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Because it Hurts the Lungs

Because it Hurts the Lungs
acrylic, oil, oilstick and Xerox collage on wood
72 x 42 1⁄8 x 8 3⁄8in. (183 x 107 x 23.9cm.)
Executed in 1986
Galerie Bischofberger, Zurich.
Akira Ikeda Gallery, Tokyo.
Anon. sale, Sotheby’s New York, 6 October 1992, lot 202.
Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York.
Private Collection, Germany.
Anon. Sale, Phillips New York, 14 May 2001, lot 28.
Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong.
Private Collection, Lugano.
Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2003.
E. Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 1996, vol. II, p. 145, no. 6 (illustrated in colour, p. 144).
T. Shafrazi, J. Deitch and R. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York 1999 (illustrated in colour, p. 268).
Galerie Enrico Navarra (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, vol. II, p. 243, no. 6 (illustrated in colour, p. 242).
Galerie Enrico Navarra (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat: Appendix, Paris 2000, p. 38.
H. W. Holzwarth (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Art of Storytelling, Cologne 2018, pp. 434 and 496 (illustrated in colour, p. 435).
Tokyo, Akira Ikeda Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: New Works, 1987, no. 2 (illustrated in colour).
New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1993-1994.
Rome, Chiostro del Bramante, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Dipinti, 2002, p. 112 (illustrated in colour).
Paris, Fondation Dina Vierny-Musée Maillol, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Histoire d’une œuvre, The work of a lifetime, 2003, p. 103 (illustrated in colour, p. 102).
Cologne, Jablonka Galerie, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2003-2004.
Denpasar, Darga Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2004, p. 38 (illustrated in colour, p. 39).
Mexico City, Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2004, p. 57 (illustrated in colour).
Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Keith Haring - Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines, 2019-2020, p. 346 (illustrated in colour, p. 284).
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Brought to you by

Tessa Lord
Tessa Lord Director, Senior Specialist

Lot Essay

Widely exhibited over the past two decades—including in a major 2004 retrospective of the artist’s work at the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, and more recently in the dual exhibition Keith Haring Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines (2019-2020) at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne—Because it Hurts the Lungs (1986) is an electrifying multimedia work by Jean-Michel Basquiat. A life-size green figure with a russet, cyclopean skull rears up against a white ground. Swathes of ochre and emerald paint echo his sinuous limbs, while white oilstick maps skeletal lines through his upper body. Above his head—with gritted teeth and a single, almond-shaped orange eye ablaze amid smeared pigment—is a schematic halo; snowshoe-like structures adorn his feet. To the backdrop, which is of painted wood, Basquiat has applied sheets of his own drawings and text, some Xeroxed and others freshly inscribed. Among them is a cryptic extract from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci that lends the work its title: Why the thunderbolt kills a [man and] does not wound him, and if the man blew his nose he would not die. Because it hurts the lungs. Further collage adorns two painted boxes that protrude from the surface, including a drawing of the Lester Young Quartet’s 1944 jazz record Afternoon Of A Basie-ite, Japanese script, snatches of dialogue from Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Ajax, and a grinning, eyeless black head wearing a jewelled mitre. Charged with a sense of ritual magic, this dynamic, three-dimensional painting exemplifies Basquiat’s genius, colliding myriad ideas in a construction of dazzling visual impact.

By 1986 Basquiat was a near-mythical figure, famed for his personal charisma as much as his creative prowess. He had emerged in New York as a graffiti artist at the start of the decade, spraying his ‘SAMO’ tag and cryptic slogans throughout downtown Manhattan. Breakout group shows in 1981 fired off a spectacular rise to stardom: over the following two years, he held solo exhibitions worldwide, collaborated with Andy Warhol and became the youngest artist to exhibit at Documenta VII in Kassel. Working out of a liberating loft space on Great Jones Street, his art grew in physical and thematic grandeur. His celebrity hit new heights in 1985, when he was featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine as the face of the era’s heady contemporary art scene. In 1986, he made his first visit to Africa for a show of his work in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and a major exhibition of more than sixty of his works opened at the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hannover: Basquiat’s second survey at a European museum, at the age of just twenty-five. It was during this trailblazing year that Because it Hurts the Lungs was made. The main character’s likeness to the Green Lantern—an African-American superhero debuted by DC Comics when Basquiat was a child—is perhaps no coincidence.

While the wooden support of Because it Hurts the Lungs speaks to Basquiat’s streetwise ingenuity—he painted on doors, sheet metal and other urban fragments during the early 1980s, as well as stretching rough-hewn canvases over found slats of wood—it also relates to his interest in the mystical properties of the art object. His frequent figural references to saints, kings and messiahs were often deployed in panelled structures reminiscent of church altarpieces or domestic icons. These formal aspects went hand in hand with vodoun echoes of Basquiat’s own Haitian-Puerto Rican heritage, as well as with nods to fetish objects such as the nkisi from the Congo Basin—believed to be inhabited by spirits, and sometimes studded with nails or blades—that he saw in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. ‘Various formal languages serve as auxiliary rockets behind his signature figurations, his spirit-heads and crossed-out words and columns of painted diagrams and legends’, wrote the scholar Robert Farris Thompson in 1985. ‘Each gesture is, potentially, a fugitive from a different art history, adding to his incredible velocity’ (R. Farris 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.). Complex assemblies like Because it Hurts the Lungs reflect the richness of Basquiat’s hybrid identity and the depths of his learning, drawing a holy aura from multiple traditions of image-worship.

Basquiat became particularly fascinated by African spiritual symbolism from around 1984, when he read Farris Thompson’s landmark book Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy (1983). Major works from this era like Gold Griot (1984, Broad Art Foundation) and Grillo (1984, Fondation Louis Vuitton), whose figures refer to the storyteller-poets of West Africa, relate closely to the present work in their ornate materiality. Because it Hurts the Lungs’ projecting boxes quite literally introduce multiple dimensions, implying the containment of something unseen beyond the work’s layered surface. Like nkisi spirit-vessels, they might hold entities, charms or offerings within. ‘I’m an artist who has been influenced by his New York environment’, said Basquiat. ‘But I have a cultural memory. I don’t need to look for it; it exists. It’s over there, in Africa. That doesn’t mean that I have to go live there. Our cultural memory follows us everywhere, wherever you live’ (J-M. Basquiat, quoted in D. Davvetas, ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat’, New Art International, October-November 1988, p. lxiii).

A sampler and synthesiser by nature, Basquiat channelled information from a variety of fields—television, music, comic books, New York street life, art history, and, thanks to Xerox photocopying, even replicas of his own drawings—onto the visual planes of his work. Alongside its allusions to jazz vinyl, Sophocles and countless other sources, Because it Hurts the Lungs reflects one of the most totemic influences in the artist’s library. While he was in hospital following a childhood car accident, his mother had given him a copy of Grays Anatomy and a book of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings. He would return often to the lessons of these volumes in his art, with many of his figures revealing their skulls, muscles and nervous systems. The present work’s toothy cranium, viewed as if in cross-sectioned profile, is born of this X-ray gaze. As well as his diagrams, however, Basquiat found inspiration in Leonardo’s words. The collaged sheet at the upper right lifts text from a page of the master’s notebooks written in 1489, in which he outlined some of the subjects to be treated in his forthcoming Anatomia. In Basquiat’s hands, this evocative list—including references to madness, hunger, poison and ‘anger when it works in the body’—becomes a poetic incantation, inflecting the central figure with a sensory and emotive physicality.

Basquiat’s bold chromatic brushwork has often been compared to that of the New York School: in 1980, Jeffrey Deitch observed in him ‘a knock-out combination of de Kooning and subway spray-paint scribble’ (J. Deitch, quoted in Jean- Michel Basquiat, New York 1999, p. 324). While Because it Hurts the Lungs showcases this gestural vigour, it bears especially close comparison with the multimedia creations of Robert Rauschenberg, whose ‘combines’ of found objects, collage and paint derived raw splendour from ephemeral and discarded materials. Like Basquiat, Rauschenberg incorporated elements of popular culture into his work, hybridising Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism in frenetic, vivid objects that captured the urban energy of New York. What Farris Thompson called Basquiat’s postmodern ‘creole’ sensibility—informed as much by the cultural crucible of the city as by his personal background—takes this urbane approach to a new realm of syncretic force, traversing centuries and continents in its encyclopaedic range. Because it Hurts the Lungs distils countless voices, styles and ideas into one explosively powerful presence, centred by the bright gaze of Basquiat’s all-seeing eye.

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