No subject is more powerful or more sought after in the oeuvre of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) than the singular skull. For the enigmatic artist, the human head was more than an obsession. As the punning title of In This Case (1983) implies, the head is a case or a cage for a cog-like machine teeming with impulses and ideas.
The work, which will highlight Christie’s 21st Century Evening Sale on 11 May 2021, is among Basquiat’s greatest achievements: a cranial chasm into which the artist has poured the contents of his visual imagination, melting together centuries of stylistic influence.
‘In This Case is one of only three monumentally sized skulls that Basquiat painted,’ explains Alex Rotter, Chairman of 20th and 21st Century Art. ‘The impressive size of these heads rival the height of a fully grown man himself. The painterly intensity and immediacy present in this work is unparalleled in Basquiat’s oeuvre.’
In 2018, a ground breaking Basquiat retrospective opened at the Foundation Louis Vuitton, Paris featuring a trinity of the artist’s skull paintings — together for the first time — in a small, chapel-like room.
‘Three Heads dating from 1981, 1982, and 1983 open the exhibition,’ explained Co-Curator, Olivier Michelon. ‘What situates these canvases among his most arresting is the violence they bring to their upending of the vanitas. Listed Untitled, the first two are sometimes dubbed Skull, while the third is titled In This Case; these cranial anatomies are not memento mori, but amplified memories played very, very loud. So loud that their presence is indisputable.’
At the time of the 2018 retrospective, both Untitled paintings had already achieved international recognition. Untitled (1981) was acquired by Eli and Edythe Broad the year after it was painted — and is now housed at The Broad in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Untitled (1982) had recently realised the highest price achieved for an American artist at auction when it sold for over $110 million in 2017.
In This Case, the last of the series, had also previously been the highlight of a major Basquiat survey at Gagosian Gallery, New York, in 2013. Robert Farris Thompson described the work at the time as ‘one of Basquiat’s strongest...a climactic portrait of the black face that haunts painting after painting. Every creative touch — the green teeth, the yellow eye, the navy-blue skin — is exactly right.’
Basquiat’s proclivity for the human form is rooted in his childhood. After a car accident left the then-seven-year-old artist with a broken arm and several internal injuries, his mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy while he recuperated in the hospital.
Already an adept draughtsman, the young Basquiat absorbed every detail of the human form depicted in the book’s diagrams — from its skeletal architecture to its musculature and cardiovascular network — leading to a lifelong preoccupation with the physical body. He would come to find his most poignant expression in the form of the skull, returning to the iconic motif over and over again.
‘What drew Basquiat almost obsessively to the depiction of the human head,’ wrote curator and publisher Fred Hoffman, ‘was his fascination with the face as a passageway from exterior physical presence into the hidden realities of man’s psychological and mental realms.’
Constantly seeking reinvigorated modes of inspiration, new sources eventually came to inform his anatomical figures, among them: Paul Richer’s Artistic Anatomy, Burchard Brentjes’ African Rock Art, and a 1966 volume on Leonardo da Vinci.
Combining the precision of Renaissance drawing with the primordial gestures of cave painting and the analytical distortions of Pablo Picasso’s Cubist heads, In This Case is powerful fusion of Basquiat’s chief influences charged with the frenetic energy of the street art from which his practice stemmed.
By the time In This Case was painted, Basquiat was already an international star. At only 22 years of age, he was one of just a few African American artists working in the art world. Keenly aware of the pressures of his situation, Basquiat’s work not only celebrated the famed Black sports stars and musicians to whom he felt akin, but also exposed the racial injustice and violence that continue to haunt American society today.
Curator Dieter Buchhart has suggested that In This Case was created as a tribute to the young Black graffiti artist, Michael Stewart, who was badly beaten by the NYPD in September of 1983 after attempting to tag the New York City subway walls. Succumbing to his injuries, Stewart’s death was later memorialized by Basquiat in a series of paintings that would directly confront the issue of police brutality.
‘One thing that affected Jean-Michel greatly was the Michael Stewart story,’ said Keith Haring in 1988. ‘He was an artist. He looked much like Jean-Michel.’
As Basquiat continued to rise to near-mythic status throughout the 1980s, the looming skeletal effigy offered a poignant and prophetic memento mori — a dark harbinger of the artist’s own untimely end, on 12 August 1988 at age 27.
Channelling his newly found fame and identity into his work, the skull took a predominant place among a number of figural forms from crowned kings to warriors. However, it is his anonymous and isolated human heads that triumph with their individual power.
Through these dynamic and commanding skulls, Basquiat, himself, ascends as an immortal legend. In contrast to the boxers and royals who held court in his paintings, here it is a hero of art — Jean-Michel Basquiat — who emerges triumphant.