The year 1982 was a special one for Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88). In March he had his first solo show in the US, at the Annina Nosei Gallery in New York. In June he became — at the age of 21 — the youngest artist ever to take part in Documenta, the esteemed exhibition of contemporary art in Kassel, Germany. In the autumn, he began a relationship with an up-and-coming singer called Madonna.
Basquiat said that 1982 was also the year he ‘made the best paintings ever’. One of these was Warrior, which is being offered in a single-lot sale on 23 March at Christie’s in Hong Kong.
The painting depicts a full-length male figure dominating the picture plane. He is the eponymous warrior and he holds in his right hand a sword that’s unsheathed, raised and ready to strike. The work recalls Renaissance depictions of court knights such as Carpaccio’s Young Knight in a Landscape (see below) from the early-16th century.
Though he had no formal art education, Basquiat was well acquainted with Old Master paintings, thanks to frequent boyhood visits with his mother to the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Matilde Basquiat was from Puerto Rico, while the artist’s father Gerard was from Haiti. Jean-Michel was born in Brooklyn in 1960, the eldest of their three children. His heritage would prove crucial throughout his career.
‘The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings,’ he said in the mid-1980s, looking back on his formative years. ‘I realised that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them.’
Part of the inspiration for Warrior seems to have been Ogun, the sword-wielding warrior deity of the Yoruba people of West Africa. Their beliefs had been transported to the Caribbean as a result of the transatlantic slave trade.
The subject’s scarified eyes and clenched jaw add to a sense of talismanic power. In his long thin toes, some also see a resemblance to nkisi nkondi idols from the Congo (see below), into which long thin nails were hammered.
Basquiat’s mother and father separated when he was seven and he ended up living with the latter. Gerald’s strict parenting, however, saw the teenage Jean-Michel rebel — to the extent of quitting school and running away from home.
In 1977, he started spray-painting graffiti on derelict buildings in New York’s Lower East Side and SoHo, a practice he would continue until around 1980, when his career really took off.
Though executed on a wooden panel rather than a public wall, Warrior shares a number of characteristics with Basquiat’s old street works, rawness and spontaneity being chief among them.
The wildly fashioned background was achieved with gestural brushwork in patches of yellow and blue. As for the subject, Basquiat marked out his silhouette in spray paint and oil stick — before filling in the body with harried layers of acrylic.
There’s no perspectival logic to speak of, or spatial recession. Figure and ground seem meshed together — bursting with the energy of a warrior.
David Bowie hailed the ‘pure joyful chaotic miasma’ of Basquiat’s imagery
Basquiat painted this huge work, measuring 183 by 122 cm, while installed in a studio in the basement of Annina Nosei’s gallery in SoHo (she had become his primary dealer in 1981). He worked there as an artist in residence, and there are numerous stories of Nosei taking collectors downstairs to snap up paintings before they were even dry.
Warrior wasn’t painted before Basquiat’s aforementioned show at her gallery in March 1982; it would first appear in an exhibition of his work at the Akira Ikeda Gallery in Tokyo the following year.
It’s possible to interpret Warrior as a form of self-portrait: the central figure representing the artist in his battles within an art world that was overwhelmingly white. Might the crown of thorns atop his head suggest the artist saw himself becoming a martyr in the process?
In the case of Warrior, another source of inspiration can probably be cited: the landmark anatomical textbook, Gray’s Anatomy. The warrior’s visible, internal organs look like a distorted diagram from it. (Basquiat was given a copy by his mother while in hospital recovering from a car accident as a boy — and was captivated by the book for ever after.)
Warrior exemplifies Basquiat’s skill as an artistic magpie, scavenging source material from all sides and bringing together seemingly unconnected elements in marvellous fusion.
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One of his admirers, David Bowie, hailed the ‘pure joyful chaotic miasma’ of Basquiat’s imagery. He added that the artist ‘seemed to digest the frenetic flow of passing image and experience, put them through some kind of internal reorganisation, and then dress the canvas’.
In other words: thanks to considerable preparation for battle, Basquiat’s warrior emerged totally triumphant.