2 More

Sugar Ray Robinson

Sugar Ray Robinson
signed and dated 'Jean-Michel Basquiat 1982' (on the reverse)
acrylic and oilstick on canvas
59 7/8 x 48 1/4 in. (152.1 x 122.6 cm.)
Painted in 1982.
Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
Galerie Delta, Rotterdam
Nico Delaive, Amsterdam, 1986
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 13 November 2007, lot 26
Private collection, Switzerland
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2016
E. Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris and New York, 2000, vol. I, p. 69 (illustrated); vol. II, p. 112-113, no. 6 (illustrated).
Rotterdam, Galerie Delta, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, October-November 1999, n.p. (illustrated).
Las Vegas, Bellagio Gallery of Fine Arts, Leather Throwers, May-October 2021.

Brought to you by

Isabella Lauria
Isabella Lauria Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Featuring the imposing figure of one of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s personal heroes, the champion boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, this eponymous portrait is one of the artist’s most audacious portraits. A masterpiece of painterly prowess, this striking canvas combines the artist’s highly expressive brushwork and skillful understanding of color to produce a radical statement that works on many levels. Part celebration, part social critique, Basquiat’s Sugar Ray Robinson displays the artist’s rare ability to produce deeply personal paintings that spoke to a wider audience. As one of the most accomplished sportsmen of his generation, the boxer was not only a personal hero to Basquiat but also a high-profile African American figure at a time of heightened racial tension in the United States. By bringing together politics and paint, Sugar Ray Robinson sits at the pinnacle of Basquiat’s oeuvre. Painted in 1982, the year Basquiat completed his most accomplished and successful works, Sugar Ray Robinson is a triumph of contemporary painting.

Appearing to fight the constraints placed on him by the physical size of the canvas, Jean-Michel Basquiat situates the figure of his hero confidently in the center of the composition. The fighter’s hulking square frame mirrors the dimensions of the picture plane, adding a tension that is matched by the figure’s hunched shoulders. Accent marks indicate Robinson’s muscular physique, his solid arms dangling beside him ending in his famous leather boxing gloves. The rest of the boxer’s frame is rendered in striking red, orange and black hues, a powerful choice that highlights the subject’s imposing figure. The complex construction of the boxer’s face clearly demonstrates how Basquiat constructs his figures; by building up layer upon layer of sparse painterly gestures, the artist produces an immensely emotive expression that manages to convey feelings of strength, aggression, power, and fear, all within the same fierce grimace.

Within Basquiat’s pantheon of personal heroes the boxer stands as his Zeus, his god of gods. Either standing triumphant with arms raised—as in Untitled (Boxer) (1982, Private Collection)—or with arms firmly placed by his side bracing for a fight, as in the present example, the boxer is the subject of some of the artist’s most triumphal paintings. For Basquiat, Sugar Ray Robinson represented the striking dichotomy of being a Black man in America. Despite being a world champion, and one of the most famous African Americans of his generation, Robinson would have suffered the indignity of not being allowed into venues due to the pernicious evils of segregation that was still widespread in the United States during the boxer’s reign as world welterweight champion in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This duality was reflected in 1983 (the year after the present work was painted) when, asked by the legendary curator Henry Geldzahler what the subject of his paintings were, Basquiat replied bluntly “Royalty, heroism and the streets” (J. Basquiat, quoted by H. Geldzahler, ‘Art: From the Subways to Soho—Jean-Michel Basquiat,” Interview, January, 1983). This contradiction between what is regarded as the 'noble' sport of boxing and its origins on the street has enthralled artists for millennia, from the ancient classical sculpture known as Boxer at Rest (323-31 B.C., Museo Nazionale Romano) to George Bellows' epic depiction of the brutality of the boxing match.

Sugar Ray Robinson was one of the greatest sportsmen of his generation. Born to a cotton and peanut farmer in the American state of Georgia in 1921, the family eventually moved to Detroit before finally settling in New York. It was here, at the age of 15, that Robinson first began entering boxing tournaments, and it wasn’t long before his natural talent was spotted by fight promotors, and it was in 1941, at the age of just 20, that he defeated his first world championship opponent and began what would become a record breaking career. The present work belongs to the important group of boxers that Basquiat immortalized in his paintings, including legends such as Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali), Jersey Joe Walcott and Joe Louis. Basquiat immersed himself in these athletes’ careers, astonished by their exponential rise to acclaim and their use of it to challenge prevalent racial prejudices and social injustices. At this point in his career, Basquiat was the rising star of the art world, self-made and increasingly successful, yet still suffering the indignancy of being judged, by some, simply on the color of his skin. In this sense, Sugar Ray Robinson could be read, in part, as a self-portrait, with Basquiat reflecting his own experiences as well as those of his hero.

As such, Sugar Ray Robinson is a reliquary of sorts, a symbol of reverence and a site of divine inspiration. Basquiat immortalizes this history of Black excellence and asserts its permanence in the cultural consciousness. The present example reminds one of the several Black athletes who jeopardized their careers for the sake of progress. Joe Louis, in particular, is renowned for playing an important role in the promotion of racial integration in sports and Muhammad Ali became, in the 1960s and 70s (during Basquiat's formative teenage years), one of the most widely-recognized symbols of social protest, for which he was both widely criticized as well as revered.

Painted in 1982, the present work was executed at a pivotal point in the artist’s career. At this stage, Basquiat had become New York’s premier art star, captivating the scene with his unique visual language and use of street art motifs. This praise earned him a spacious studio in the basement of Annina Nosei’s Prince Street gallery, allowing him to elevate himself to the international stage, ultimately exhibiting his work around the world. New York had been suffering from economic stagnation and foreclosure: whole swaths of the city were being vacated by businesses and white-collar workers in favor of the suburbs. Rap, Hip-Hop and street art had become the new language of the dispossessed and Basquiat was at the center of this new cultural movement, with the downtown scene becoming a rich source of inspiration that he would continue to mine for the rest of his career. Looking back on 1982, Basquiat himself recognized the tensions that he felt between the draw of his humble beginnings as a street artist and his meteoric rise to become the wunderkind of the New York art world. “I had some money,’ he recalled of that important year, ‘I made the best paintings ever…” (J.-M. Basquiat, in R. Marshall (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 241).

In addition to its decisive and expressive brushstrokes, one of the most striking qualities of Sugar Ray Robinson is Basquiat’s use of color. The artist’s abilities as a colorist have been largely overlooked, but are resolutely on display here. The high-keyed reds, oranges, yellows, and golds add a dynamic vibrancy to surface of the canvas, enhanced by the way in which they seemingly flow and merge with each other. The artist deeply admired Jackson Pollock’s use of passages of color to conjure up figurative imagery. Just as Sugar Ray Robinson is carefully constructed in compositional terms, the artist’s use of color as part of that structure is also important, as curator Marc Mayer notes, “With direct and theatrically ham-fisted brushwork, he used unmixed color structurally, like a seasoned abstractionist, but in the service of a figurative and narrative agenda….Basquiat deployed his color architecturally, at times like so much tinted mortar to bind a composition, at other times like opaque plaster to embody it. Color holds his pictures together, and through it they command a room” (M. Mayer, “Basquiat in History,” Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2005, p. 46.).

The present work sums up the totality of Basquiat’s revolutionary practice in a single, powerful canvas. As Robinson did with boxing, by challenging the ingrained racial prejudices of the art world, Basquiat, too, may be seen as a champion. Dedicating his career to a visual language that could be accessible across all walks of life, he represents far more than his accomplishments on the canvas. He saw himself in this world as a defiant warrior who had risen from the streets through sheer tenacity and talent. Sugar Ray Robinson, then, is both a celebration of two icons: the vivacious, towering champion fighter and the hyperactive, innovative Jean-Michel Basquiat, both prize-winners in their own right. With two monumental legacies convening in the present work, Sugar Ray Johnson is a triumphant masterpiece.

More from 21st Century Evening Sale

View All
View All