A wordsmith inasmuch as he was a painter and a draughtsman and a cultural commentator, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) tugs at the fraying strings of democracy in Every Body 2 Center (1984), a thoughtful declaration on an impressive scale from the creative heart of the artist’s career. Making efficient use of his negative space, Basquiat weaves in patches of his signature graffiti marks with flicks of paint in colorful bursts. Dominating his palette are copper, silver and gold, not incidentally precisely the precious metals agreed upon in the United States to hold monetary, tradeable value in coin form. While the penny boasts its inscription in clear text – encircling an undefined portrait head with “LIBERTY In God We Trust 1955” – the silver coin turns its face away, thus obscuring its worth while burrowing into the canvas. A circular impression at the upper left corner suggests an alternative overarching currency, but the real power Basquiat implies is in the faint outline of a structure resembling the Washington Monument, erected in the United States capital city in 1884 to honor the first US president and founding father George Washington (1732-1799).
Basquiat was a great poet, with a rare ability to combine both pigment and text on one surface…Basquiat’s poems often have a visual shape, as if they are dimensional…”
Whether in homage to perceived heroes or in support of noble ideas, images of magnificent architecture permeate the artistic production of the past several centuries from both East and West, placing cultural and historical significance on buildings of great import. Even the traditional museum model, with its marble columns, grand staircases, expansive entryways and soaring ceilings reminiscent of cathedral naves, communicates the sanctity with which these structures demand to be revered. The advent of institutional critique as a discipline, however, along with more recent calls for sculptural reconsideration at key American sites in response to social unrest, directly challenge the notion that the higher the elevation the louder the voice. No doubt influenced by the intimidating New York skyline colored by simmering racial and sexist tensions during his formative years, Basquiat juxtaposes the pristine white tower presiding over the seat of government just a few hours south with a clever play on words: whose two cents are really heard and whose are tossed in the gutter? Whose two cents are really five, ten or twenty-five cents, and who is ultimately in charge of the coveted gold?
Born in Brooklyn of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, Basquiat matured in a milieu of cross-cultural symbols, first seeking to make sense of his surroundings by tagging them as part of the infamous SAMO guerrilla graffiti duo in the late 1970s. Precocious and well-read from childhood, Basquiat synthesized images from sources as diverse as record covers, advertisements and Gray’s Anatomy to craft a distinct visual language that caught the eye of several critics, including curator Diego Cortez for his landmark 1981 exhibition New York/New Wave at MoMA P.S.1. As the young artist garnered greater acclaim and moved deeper into New York’s creative scene with forays into fashion, music and film, his magnetic personality attracted such high-profile tastemakers as Andy Warhol and Madonna, culminating in a 1985 feature on the cover of The New York Times Magazine that cemented his astronomical reign, just a year after the present lot was executed. Dedicated to a practice rooted in current social events, Basquiat employs such pictorial metaphor to uplift a group historically oppressed and reassert the emotional resonance of an art “…in which Black people are portrayed as being people of the human race. And not aliens and not all negative and not all thieves and drug dealers and the whole bit. Just real stories” (J.-M. Basquiat, quoted in “Becky Johnston and Tamra Davis Interview Basquiat”, Beverly Hills, 1985). Real stories, of course, prize everyone’s two cents, a narrative further reinforced by Basquiat’s intense semiotic studies coursing through the present work.
While not immediately obvious, the profile head featured on Basquiat’s penny faces the opposite direction than Abraham Lincoln’s visage on the smallest denomination of United States currency, almost as if the Civil War emancipator must turn away from the destructive race relations plaguing contemporary America. Perhaps, instead, Basquiat’s characteristic hieroglyphic head is choosing to take the higher road, turning the other cheek, as it were, from the goings-on in his homeland. Even the hidden flashes of gold allude to an unattainable cultural capital, while the structural outline intimates the untouchable, omnipotent global capital. Elegantly uniting these clever axioms with forceful gesture, Basquiat has constructed a picture that is all at once inclusive and exclusive, raw and refined, critical and charming – acknowledging there are two sides to the same coin, yet arguing that everyone’s two cents is worth at least a fifth of a dime.
Lot Essay Header Image: Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1987. Photo: Allen Ginsberg LLC / Contributor / Getty Images.