The sweet science: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s portrait of Sugar Ray Robinson

Depicting the boxer’s colossal highs and lows, Basquiat revealed his subject’s heroic talent — and his humanity

In his own words, Jean-Michel Basquiat saw his subject matter as unequivocally ‘royalty, heroes and the streets.’ From Charlie Parker to Joe Lewis, many of the characters he painted represent one of the three points of his iconic crown — the poet, the musician, or the boxing champion. Portrayed with passion, energy, and the signature rawness that mingles his graffiti origins with an unrestrained directness, his pantheon of Black heroes and martyrs is an inseparable part of his work. 

Offered in Christie’s 21st Century Evening Sale on 17 November in New York, Basquiat’s 1982 painting Sugar Ray Robinson presents the boxer as part of the his own royal lineage: accomplished, legendary, yet also deeply flawed and human, like the artist himself.

‘Over the past 15 years, Basquiat's work has continued to push the metaphorical ceiling, transcending him to the position of arguably the very best Black Contemporary painter,’ says Isabella Lauria, Head of the 21st Century Evening Sale. ‘In Sugar Ray Robinson, Basquiat is paying homage to one of his heroes.’

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Sugar Ray Robinson, 1982. Acrylic and oilstick on canvas. 59 78 x 48¼ in (152.1 x 122.6 cm). Sold for $32,679,000 in 21st Century Evening Sale on 17 November at Christies New York
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Sugar Ray Robinson, 1982. Acrylic and oilstick on canvas. 59 7/8 x 48¼ in (152.1 x 122.6 cm). Sold for $32,679,000 in 21st Century Evening Sale on 17 November at Christie's New York

Born in Detroit in 1921, Walker Smith Jr. took the name Ray Robinson in 1935 for his first amateur fight. Being too young to compete, he borrowed a friend’s Amateur Athletic Union ID card, and the name stuck. At an amateur bout in Watertown, New York, a woman in the crowd said his boxing style was ‘sweet as sugar,’ thus he became Sugar Ray Robinson. 

He turned professional at age 19, and by the time he turned 30, he had a record of 128 wins with only two losses across four different weight classes. During this period, he fought Jake La Motta numerous times, and their rivalry is depicted in Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull

Considered the best ‘pound for pound’ boxer of all time — a term created for him, which describes a fighter’s skill irrespective of weight class — he became the welterweight world champion, then moved up and became the middleweight world champion, an incredible feat he made even more dramatic by defending his title an unprecedented five times. 

In Basquiat's portrait he is shown as a behemoth figure, rigidly hunched over in his shorts and gloves as if ready for the next bout. His features are rendered with a sense of movement that borders on manic, but he is in his element, powerful — embodying his legacy as a sporting god.

‘From a technical standpoint,’ says Lauria, ‘Sugar Ray Robinson is a culmination of many of the facets of Basquiat's genius, invoking his characteristic rawness and intensity through his layered, textured and almost frenetic use of oilstick and acrylic.’

Sugar Ray Robinson, Photograph by Al FennGetty Images
Sugar Ray Robinson, Photograph by Al Fenn/Getty Images
Sugar Ray Robinson, Photograph by Al FennGetty Images
Sugar Ray Robinson, Photograph by Al Fenn/Getty Images

Outside the ring, Robinson lived a flamboyant life as a dancer and singer, driving a bright pink Cadillac and originating the concept of the modern boxing entourage. But when he retired in 1965, he had reportedly already spent the $4 million he accumulated during his time fighting. He pursued a second career as an entertainer, which didn’t work out, and when awarded with a massive trophy at Madison Square Garden in recognition of his legacy in boxing, he didn’t have a table in his apartment with strong enough legs to support it. 

This double-edged sword attracted Basquiat: Sugar Ray was the best boxer of all time, but with that success came an incomprehensible amount of loss. He thrived in the spotlight, but the same light that illuminated him also burned him. 

Basquiat's work shows Sugar Ray in the ring, with the lights glistening off his red skin. It is no coincidence that Basquiat used the colour palette of fire in his portrayal, underscoring the explosive nature of the boxer’s legacy and the issues he faced. It's not only for his opponent in the ring that his body is braced, but also for the world he was fighting against. 

In addition to being a boxer, he owned a nightclub — Sugar Ray’s, in Harlem — where Miles Davis and Charlie Parker played, and owned his own rights as a fighter, which guaranteed that his career was in his own control. Basquiat's portrayal hinges on the dichotomy between the insouciance with which he cast aside his opponents and the calculated nature of his social trajectory.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1988. Photograph by Mark SinkGetty Images
Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1988. Photograph by Mark Sink/Getty Images

This willingness to disregard the way things had been done was exactly what Basquiat saw in him. It’s what the writer Wil Haygood saw when he wrote that Sugar Ray ‘was beyond fads,’ in his book about the boxer. He forced people to set aside their prejudices in a sport that, when he entered it, was highly segregated, but also sought to rewrite narratives around Black entrepreneurship and success outside the ring. 

‘I’m interested in painting the Black person,’ said Basquiat in a 1985 interview with Robert Knafo. ‘He’s the protagonist in most of my paintings.’ When asked why, he responded: ‘I realized I never saw any paintings with Black people in them.’ 

Through painting, Basquiat places Robinson in the historically white space of the gallery and the tradition of Western painting. He reminds his viewer that the boxer is more than just a street-saint; he’s a member of an elite sports canon who fought injustice in and outside the ring. 

‘The power in this painting is palpable,’ says Lauria, ‘as Sugar Ray in his strong frontal boxing stance braces himself to face his opponent like Basquiat does, in a way. It sits among the best of Basquiat's output, an image of a warrior, fighter and Black athlete transcending into the realm of hero and icon.’

The work is as much about the adversity the boxer faced on his meteoric rise as it is about his achievements and downfall. It also speaks to the artist's anxieties about his own success, particularly his status as a Black artist within the mostly white world of the New York art scene, and the challenges that came with it. In Sugar Ray, Basquiat saw elements of himself: they were both less concerned with the way things had been done, interested instead in how they wanted to do it. It is what makes them both titans whose lives and legacies still ripple throughout our culture.

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