakout group shows in 1980 and 1981 fired off a meteoric rise to stardom: over the following two years, he held solo exhibitions worldwide, collaborated with Andy Warhol and exhibited at Documenta VII in Kassel. In August 1983 Basquiat began renting an apartment on Great Jones Street from Warhol, where his work would reach new heights of material richness and thematic complexity. Painted in the building’s large loft studio, His Glue Sniffing Valet is dated “June 1984”: one month after his first solo show with Mary Boone, and shortly before his first museum retrospective opened at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh.

Since 1983, with an increasing interest in African art and spiritual themes, Basquiat had been drawing and painting images of masks, idols and ideograms from Robert Farris Thompson’s recently published volume Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy. He would be personally introduced to the art historian by his friend Fab 5 Freddy in October 1984, when Thompson was writing a story on hip-hop and accompanied Fab 5 to Basquiat’s loft. Enamored with Thompson’s work, Basquiat asked him to contribute a catalogue essay for the upcoming show where His Glue Sniffing Valet would make its debut. The scholar gladly accepted, and made multiple further visits to Great Jones Street, where Basquiat told him the story behind His Glue-Sniffing Valet. “Basquiat lives in a seething world of plural images and he is attentive and responsive to what he sees”, Thompson noted. “Contingency and surprise present Basquiat, sometimes, with a precipitate as potent as handbooks of art and models … Basquiat builds [a] remembered scene in a painting titled His Glue-Sniffing Valet. By naming, and by physical gesture, he ennobles the trickster at the door and his associate. He builds an area of Rothko-like red which simultaneously puns on the sun of that unusual morning. Note that the companion is virtually idealized by the acrobatic perfection of his gesture. The Cajun himself has amazing prong lips. Trickster before our door, however pitiful or weak, he conceals an accuracy of speech, measuring the level of our generosity” (R. Farris Thompson, ibid.).

Often dense with snatches and samplings of music, television, art history and literature, Basquiat’s works are typically layered complexes of visual and textual information. In his essay—which the artist later said was the best description of his work he had read—Thompson drew a musical or vocal equivalence between Basquiat’s practice and the magic of a voodoo shaman, the art epitomizing what he saw as a postmodern “creole” sensibility in its synthesizing of impulses from different sensory fields. His Glue Sniffing Valet is a rare example of Basquiat in what he called “purely documentary” mode: it is a direct response to a single real-world episode. Yet even here an array of influences mingle and interact. If the Cajun’s mask-like face and nutcracker mouth speak to Basquiat’s interest in African motifs, his associate’s looping limbs and simplified silhouette equally recall the forms of mid-century Modernism. “A wheelchair-bound figure with a monster’s head negotiates a high curb”, wrote Judd Tully in his review of the Mary Boone show; “… an abstracted figure with a Henry Moore head appears ready to commit a felony” (J. Tully, “Barefoot Basquiat”, Art/World, March 6, 1985). The scrawled red lozenge—which might refer to Basquiat’s door in his telling of the encounter—appears to derive from the agricultural symbol for rapeseed in Henry Dreyfuss’ Symbol Sourcebook, 1972, a frequent reference point for Basquiat: the same page’s leaf-shaped icons for “mustard” and “tobacco” feature in a number of other paintings. Other areas of the work, meanwhile, display Basquiat’s boldness as a colorist, bearing painterly echoes of the Abstract Expressionists who transformed New York a generation before him. As Thompson suggested, the red ground beneath the figures recalls the vivid “color field” paintings of Mark Rothko, while the brushstrokes above, awash with East Coast sunlight, have the gestural vigor of a work by Willem de Kooning.

For all these allusions, however, it is the talismanic central figure—conspicuously absent from Basquiat’s title—who commands the painting. With his arms spread wide like an effigy, as if inviting the embrace Basquiat shrank away from, he is seized on canvas as a “visitation” possessed of uncanny, supernatural intensity. It is perhaps no coincidence, bearing Thompson’s notion of “creolized” art history in mind, that the artist, a francophone with mixed Haitian-Puerto Rican heritage, remembered the man identifying himself as Cajun, or Louisiana Creole—a diasporic culture intertwined with Haitian traditions of voodoo. Basquiat, who himself had spent time living by his wits after running away from home as a teenager, may also have felt some affinity with the charismatic vagrant. For Basquiat to “deal with him in paint” may have been something of an exorcism, or even—as with many of his pictures’ heroes and villains—of self-portraiture by proxy. Like Basquiat himself, keenly aware of the tensions of his position as a black artist in the high-octane art world of 1980s New York, the Cajun and his valet are caught between worlds, at once vulnerable and glorious.

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