Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

Untitled (Bracco di Ferro)

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Untitled (Bracco di Ferro)
acrylic and oilstick on canvas with wood supports
72 x 72 in. (182.9 x 182.9 cm.)
Painted in 1983.
Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles
Craig Baumgarten, Los Angeles
Private collection, acquired from the above, 1987
Anon. sale, Sotheby's, New York, 15 May 2007, lot 73
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Galerie Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2010, Appendix, pp. 12 and 13 (illustrated in color).

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Lot Essay

Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled (Bracco di Ferro) is a dramatic black and yellow canvas showing the muscular male torso of a man rendered in dramatic detail. Incorporating the full range of the artist's artistic vocabulary, the alternating passages of vivid and dark color combined with the artist's signature text and enigmatic symbols results in a canvas that pulsates with energy and intrigue. The subject matter is also personal for the artist, as a childhood accident led to a life-long fascination with the inner working of the human body. This interest would later permeate throughout his art and when rendered in his characteristic repertoire of expressive lines and forms, the resulting images of skulls, bones, limbs and other anatomical details began to populate many of his most epic canvases.

Over a field of vibrant yellow, Basquiat amasses an arsenal of lines, shapes, words and cyphers that combines into a powerful depiction of the human body. His composition reveals the interconnected bones, veins, ligaments and muscles as he probes the into the chest cavity with remarkable degree of fluidity and anatomical knowledge. Counter intuitively, Basquiat expended most of his painterly attention on the exterior of the body, leaving the heart-often romanticize as the 'soul' of the body -rendered only by a large single, rapid flourish of his red oilstick. This is in stark contrast to his depiction of the black skin, which is lovingly embellished with a lavish amount of detail, from the swirls of the knuckles to the creases of the bunched skin at the wrist and finger joints. His extensive knowledge of how the human body is structured can be seen in the figure's muscular shoulders, shown connected to the ligaments and red blood vessels that run down the left arm illustrating the veins carrying oxygenated blood to the body's extremities. Finally, the gestural sweeps of gray paint that morph into ribs and the detailed portrayals of the spinal column demonstrate the versatility breadth of Basquiat's artistic language.

Untitled (Bracco di Ferro) also displays Basquiat's unique use of language. From the brazen '59cents (BONELESS) PER LB' chatter of the produce market to his hieroglyphic pictograms that inhabit the upper edge of the canvas, Basquiat's vocabulary is large and expressive. 'Bracco di Ferro' translates as 'arm-wrestling,' but in a playful twist, the insertion of an 'i' and making 'Bracco di Ferro,' Braccio di Ferro, it transforms into the Italian name for the cartoon strongman, Popeye. Some phrases announce themselves with a pleasing simplicity, others are more ambiguous; their original meaning hidden by thin washes of white pigment that are laid down over the still wet black paint causing them to merge into one another like a diaphanous gray veil that shrouds the original wording underneath. Basquiat used this technique with a perverse sense of irony-erasing words to give them greater emphasis.

Basquiat's encyclopedic knowledge of human anatomy has its roots in personal experience. In September 1968, at the age of eight, the artist was hit by a car whilst playing in the street in Brooklyn and spent a prolonged period in hospital being treated for a broken arm and series of internal injuries. During his month-long stay, his mother gave him a copy of Gray's Anatomy which he studied avidly. Untitled (Bracco di Ferro)'s fragmented and diagrammatic representations of the human body clearly have their roots in this nineteenth century textbook and, as with his other life-experiences, he was able to subsume these events and turn them into an important part of his artistic inspiration and an important visual element of his paintings.

Untitled (Bracco di Ferro) features a form of innovative stretcher that Basquiat began using the previous year, and a technique that transformed his paintings from two dimensional surfaces into three dimensional objects. Bored of the pre-prepared canvases supplied by his dealers, Basquiat instructed his assistant Steve Torton to make frames from whatever he could find in the studio and dumpsters nearby. The resulting exposed crossbars and twine lashing forms an integral part of the work, reflecting the everyday life and debris of the then derelict streets of New York's East Village. This new method of construction won instant fans and rave reviews. "For a while it looked as if the early stuff was primo, but no longer," wrote Rene Ricard. "He's finally figured out a way to make a stretcher...that is so consistent with the imagery...they do look like signs, but signs for a product modern civilization has no use for" (R. Ricard, 'The Pledge of Allegiance,' Artforum, vol. XXI, no. 3, November 1982, p. 48).

Basquiat's large vocabulary of painterly styles together with his own individual experiences results in a painting that is visually powerful yet also uniquely personal. This combination not only captured life during one of the most exciting periods in New York's cultural history but also came to define it. As curator Mark Meyer concludes, "In a turbulence of severed votive units, chaos is set upon the world of image: body parts, machine parts, parts of speech, figures, groups, cartoons, exclamatory symbols, declarations, official seals, farmyard animals, trailing lines, graphs, numbers, scientific diagrams, formulas, and countless orphaned words. We cannot but be lost in these parti-colored charms, strictly mediated by the artist in his disoriented funhouse of originals and copies. No longer are we flâneurs, lingering in the modern idyll of the avuncular Matisse, with his Luxe, Calme & Volupté. Basquiat puts us at the end time, where he concocts an apocalyptic delirium" (M. Meyer, 'Basquiat in History,' Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, 2005, p. 53). Basquiat combined high art with elements from street culture and the rough primitivism of graffiti in order to create his own unique iconography. Through its brushstrokes, symbols, and words, Untitled (Bracco di Ferro) encapsulates the vitality and dynamism that is so characteristic of Jean-Michel Basquiat's energetic spirit.

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