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El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile)

El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile)
titled ‘EL GRAN ESPECTACULO’ (upper center); signed, titled and dated '“THE NILE” 1983 Jean-Michel Basquiat' (on the reverse)
acrylic and oilstick on canvas mounted on wooden supports, in three parts
overall: 68 x 141 in. (172.7 x 358 cm.)
Executed in 1983.
Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
Enrico Navarra, Paris
Anon. sale; Sotheby’s, New York, 9 November 2005, lot 38
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
M. Enrici, J. M. Basquiat, Paris, 1989, pp. 72-73 (illustrated).
R. D. Marshall and J.-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, 1st edition, vol. 1, pp. 130-131 (illustrated); 2nd edition, vol. 1, pp. 180-181 and 395 (illustrated and titled as El Gran Espectaculo [History of Black People]).
Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 1999, pp. 194-195 and 319-320 (illustrated and titled as El Gran Espectaculo [History of Black People]).
A. Mazrui, C. Davies and I. Okpewho, eds., The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities, Bloomington, 1999, pp. 447-448, fig. 3 (illustrated and titled as Untitled [History of Black People]).
Galerie Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Drawings, New York, 1999, p. 369 (detail view illustrated).
Terzoocchio, vol. 25, 1999.
R. D. Marshall and J.-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, 3rd edition, vol. 1, pp. 174-175; vol. 2, pp. 162-163, no. 2 (illustrated and titled as titled as El Gran Espectaculo [History of Black People]).
Basquiat a Cuneo, exh. cat., Cuneo, Galleria d’Arte Il Prisma, 2001, p. 72 (detail view illustrated).
A. Marwick, The Arts in the West since 1945, New York, 2002, p. 296 (titled as El Gran Espectaculo [History of Black People]).
G. Lock and D. Murray, eds., The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art, New York, 2009, p. 257.
K. Mercer, ed., Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers, Cambridge, 2009, pp. 136-137 (illustrated and titled as El Gran Espectaculo [History of Black People]).
Galerie Enrico Navarra (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat: Appendix, Paris 2010, pp. 34 and 45 (installation view illustrated and titled as El Gran Espectaculo [History of Black People]).
Basquiat, exh. cat., Basel, Fondation Beyeler, 2010, pp. 130-131, no. 137 (illustrated and titled as The Nile [El Gran Spectacle]).
V. Duponchelle, "Basquiat, l’artiste roi et sa couronne d’épines," Le Figaro, 1 June 2010 (titled as The Nile [El Gran Espectaculo]).
C. Remeseira, ed., Hispanic New York: A Sourcebook, New York, 2010, p. 438 (titled as Untitled [History of Black People]).
Basquiat and the Bayou, exh. cat., New Orleans, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 2014, pp. 60-61, pl. 5 (illustrated and titled as El Gran Espectáculo [History of Black People]).
C. M. Tatum, ed., Encyclopedia of Latino Culture, vol. 1, Santa Barbara, 2014, p. 217 (titled as The Nile).
J. Saggese, Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art, New York, 2014, pp. 23, 36-38, 40, 47, 116, 138-139, and 107, pl. 14 (illustrated and titled as The Nile).
Words are All We Have: Paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., New York, Nahmad Contemporary, 2016, pp. 60-61, no. 8 (illustrated and titled as El Gran Espectaculo [History of black people]).
R. Iskin, ed., Re-envisioning the Contemporary Art Canon: Perspectives in a Global World, New York, 2017, p. 67, no. 2.3 (illustrated and titled as The Nile).
F. Hoffman, The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 2017, pp. 49, 56, 58-59, 62, 122, 148, 206, 212 and 244 (illustrated and titled as The Nile).
C.-M. Bernier, Stick to the Skin, Oakland, 2018, pp. 111-112, fig. 28 (illustrated and titled as [Untitled] History of Black People).
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, Fondation Louis Vuitton, 2018, pp. 22, 40, 42-43, no. 2 (illustrated and titled as The Nile).
A. Vink, Postmodern Artists: Creators of a Cultural Movement, New York, 2019, p. 83 (titled as The Nile).
J. Saggese, ed., The Jean-Michel Basquiat Reader, Oakland, 2021, pp. 159, 168-169, 272, 305-306 and 314, pl. 25 (illustrated and titled as The Nile [El Gran Espectaculo]).
New York, 81st Street, Jean-Michel Basquiat, April 1983 (organized by Paige Powell).
Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings, Sculptures, Works on Paper and Drawings, November-December 1989, pp. 32-33 (illustrated).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Houston, Menil Collection, Des Moines Art Center and Montgomery, Museum of Fine Arts, Jean-Michel Basquiat, October 1992-January 1994, pp. 23-24, 152 and 266 (illustrated and detail view illustrated; titled as Untitled [History of Black People]).
Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, April-June 1996.
Kaohsiung, Museum of Fine Arts and Taiwan, Taichung Museum, January-June 1997, pp. 52-53 (illustrated).
Seoul, Gallery Hyundai, Jean-Michel Basquiat, July-August 1997 pp. 48-49 (illustrated).
Vancouver, Art Beatus, Jean-Michel Basquiat, September-October 1997, pp. 34-35 (illustrated and titled as El Gran Espectaculo [History of Black People]).
Tokyo, Mitsukoshi Museum and Marugame Genichiro Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art, Jean-Michel Basquiat, October 1997-May 1998, pp. 18 and 50-51 (illustrated and detail view illustrated)
São Paulo, Pinacoteca, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Pinturas, June-September 1998, pp. 61-63 and 112 (illustrated and detail view illustrated).
Venice, Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Basquiat a Venezia, June-October 1999, pp. 86-87 (illustrated and titled as El Gran Espectaculo [History of Black People]).
Rome, Chiostro del Bramante, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Dipinti, January-March 2002, pp. 86-87 (illustrated and illustrated on the exhibition poster; titled as El Gran Espectaculo [History of Black People]).
Paris, Fondation Dina Vierny-Musée Maillol, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Histoire d’une œuvre, June-October 2003, pp. 66-67 (illustrated and titled as El Gran Espectaculo [History of Black People]).
Cologne, Jablonka Galerie, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings, October 2003-January 2004.
Mexico City, Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Jean-Michel Basquiat, October-December 2004, pp. 46-47 (illustrated).
New York, Brooklyn Museum; Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Basquiat, March 2005-February 2006, pp. 45, 52, 106, 135, 168, 170 and 177 (illustrated, detail view illustrated, and illustrated on the front and back covers of the Members Preview brochure; titled as The Nile).
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Isabella Lauria Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

"No artist of the contemporary period has positioned themselves at the churning center where modernity and modernism, capital and slavery, [and] processes of identification and disindentification collide."
- Okwui Enwezor

Painted when the artist was just 22 years-old, El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) stands as one of the most important paintings in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s short but explosive career. It is one of three large-scale canvases executed in 1983 in which the artist ambitiously and audaciously proclaims that his central concern from this point on is to use painting to address issues of representation within the grand theater of world history. Thus, the present work becomes Basquiat’s quintessential history painting, as across its highly animated surface an intoxicating array of signs and signifiers unlocks the history of the Black diaspora. From Ancient Egypt to present day America, Basquiat’s employs his unique visual language to chart the Black experience as part of Western Civilization. “No artist of the contemporary period has positioned themselves at the churning center where modernity and modernism, capital and slavery, [and] processes of identification and disindentification collide,” the critic Okwui Enwezor wrote (O. Enwezor, “El Gran Espectáculo: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Modernity, Modernism,” in D. Buchhart, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, 2018, p. 39). Previously owned by Enrico Navarra, a prominent collector of the artist’s work and the co-author of what is widely considered to be the most comprehensive catalogue of Basquiat’s paintings, El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) is discussed at length in the wider scholarly literature on the artist. It has been exhibited in numerous critically acclaimed retrospectives including one organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in 1992 and the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2006. Held in the same private collection for the past fifteen years, this is a rare opportunity to acquire one of Basquiat’s seminal works.

"In El Gran Espectaculo… one can see the cunning energy and ambition of youth trying to encapsulate grand ideas of history in on full sweep."
- Franklin Sirmans

With the present work, Basquiat joins a distinguished group of artists who have confronted humanity’s darkest forces through the power of art. From Picasso’s Guernica to Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion, and Andy Warhol’s Race Riot, artists have employed the visual and emotional resonance of art to process events which seem unfathomable. Yet what is remarkable about El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) is that this highly complex and accomplished painting was completed by someone so young: Picasso was 56 years old when he paintied his treatise on the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, Basquiat painted the present work when he was barely out of his teenage years. As Enwezor notes, “Even at the young age… with limited formal education in the practice of art, Basquiat was gifted with an ebullient self-confidence, and sought nothing less than to disrupt the restricted equipoise by which the conventional Western art system had governed the public understanding of art” (Ibid., p. 37).

Across the artist’s handmade canvas, Basquiat choreographs a heady arrangement of evocative graphic symbols, scrawled words, and painterly drips, all characteristic elements of his unique painterly language. Often painting late into—and through—the night, what at first appears to be a chaotic composition, is in fact a highly organized assembly of symbolic signifiers. It tells of the passage of Africans from the building of civilization on the banks of the Nile, to the Pharaonic trading capital of Memphis, then—tracing the progress of the watery thoroughfare towards the Mediterranean—moves up through the Old World and on to the Americas and Memphis, Tennessee. Populated with symbols such as the Eye of Horus (which represents royal power, good health, and protection), the guardian dog of the Pharaoh, and a seated black figure with the crossed out words ‘slave’ and ‘esclav’ emblazoned across his chest, this epic panorama combines ancient and modern. These figures, as Jordana Moore Saggese writes, lie at the heart of the painting both physically and metaphorically, a deliberate strategy in which the artist places the history of Africa and that of the African American people in parallel.

Another important motif is that of the boat. It appears most predominantly in the central panel where a large vessel powered by oarsman is overseen by a tall commanding figure standing at the stern. This resembles the long boats depicted in the rock engravings from predynastic Egypt discovered at Wadi Barramiya, near the Red Sea, but which also has echoes of the haunting diagram of the ‘Brookes’ slave ship from early in the nineteenth century. This metaphor clearly had a particular resonance for Basquiat as he used it twice in this particular painting, once in the center of the composition, and a second time—in more rudimentary form—along the lower edge.

Hovering above the bow of the larger version of the boat, written in the ancient script of the Blemmyes—nomads of the Eastern deserts of Africa—is a word, versions of which Basquiat used in a number paintings from this period, including Notary (1983). Basquiat first came across it in Burchard Brentje’s 1970 book African Rock Art, which included a photograph of an image of St. George containing a Greek caption which included this Blemyan word. As Robert Farris Thompson notes, the artist uses it to convey the kaleidoscope of art histories and philosophies, and the blending of time and cultures throughout history.

The images evoking slavery continue with the other major motif, a sickle-shaped implement that sits directly beneath the image of the boat in the middle panel. Again, Basquiat uses extraordinary symbolism to link Africa to the Americas as this tool has been used across millennia both by the ancient Egyptians and the enslaved people harvesting grain in the Deep South of the USA. The importance of this motif can clearly be seen in the fact the artist has spelt out the word SICKLE at least three times. The sources for both these devices reflect Basquiat’s peripatetic curiosity. He was an avid reader and owned several books about ancient Egyptian art, one of which has been identified as source material for elements in the present work. African Rock Art included a diagram of what was described as a “sickle-shaped boat of the Nile valley dwellers, with standards,” on which Basquiat is said to have based these two important motifs.

"In The Nile, one of Basquiat’s epic paintings, he artist connects the history of the U.S. with that of the ancient world by using black subjects as icons or avatars of forces of historical change."
- Kellie Jones (K. Jones, ‘Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the (Re)Mix,’ in M. Mayer (ed.), Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, p. 170).

Also in this central section, but easily overlooked among the plethora of dynamic images, is the word SALT. This is in important word within Basquiat’s lexicon as it contains many historic and cultural references, and is also a word which links to the artist’s street art past. It is in fact an oblique (or maybe not so oblique) reference to the artist’s meteoric rise to art world prominence. The word is included in several other important paintings from this period including Native Carrying Some Guns, and Amorites on Safari, and is a reference to salt as an historically important commodity. Used to preserve food, it subsequently became substance that was traded all over the world. Wars were fought between America and sub-Saharan countries over salt and salt taxes, and Gandhi led protests against restrictive salt policies enacted by British colonial powers in both India and South Africa. In addition to its historical context, Basquiat’s inclusion of the world SALT in this, and other works, has been read as a reference to the commodification of his own work as he rose from street artist to one of the art world’s most promising talents.

Within Basquiat’s oeuvre, words are as powerful as the artist’s graphic symbols: repeated words; crossed-out words; onomatopoeic words, Basquiat utilizes both their visual and phonetic qualities to drive home the impact of his message. They act as ‘signposts,’ reinforcing existing thoughts and ideas and, at the same time, showing the way to new ones. Thus, in El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile), the repeated use of the word SICKLE emphasizes the importance of the visual motif, while the use of MEMPHIS ‘THEBES’ & TENNESEE [sic] introduces a new line in his narrative of geographical displacement, as Memphis was not only the ancient capital of Lower Egypt that fell into decline with the rise of Thebes, but is also the name of a city in the southern American state of Tennessee which experienced some of the worst examples of racial violence. In each of these examples, Basquiat transforms his sources to make them relevant to his own experience of Black America. For example, the African American slave (on the right), and the references to the Nubia (on the left) deliberately frame the composition—making clear the relationship between the people of Africa and their transportation across the sea to the Americas.

As can be seen from decoding the complex iconography of this painting, El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) is a highly accomplished work, both academically and technically, and when considered with the fact that Basquiat was still in his 20s, it becomes even more remarkable. 1983 was a pivotal point in the artist's career, when he moved from documenting his own personal narrative of growing up in a predominantly white city, to tackling the collective experiences of the wider historical African diaspora. This resulted in Basquiat embarking on a series of monumentally ambitious paintings, the likes of which had not been seen before. As Enwezor notes “his paintings look nothing like what any other artist was doing at the time… [and] can be read as much for the purposeful but innovative approach to Expressionism” (O. Enwezor, “El Gran Espectáculo: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Modernity, Modernism,” in D. Buchhart, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, 2018, p. 35). But, no matter how revolutionary Basquiat’s graphic style is, his painterly innovations pale in comparison with his rigorous interrogations into issues of race. As a child of Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, Basquiat was fully versed in matters of race and, the disconnect between the cultural aspirations of the black people of the New World, and their experiences in colonial empires that sought to fetishize black African culture. As Enwezor continues, Basquiat’s knowledge of this institutional disidentification of African- American cultural production became the core issue in the artist’s work. In Basquiat’s mind, America’s racial politics laid the ground for a transhistorical genre of painting that had only rarely been attempted before.

In this respect, the present work carries with it the radical cry of paintings such as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Basquiat had a particular kinship for Picasso and this is particularly evident in the language with which he portrays his figures—the deliberately ‘primitive’ and childlike naiveté and its intermingling of imagery, graphic notation and painterly gesture. A visionary like Picasso himself, Basquiat saw the world through his own unique lens portraying his subjects with a sense of energy and immediacy that leaps of the page. He once said of his relationship with Picasso, “Picasso arrived at primitive art in order to give of its nobility to western art. And I arrived at Picasso to give his nobility to the art called “primitive” (J. Basquiat, Basquiat, exh. cat., Museo Revoltella, Trieste, 1999, p. 126).

El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) also contains the existential horror of Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion (1944, Tate Gallery, London). The British artist said the chimeric figures in his work represented the Furies, ancient Greek goddesses who punished human wrongdoing. Bacon’s triptych was first shown publicly in April 1945, during the final months of World War Two, just as the first photographs and film footage of Nazi concentration camps were being released. For some, they reflected the horror of the Holocaust, in which six million Jewish people were murdered. It was also seen to reflect the fear caused by the development of nuclear weapons.

Parallels can also be drawn between the work of Basquiat and that of Cy Twombly, whose canvases not only reverberate with the same visceral energy transmitted through the sheer ferocity of the artist's graphic marks, but which also tackle the epic nature of history. Paintings such as Twombly’s Leda and the Swan (1962, Museum of Modern Art, New York) or his those from his Ferragosto series, contain the same timeless sense of history as Basquiat is portraying, delivered with a highly sophisticated degree of mark-making.

El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) sits alongside other important paintings by the artist from this period that tackle issues of race and the Black experience. At a point in his life when his fame climbed ever higher, Basquiat remained keenly aware of his precarity as a young black man in the United States. His works reflected on the violence and injustice which continue to haunt American society to this day. Also in 1983, he completed a monumental painting called In This Case, which curator Dieter Buchhart has suggested is a tribute to Michael Stewart, a young African-American graffiti artist killed by police officers following his arrest at a subway station in September 1983. “One thing that affected Jean-Michel greatly was the Michael Stewart story,” fellow artist and friend Keith Haring worte, “… Suzanne [Basquiat’s ex-girlfriend] was now going out with Michael Stewart, who was a skinny black kid. He was an artist. He looked much like Jean-Michel” (K. Haring, quoted in D. McClinton, “Defacement: the tragic story of Basquiat’s most personal painting”, The Guardian, June 28, 2019). Stewart’s death sent shockwaves through New York’s creative scene. For Basquiat, the event brought the whole debate about race in America very close to home.

In addition to being a profoundly moving painting in narrative terms, the present work is also a highly accomplished painting technically. Another aspect of Basquiat’s often overlooked skills was his ability as a colorist. The artist deeply admired Jackson Pollock’s chromatic masterpiece Guardians of the Secret (1943, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), in particular the way that Pollock used passages of color to conjure up figurative imagery. Just as El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) 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, “…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.).

"Even at… [a] young age… with limited formal education in the practice of art, Basquiat was gifted with an ebullient self-confidence, and sought nothing less than to disrupt the restricted equipoise by which the conventional Western art system had governed the public understanding of art."
- Okwui Enwezor

Painted in 1983, Basquiat’s work that year found favor with many influential critics who had been yearning for the return of ‘the expressive’ ever since the triumph of Minimalism in the late 1960s and 1970s. In Basquiat they found a new champion who clearly reveled in the joy of the artist’s hand. “What has propelled him so quickly,” extolled Lisa Liebmann in her Art in America review of Basquiat’s 1982 exhibition at Nosei’s gallery, “is the unmistakable eloquence of his touch. The linear quality of his phrases and notations…shows innate subtlety—he gives us not gestural indulgence, but an intimately calibrated relationship to surface instead” (L. Liebmann, quoted in M. Franklin Sirmans, ‘Chronology,’ in R. Marshall (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 239). Although Basquiat died in 1988, when he was just 27 years old, his impact on the art world lasted far beyond his short career. Fifty years on, the legacy of Basquiat's work has afforded the work of other established—but often overlooked—Black artists such as Kerry James Marshall, Robert Colescott, and Glen Ligon much greater visibility. Together, their work has reclaimed art history, and given a voice to those who have been silenced for too long.

El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) is a justly important painting, both in terms of its physical scale and its intellectual scope. It reproduces the landscape of Basquiat’s lived experience with those who went before him. A 'history painting' in the true sense of the phrase, it stands as an encyclopedia of his masterly technique, his unique motifs, and his sophisticated understanding of history. Basquiat, never one to contradict himself, remained confident in his thematic decisions throughout his career, maintaining a steady focus on issues of identity, racism, classicism, culture, mortality, and street art. The result was that during his brief but turbulent career, he produced an outstanding body of work rich in highly expressive paintings which addressed both the artist's own personal search for self-identity, and also his place in a wider history. In such an important oeuvre, El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) sits at the very top.

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