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wax crayon on paper
29 7/8 x 22 1/4in. (75.9 x 56.5cm.)
Executed in 1987
Van de Weghe Fine Art, New York.
Peter M. Brant and Stephanie Seymour Collection, New York.
Their sale, Sotheby’s New York, 8 December 2021, lot 28.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Paris, Yvon Lambert, J-M Basquiat, 1988.
Vienna, The Albertina Museum, Jean-Michel Basquiat Of Symbols and Signs, 2022-2023, pp. 188 and 214 (illustrated in colour, p. 189).
Special notice
This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

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Claudia Schürch
Claudia Schürch Senior Specialist, Interim Head of Department

Lot Essay

Previously in the collection of Peter M. Brant, and recently included in the landmark retrospective Jean-Michel Basquiat: Of Symbols and Signs at the Albertina Museum, Vienna (2022-2023), the present work is a vivid example of Basquiat’s graphic practice, in which his use of text, product logos and other symbols approaches the condition of visual poetry. Executed in 1987, the composition’s lyrical, expansive quality is typical of Basquiat’s later drawings: in contrast to the pile-ups of information in some of his work, its various elements are free-floating and legible, their shapes, sounds and meanings playing off one another in space. Many of the icons and their captions, relating to areas from alchemy and astronomy to agriculture, engineering and the ‘hobo code’, derive from Henry Dreyfuss’ Symbol Sourcebook (1972), one of Basquiat’s favoured reference books. The emblem of the Ideal toy company, a manufacturer of popular boardgames and action figures during Basquiat’s childhood, is flanked by drawings of the label for KOTO medicated cream. The abstracted reverse of a five-cent coin, which depicts the façade of Monticello—the plantation house of Founding Father and slaveowner Thomas Jefferson—appears twice. Yellow, blue and orange scrawls strike notes of contrast and harmony.

Basquiat drew upon a vast range of sources, sampling, synthesising and hybridising ideas and images from Western and African art history, advertising, comic-books, anatomical drawings, sport, jazz, hip-hop and television. His drawings, which he made constantly and prolifically throughout his career, map the poetic, free-associative processes of his thinking with particular clarity. In the present work, the symbols for ‘heat exchange’ and ‘atomizer’ and the alchemical substances urine, alum, gold and calx viva (quicklime) suggest the transformation of base matter into something higher. This notion is echoed in the haloed ‘Ideals’ at the top of the picture. The ‘hobo code’ signs, however—‘nothing to be gained here’, ‘cowards will give to get rid of you’ and ‘ill-tempered man lives here’—add an edge of unease. So too does the doubled ‘Monticello’, which quietly captures the dark side of money and power in America. Basquiat’s play with ideas of raw material and value relates to his position as a Black artist in 1980s New York, deeply ambivalent towards the Midas touch of his own creative prowess.

The use of text introduces a sonic quality to Basquiat’s work that has often been compared to poetry or music. ‘If you read the canvases out loud to yourself,’ said his friend Fab 5 Freddy, ‘the repetition, the rhythm, you can hear Jean-Michel thinking’ (F. Braithwaite quoted in I. Sischy, ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat as Told by Fred Braithwaite, a.k.a Fab 5 Freddy’, Interview, October 1992, p. 120). Basquiat’s use of verbal sampling, rhyming and scratching can be seen in the context of the cultural rise of hip-hop, which was closely linked to the street art scene in which he had first made his mark. Early in his career, the artist himself performed in an experimental band called Gray, improvising lines read from a biology textbook on stage. More painterly parallels might be made with Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg, both of whom Basquiat cited as influences. Using found words and images, ranging from ancient graffiti and Classical verse to the detritus of urban New York, these two artists likewise assembled poetry from diverse fragments of art, literature and daily life.

Basquiat also admired William S. Burroughs, the elder statesman of the Beat Generation. He described Burroughs as his favourite author, and the two met and collaborated in 1986, at a time when the poet was enjoying a new wave of popularity. Burroughs’ Dadaist text-collage technique, which he called the ‘cut-up’, speaks to drawings like the present, whose non-linear logic creates a distinctive visual and aural experience. ‘Life is a cut-up’, said Burroughs. ‘As soon as you can walk down the street your consciousness is being cut by random factors. The cut-up is closer to the facts of human perception than linear narrative’ (W. Burroughs quoted in T. Head, ‘Interlude I: A Chance Encounter with William S. Burroughs’, in Cut-Ups, Cut-Ins, Cut-Outs: The Art of William S. Burroughs, exh. cat. Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna 2012, p. 32). Basquiat’s own perception comes to the fore in the present work, his imagination and intellect singing clear through a hieroglyphic chorus of symbol and sign.

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