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Flash in Naples

Flash in Naples
signed, titled and dated '"FLASH IN NAPLES" NOV 1983 Jean Michel Basquiat' (on the reverse)
acrylic, oil and oilstick on canvas
66 x 60 1/8 in. (167.6 x 152.7 cm.)
Executed in 1983.
Estate of the artist
Their sale; Sotheby's, New York, 12 May, 2010, lot 39
Private collection
Anon. sale; Sotheby’s, New York, 16 November, 2017, lot 52
Private collection
Acquired from the above by the present owner
E. Lucie-Smith, American Art Now, Oxford, 1985, p. 51, pl. 72 (illustrated).
R. D. Marshall and J.-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, 1996, vol. 1, pp. 144-145 (illustrated); 2nd edition, vol. I, p. 167 (illustrated).
R. D. Marshall and J.-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Vol. I, Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, 2000, pp. 164-165 (illustrated).
R. D. Marshall and J.-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Vol. II, Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, 2000, p. 150, no. 4 (illustrated).
K Ströbel, Wortreiche Bilder: Zum Verhältnis von Text und Bild in der zeitgenössischen Kunst, Bielefeld, 2013, p. 217.
D. Buchhart and A. Hofbauer, eds., Basquiat: Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown), Munich, 2015, p. 35 (illustrated).
D. Buchhart, Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 2016, p. 25 (illustrated).
Edinburgh, The Fruitmarket Gallery; London, Institute of Contemporary Arts and Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Jean-Michel Basquiat Paintings 1981-1984, August 1984-March 1985, n.p. (illustrated and incorrectly titled as Flash in Venice)
Kyongju, Sonje Museum of Contemporary Art and Seoul, The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Andy Warhol & Jean-Michel Basquiat, September-November 1991, p. 52, no. 10 (illustrated).
Brussels, Galerie Eric van de Weghe, Jean-Michel Basquiat, April-May 1992.
Reno, Nevada Museum of Art, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Flash in Naples, July-November 2010.
São Paulo, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, J. Deitch, Jean-Michel Basquiat, January 2018-January 2019, n.p. and p. 92 (illustrated).
Paris, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Jean-Michel Basquiat, October 2018-January 2019, p. 21, fig. 6 (illustrated).
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis Head of Department

Lot Essay

Perhaps one of the most daring and brilliant artists to emerge from the 1980s New York scene, Jean-Michel Basquiat took the art world by storm with a sharp, intelligent understanding of the merging of graffiti, street aesthetics, and abstract painting. One of the first true art stars, his notoriety sprang equally from his vivacious and carefully constructed persona as it did from his truly groundbreaking canvases that mixed multilingual text with pop culture imagery and his own expansive iconography.

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.” Marc Mayer

Flash in Naples is a brilliant example of Basquiat’s ability to transform simple marks and recognizable references into complex compositions. Completed in 1983, a year of immense change and growth for the young artist, the present example highlights the role of text and figures in the painter’s oeuvre, as well as his indebtedness to Pop and commercial imagery. Jeffrey Deitch, speaking about this time period, noted that it was in 1982 that Basquiat transitioned 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, “1981: The Studio of the Street”, in Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the Streets, exh. cat., Deitch Projects, New York, 2006, pp. 10-13). An electrifying example of this newfound status and illustrative of his burgeoning talents, Flash in Naples is a remarkable testament to Basquiat’s lasting genius.

Rendered on a nearly five-foot square canvas, Flash in Naples centers around two images of the titular DC comic book hero complete with red spandex and lightning bolt insignia. The background is made up of an overlapping grid of primarily bright green lines with the occasional patch of orange, blue, and blue-green. These linear arrangements are set on a mottled ground of white paint or raw canvas with an area of dripping gray toward the lower middle section. The larger figure on the right faces the viewer with his hands behind his back (or missing entirely). The red costume he wears is form-fitting and complete with fuchsia briefs typical of the classic superhero. His cowl is pulled over his head leaving just his mouth full of colorful teeth exposed in a wane smirk. The winged ear accessories that reference the Roman god Mercury jut out like antennae on a 1950s science fiction robot.

To his left, another figure seems to be running at full speed, its body contorted in an active stride with red speed lines extending behind and a white arrow painted on its chest pointing the way forward. This dynamic character matches the unbridled energy of the composition as a whole. Its abstracted body undulates in scale as if in motion, and the way it crashes into the orderly gridwork creates a kinetic dichotomy with its otherwise stationary counterpart. Text reading ‘“IL” FLASH’, followed by a few partial words rests in the middle of the two red men. In the upper left, two arrows point right, guiding us to the blue-on-yellow lightning bolt in the right corner of the composition. Below this, the word ‘emblem’ in parentheses has been nearly completely obfuscated by brown marks, leaving only the letter ‘B’.

Largely self-taught, Basquiat’s style is often linked to the loose style of street art and artists outside of the mainstream. However, the fact remains that the artist was incredibly skilled at crafting specific messages from his work and had an expansive knowledge of art styles and principles he could draw from. “Looking at these works, one cannot escape without feeling the almost perverse sense of care taken to raw detail with what seems an acute distracted concentration. However crude the image may be or how fast it appears to have been executed – every line, mark, scratch, drip, footprint, fingerprint, word, letter, rip and imperfection is there because he allowed it to be there” (J. Depp in E. Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, pp. 16-17). Like his paint-spattered Comme des Garçons suits and specific iconography, Basquiat’s paintings were purposeful and deliberate in all aspects.

Painted in 1983, Flash in Naples came at a time when Basquiat’s career was transitioning to the next stage. He had left his previous gallery the year before and begun new relationships at home and abroad as he traveled widely in support of exhibitions. Early in the year, he opened his second show at Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles and then flew to New York for the opening of the Whitney Biennial. He was that exhibition’s youngest participant at just twenty -two, and his inclusion served as an institutional stamp of approval. Later that year, he flew to Zürich for a show organized by Bruno Bischofberger, the dealer who had introduced Basquiat to his friend and colleague Andy Warhol. All of this travel and experience with new people and places came out in his subsequent work. As dealer Fred Hoffmann noted, "Underlying Jean-Michel's sense of himself as an artist, was his innate capacity to function as something like an oracle, distilling his perceptions of the outside world down to their essence and in turn, projecting outward through his creative acts" (F. Hoffman, "The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works," in M. Mayer (ed.), Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, p. 129). Condensing and repositioning the myriad stimuli of the 1980s, Basquiat used his iconographic structures to translate a global energy into visually rich compositions that went beyond the New York scene.

Crossed-out words also recur in [Basquiat’s] paintings and are weirdly reminiscent of the bracketing or slashing of text in deconstructionist philosophy, to emphasize the cultural and biased nature of language. Funny to realize in retrospect that Basquiat and the French philosopher Jacques Derrida were on the same page.” Martha Schwendener

Text often plays a large part in Basquiat’s compositions, and his use of multiple languages throughout his work hints at his interest in the world as well as his upbringing in a Puerto Rican and Haitian family. Raised speaking English, Spanish, and French, Basquiat entered the art world as a trilingual virtuoso whose first medium, graffiti, existed primarily in a textual format. His use of these languages interchangeably in his work provided both an international appeal as well as a glimpse at the complex workings of his mind. Flash in Naples employs yet another language, as the text reads ‘IL FLASH’ or ‘THE FLASH’ in Italian. Coincidentally, another of the artist’s masterworks, In Italian (1983), was painted the same year, but the Italian words are crossed out and replaced with Spanish. Critic Martha Schwendener noted, “Crossed-out words also recur in his paintings and are weirdly reminiscent of the bracketing or slashing of text in deconstructionist philosophy, to emphasize the cultural and biased nature of language. Funny to realize in retrospect that Basquiat and the French philosopher Jacques Derrida were on the same page” (M. Schwendener, “‘Jean-Michel Basquiat’ at the Brant Shows His Bifurcated Life,” The New York Times, March 5, 2019). Basquiat was well aware of the biased nature of the art world, and as a black artist he channeled this frustration with the system through artworks that show an innate understanding of racial disparity.

Tragically cut short, Basquiat’s career was unique for its hybridity. Embracing a seemingly chaotic style at times, the painter was given to expressions of bold color and loose, frantic line work. His scrawling drawings and purposefully off-kilter compositions were at odds with some of the more shiny examples of Pop and Neo-Expressionism being made at the same time. On the other hand, Basquiat was well-versed in the history of art and actively studied his artistic predecessors from a young age. Visiting the Brooklyn Museum of Art as a child, he was exposed to myriad artists that would later influence his work. As Marc Mayer noted for an exhibition of the artist’s work at that museum, "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," in op. cit., p. 46). In Flash in Naples, Basquiat uses the red of the figures to offset the green of the grid while simultaneously raising our eyes from bottom to top, from looser application to denser. Though his work is representational, he learned to use color in his compositions like the abstract painters that came before. By combining this knowledge with a heady mix of personal and gleaned iconography, Basquiat was able to produce intricate amalgams that hurtled into new territory

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