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Future Sciences Versus the Man

Future Sciences Versus the Man
signed, titled and dated ‘“FUTURE SCIENCES VERSUS THE MAN” JEAN MICHEL BASQUIAT 1982’ (on the reverse)
acrylic, oilstick and paper collage on canvas with tied wood supports
60 x 60in. (152.5 x 152.5cm.)
Executed in 1982
Larry Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles.
John Seed Collection, Los Angeles.
Larry Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles.
Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris.
Hannelore B. Schulhof Collection, New York (acquired from the above in 1985).
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2011.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992-1994 (illustrated in colour, p. 140; installation view at Fun Gallery in 1982 illustrated, p. 241).
Galerie Enrico Navarra (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 1996, no. 3, p. 85 (illustrated in colour, p. 84).
Galerie Enrico Navarra (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, no. 3, p. 133 (illustrated in colour, p. 132).
L. Emmerling, Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1960-1988, Cologne 2003, p. 57.
J. M. Saggese, Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art, Berkeley 2014, p. 35.
F. Hoffman, The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York 2017, p. 91.
New York, Fun Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982.
Los Angeles, Larry Gagosian Gallery, Jean Michel Basquiat, 1983 (illustrated in colour, exhibition invitation).
New York, The Brant Foundation, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2019.

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Claudia Schürch
Claudia Schürch Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

A masterpiece dating from Jean-Michel Basquiat’s finest period, Future Sciences Versus the Man is an outstanding work from his celebrated series of ‘stretcher’ paintings. A virtuosic meditation on the dreams and downfalls of humankind, it is an electrifying history painting that confronts the myths, marvels and mendacity of scientific progress. Astronauts and cowboys, warships and fighter jets, cannons and chemicals explode across the picture plane; Basquiat invokes the wonders of Egypt, the aspirations of America’s goldrush, the exploration of the cosmos and the threat of nuclear destruction. The work was begun in New York, where it was shown in the artist’s landmark exhibition at the Fun Gallery. It was embellished in Los Angeles later that year, where Basquiat made his stellar debut with Larry Gagosian, and featured on the invitation card for his second exhibition there in 1983. For over twenty years the work was owned by Hannelore B. Schulhof, whose extraordinary collection of post-war masterworks now resides in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. More recently, it formed part of the spectacular display of stretcher paintings shown as part of the Brant Foundation’s major Basquiat exhibition in 2019.

The work takes its place alongside Basquiat’s epic history paintings such as El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) (1983). Woven into its survey of human civilisation, however, is an ecstatic hymn to art. Basquiat conjures the work of painting’s own heroes and visionaries: from the visceral textures of Abstract Expressionism, to the raw impulses of street art. There are echoes of Franz Kline’s black and white canvases, Clyfford Still’s jagged colour fields and the rich, expressive impasto of Willem de Kooning. Its cryptic diagrams and numbers evoke Cy Twombly’s Bolsena paintings, wrought amid the scientific euphoria surrounding the Apollo moon landings in 1969. There are strains of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica in its elegy to human conflict; in its tactile, collaged surface are ghosts of Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines. At the same time, Basquiat ultimately overwrites these voices with his own. Paint drips, spatters and smears across the canvas, alive with his touch. His trademark symbols—the three-pointed crown, and the halo of thorns above the astronaut’s head—are quietly but unmistakably present. Painting, in the end, triumphs over science, with Basquiat emerging as its great pioneer.

As the artist himself ascended to the stars in 1982, aged just twenty-two, thoughts of progress and invention were undoubtedly on his mind. At the centre of his rise to fame were the stretcher paintings themselves. Defined by their exposed wooden bars, salvaged from the streets of the Lower East Side, these bold, near-sculptural icons have been described as ‘one of Basquiat’s original innovations’, and ‘one of his most important groups of paintings’ (P. Hoban, Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, London 1998, p. 102; R. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, p. 279). Examples are held in major institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Broad Art Foundation, the Menil Collection, the Museum of Art, Kochi, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, the Ludwig-Forum, Aachen and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. These structures confront the viewer like urban architectural relics, alive with the spirit of the city in its post-punk heyday. As the artist and critic Rene Ricard enthused, ‘[Basquiat’s] finally figured out a way to make a stretcher … that is so consistent with the imagery’ (R. Ricard, quoted ibid.).

Many of the stretcher paintings, including the present, also formed part of Basquiat’s exhibition at the Fun Gallery, or Fun Factory, in November 1982. It marked the end of an extraordinary year: one that, according to Jeffrey Deitch, had seen him transition from ‘a profusely talented and promising artist working on the street to a world-class painter, poised to become one of the most influential artists of his time’ (J. Deitch, Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the Streets, exh. cat. Deitch Projects, New York 2006, pp. 10-13). Basquiat had made his debut at Annina Nosei’s gallery that March, later showing with major dealers and curators in Zurich, Los Angeles, Rome and Rotterdam. He exhibited in Modena, and dated Madonna. In West Germany he was the youngest artist at documenta 7, whose line-up included Gerhard Richter and Joseph Beuys. Returning home after a whirlwind international tour, he mounted some thirty paintings at the Fun Gallery’s East Village space. It was, wrote the critic Nicolas Moufarrege, his ‘best show yet. He was at home … the paintings [were] more authentic than ever’ (N. Moufarrege, quoted in P. Hoban, ibid., p. 145). The present work was hung next to A Panel of Experts (1982, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), which was incomplete at the time: Basquiat kept many of the works from the show for himself.

Basquiat’s depiction of human progress reveals the staggering scope of his visual imagination, filled with a mixture of celebration, humour and critique. His soaring aeroplanes evoke Leonardo da Vinci’s visionary premonitions of flying machines: drawings which he deeply admired. At the same time, his cacophony of jets, canons and ships seems to conjure the chaos of modern warfare. In the midst of it all is a line drawing, framed in green, of a male figure building a model ship. The image appears to be taken from an advert by Revell—an American manufacturer of plastic scale models. Calling to mind Roy Lichtenstein’s appropriation of comic book strips, it depicts a man building a replica of ‘Big Mamie’, the Battleship USS Massachusetts which served in North Africa during the Second World War. The advert is accompanied by text filled with romantic nostalgia, eulogising the thirty-five sea battles it fought ‘without a fatality’. ‘A lot of men loved “Big Mamie”’, it explains. ‘And she never lost a lover … She’ll be interesting to build, but be careful. You might fall in love.’

The astronaut, too, is multifaceted. On one hand, he conjures the heroism of America’s triumph in the Space Race: a moment immortalised by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and others. On the other hand, Basquiat’s source appears to be an advert for Cheerios, likely published on the back of a comic or magazine, depicting a cartoon boy rocketing into space with the cereal’s logo on his arm. The caption of the original image, interestingly, eagerly anticipates the launch of the Intelsat III satellite in 1968. Basquiat paints the astronaut’s face in the manner of one of his own iconic heads, his eyes swirling like electric currents. Above him is the artist’s signature halo or ‘crown of thorns’ motif, borrowed from the iconography of religious sainthood and martyrdom. Does Basquiat here cast himself as the astronaut, skyrocketing into the stratosphere? Or does the astronaut become a sacrificial icon, risking his life in the name of new frontiers?

The sources for both the model boat builder and the astronaut were published in the 1960s, when Basquiat was a child. Stories of wartime victory and the conquests of space travel would undoubtedly have shaped his youthful view of the world. Elsewhere in the composition, however, his narrative veers into darker territory. In the top left hand corner, Basquiat inscribes the word ‘RADIUM’ in two different configurations. Below, he writes RA88: its chemical symbol, plus its atomic number. References to the periodic table frequently appeared in Basquiat’s work, most regularly derived from Henry Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook (1972). Here, his choice of element is haunting. Marie Curie had harnessed radium’s potential in the development of x-rays and radiotherapy, though ultimately died from the effects of radiation. Einstein, moreover, had referred to the production of ‘radium-like elements’ in his 1939 letter to President Roosevelt warning him about the possibility of the atomic bomb. Basquiat’s title—Future Sciences Versus the Man—begins to come into clearer focus.

Basquiat was also undoubtedly aware of the irony that ‘Ra’ was the name of the first pharaoh of ancient Egypt, and the god of the sun. Here, he daubs ‘EGYPT’ twice upon the canvas, along with an aborted misspelling. Below one of the iterations is a pyramid, a number 3 at its centre like a mathematical diagram. As a child Basquiat had attended the 1973 exhibition Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Art from the Age of the Sun King at the Brooklyn Museum, and devoured the documentary The Mystery of Nefertiti broadcast shortly afterwards. His works frequently invoked ancient Egyptian culture: its geography, its rulers and its artefacts. His coded tableaux of text and pictograms, meanwhile—inspired by the cut-up techniques of the Beat poets—were curiously redolent of hieroglyphs. References to Egypt would also frequently form part of broader political commentaries in his art, often juxtaposing the histories of Africa and America. Here Basquiat reminds us that ‘future science’ was always indebted to Egypt’s ancient civilisation.

Next to his radium litany, Basquiat paints what appears to be an oil rig surrounded by waves, both also corresponding to images in the Symbol Sourcebook. The draining of natural resources was a concern that surfaced time and again in his paintings, closely linked to themes of consumerism and economic value. Here, Basquiat seems to place it in the context of America’s rush to colonise the West during the nineteenth century. Oil drilling, begun in California during this period, became one of the defining images of the era. So, too, did the cowboy. In the upper right hand corner Basquiat pays tribute to William Frederick Cody—best known as Buffalo Bill—whose famous touring show popularised the quintessential image of the Old West across America and Europe. He paints another similar figure below. Both wear ‘ten gallon’ hats: an expression inscribed, and struck through, at the bottom of the work. Basquiat believed that crossing out words allowed them to come into focus more clearly. Here, ‘TEN GALLON’ seems to take on a double meaning, evoking the systems through which we measure the price—and cost—of our own advancement.

These sections of the painting were possibly inspired by Basquiat’s own time on the West Coast. An installation photograph from the Fun Gallery shows that they were incomplete at the time, suggesting that Basquiat added them after taking the painting with him to Los Angeles. Following the success of his first exhibition there in the spring, Gagosian provided him with studio space so he could work on paintings for his second show. The art historian John Seed, who worked closely with Basquiat during this period, paints a vivid picture of the artist, with visits from Madonna, wild shopping sprees to art supply stores and a chaotic studio space littered with cassette tapes, art history books and paint-splattered Armani suits. The present work, he recalls, was ‘electric’ (J. Seed, ‘Driving Mr. Basquiat’, Huffington Post, July 2010). Basquiat, however, had a double-edged relationship with his own success: his rapid ascent to the international stage was exciting and disconcerting in equal measure. Having made his own journey westwards, with new money in his pockets, it is perhaps unsurprising that the stories of America’s own quest for gold and glory loomed larger than ever before in his imagination.

These ideas find particular expression in two other elements added by Basquiat during the work’s revision. Since his days painting the streets of New York under the pseudonym SAMO, themes of royalty and heroism had dominated his art. As he took his place as king of the New York art world, the crown became his trademark symbol. It was originally inspired by the King World Productions logo that appeared on screen at the end of the cartoon programme The Little Rascals. Yet, for Basquiat, the motif held deeper significance. It was part of an urban rhetoric handed down from the 1920s jazz scene, where musicians would compete outside clubs to draw the biggest crowd. It was also a staple of the graffiti culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, used by fellow artists to denote admiration for their peers. As his fame skyrocketed, Basquiat wore his own crown uneasily, deeply aware—as he noted in his painting Charles the First (1982)—that ‘most young kings get their heads cut off’. Many of his titles, like the present, were structured around the word ‘versus’, invoking battle and defeat. Here the word ‘FRAUD’, along with the ½ symbol next to the crown, seems to quiver with the fear of insurrection.

For all its anxiety, however, the work represents a powerful love letter to art-making. Its art-historical allusions give way to a pyrotechnic vision of painting’s future, celebrating the medium’s raw, tactile properties at the dawn of the postmodern age. Basquiat combines acrylic, oilstick and collage, merging intricate linear draughtsmanship with wild gestures redolent of street art. In places his paint runs onto the stretcher frame; elsewhere it is layered like a palimpsest. There are echoes, too, of antiquity. Marshall compares the stretcher paintings to ‘African shields, Polynesian navigation devices, Spanish devotional objects, and bones that have broken through the surface of skin’ (R. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1992, p. 18). Ricard, meanwhile, suggested that these works resemble ‘signs for a product modern civilisation has no use for’ (R. Ricard, quoted P. Hoban, ibid., p. 102). Much like its narrative, the painting’s surface searches the past for clues as to where we might go next.

During his days as a musician in the late 1970s, Basquiat once famously improvised as he read from a biology textbook on stage: ‘Man can go to the moon / with brains and hand / Man can split the atom / with brains and hand / Man can see the stars / with brains and hand’ (J-M. Basquiat, quoted in Jean-Michel Basquiat, ibid., p. 40). In the present work, this fragment of verse seems to come to life. Yet time and again across the painting’s surface, the triumphs of ‘brains and hand’ are called into question. Does ‘future science’ hold all the answers for humankind? Basquiat suggests not—and proposes an alternative. ‘The greatest treasures of the world are art’, he once said; ‘… they are the most lasting, they are still here after people’ (J-M. Basquiat, quoted in conversation with G. Dunlop and S. Nairne, State of the Art, Channel 4, broadcast 11 January 1987). Here, the artist takes a paintbrush to the histories we have told ourselves, striking out and papering over its loaded words and symbols. The voice that emerges from its depths his ultimately own: that of a new prophet and pathfinder, ready to take on the world.

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