Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Property from a Private New York Collection
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

Red Rabbit

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Red Rabbit
signed, titled and dated '“RED RABBIT” Jean-Michel Basquiat 1982' (on the reverse)
acrylic and oilstick on canvas
64 x 69 in. (162.6 x 175.3 cm.)
Painted in 1982.
Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
Private collection
Anon. sale; Sotheby’s, New York, 11 November 1988, lot 390
Private collection
Anon. sale; Sotheby’s, New York, 14 November 1991, lot 249
Private collection
Anon. sale; Sotheby’s, New York, 4 May 1993, lot 260
Private collection, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992, p. 239 (studio view illustrated).
R. Marshall and J.-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, 1996, vol. 2, pp. 70-71, no. 6 (illustrated in color).
Jean-Michel Basquiat: oeuvres sur papier, exh. cat., Paris, Fondation Dina Vierny, 1997, p. 158 (studio view illustrated in color).
Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Seoul, Gallery Hyundai, 1997, p. 110 (studio view illustrated in color).
E. Navarra, et al., Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris and New York, 2000, vol. 2, pp. 114-115, no. 6 (illustrated in color).
Basquiat, exh. cat., Basel, Fondation Beyeler, 2010, pp. 34-35 (studio view illustrated in color).
Basquiat, exh. cat., Paris, Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2011, pp. 38-39 (studio view illustrated in color).
New York, Eykyn Maclean, Isolated, November-December 2017.

Lot Essay

This work is accompanied by a certificate issued by the Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

A brilliant embodiment of the celebrated paintings that elevated him to worldwide fame, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Red Rabbit bristles with crackling electricity—a stand-out painting from the breakthrough year of 1982. With its literary and pictorial precedents ranging from Albrecht Dürer’s majestic Hare to Alice in Wonderland and Br’er Rabbit, Basquiat’s Red Rabbit displays his encyclopedic knowledge of art history coupled with unparalleled draftsmanship and raw, graffiti style. Red Rabbit belongs to the roster of heroes and icons that Basquiat painted in the basement of Annina Nosei’s gallery in New York during the first half of 1982. Set within a sumptuous red background whose fiery hue ratchets up the frenetic energy of his depiction, Basquiat creates an archetypal portrayal of a symbolic creature. Its profile flattened and schematized akin to ancient cave painting or hieroglyphics, Basquiat presents a hybridized beast that bristles with anxiety—as if caught in the cross-hairs of a hunter’s scope. The artist captures the animated physicality of this skittish animal, along with its honorable spirit, encircling the four-legged beast with his signature thatched halo that’s rendered in rapid-dash strokes of white oilstick. Given that many of his paintings are in some way autobiographical, it likely that Basquiat intended Red Rabbit as a personal archetype. His unique status as an African-American artist working in the predominately white art world may have allowed him to identify with this noble, yet no less vulnerable, personification of the fabled rabbit.

Set within a lavishly-painted background of fiery red, Basquiat presents an heroic portrayal of a majestic, mythical creature. A torrent of idiosyncratic painterly marks is unleashed across a heavily worked surface, obsessively built up in considerable layers. The influences of Cy Twombly, Jean Dubuffet’s art brut, and Basquiat’s graffiti style are unified and given new direction—along with the lingering relics of Abstract Expressionism and other cultural and literary references—in this electrifying portrayal. Richly painted a deep red with underlying passages of bright turquoise, Basquiat depicts a monolithic rabbit. His portrayal is deliberately flattened into a schematic rendering reminiscent of children’s drawings, ancient cave paintings and Egyptian hieroglyphics. The thatched white halo surrounding the body mimics the fuzzy rabbit’s fur while the markings of its pelt are playfully portrayed in a series of gold and white circles. While its tall, pointed ears resemble a rabbit, the creature’s wide flank and its slender front and hind legs simulate a deer’s appearance, and its hollow eyes and slender jaw call to mind a jackal or wild dog. Indeed, this hybridized being takes on aspects of several different animals at once, not unlike the mythical sphinx or fairytale characters cloaked in disguise.

Across different cultures and throughout human history, the rabbit has symbolized cleverness and good luck. In the Western world, saying the animal’s name three times at the first of the month is a common superstition that wards off evil, and carrying a rabbit’s foot likewise protects against bad luck. The rabbit also represents hope and longevity in the Chinese zodiac (those born in the Year of the Rabbit possess an approachable, elegant manner). In Chinese legend, the moon goddess Chang’e kept a pet rabbit—the only creature deemed worthy of her noble beauty. In the wild, the rabbit uses its cunning and speed to escape its predators, and these physical attributes have gradually worked their way into popular culture over time. Its vulnerability in the face of larger and more powerful foes has led to its association with innocence, especially when associated with the Christian holiday of Easter. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, it is the white rabbit that leads Alice “down the rabbit hole” into Wonderland, and in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the bunny Peter narrowly escapes the clutches of Mr. McGregor by using its cunning and speed. In the 1960s, the white rabbit became associated with psychedelic drugs like LSD, which was immortalized in the Jefferson Airplane’s song of the same name which was performed live at Woodstock in 1969.

Basquiat’s burgeoning fame reached a fever pitch in 1982, the year that Red Rabbit was painted. Earlier that year, Basquiat moved into a large and rambling loft apartment in a seven-story building located at 101 Crosby Street. Having formerly painted in the basement of Annina Nosei’s nearby gallery, the apartment on Crosby marked the first time that Basquiat occupied a space large enough to paint in. During this era, he created some of his most significant work. In the following months, Basquiat jet-setted around the world, appearing at major exhibitions, as each one seemed to lead toward the success of the next: Annina Nosei in New York, Gagosian in Los Angeles, Bischofberger in Zurich and the Galerie Delta in Rotterdam, as well as Achille Bonito Oliva’s Transavanguardia show in Modena. That summer, he was the youngest artist exhibited at the prestigious Documenta VII in West Germany, where his work was shown alongside such veteran artists as Gerhard Richter and Joseph Beuys.

“Since childhood, Basquiat was an avid admirer of cartoons and comic books,” Richard Marshall has written in the first complete survey of Basquiat’s work, “and later he freely incorporated them into his paintings and drawings. … his works contain hundreds of examples, such as comic books and cartoons” (R. D. Marshall, “Jean-Michel Basquiat and His Subjects,” in J.-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, 1996, vol. 2, pp. 29-30). Especially as his work progressed, Basquiat frequently included direct references to cartoon characters such as Warner Brothers’ “Porky Pig” and “Bugs Bunny,” often scrawling the titles of vintage cartoons in stream-of-consciousness outpourings alongside caricatures of the characters themselves, such as “HAREDEVIL HARE;” “EASTER YEGGS;” “BUCCANEER BUNNY;” and “RACKATEER RABBIT.” “Basquiat often deliberately sought out seemingly innocuous popular culture icons in order to expose their socio-political subtext,” Marshall goes on to explain. “[He] sees in these popular cartoons and consumer items a deeper reflection of society’s institutionalizations of racism, discrimination, and erroneous representations of good and evil” (R. D. Marshall, Ibid., pp. 30-31).

Even at such a nascent stage in his painterly development, it’s obvious that Basquiat was cognizant of his power as an exceedingly young African-American artist rapidly achieving wealth and fame in a predominately white art world, and his choice of subject matter reflects this burgeoning sense of self-awareness. In Red Rabbit, Basquiat knowingly invokes the complex legacy of Br’er Rabbit, a character popularized by the Uncle Remus stories first published in the late 19th Century. Br’er Rabbit is said to have passed down through oral storytelling among enslaved African-Americans living in the deep South. Many scholars have traced Br’er Rabbit to the “trickster” character—at times represented by a hare—in the folktales told orally across many regions of the African continent. Joel Chandler Harris launched the Br’er Rabbit character in his story “Tar-Baby” in 1879 when it was originally printed in The Atlanta Constitution, which was reprinted in the Uncle Remus stories for the next several decades. Basquiat was keenly aware of the incipient racism underlying such seemingly innocuous children’s stories like those popularized in Uncle Remus. “The subject of racism is inherent and pervasive in the work of Basquiat,” continues Marshall. “Basquiat saw a microcosm of the world’s socio political situation mirrored in children’s cartoons, and understood how cartoons...were exploited for political propaganda purposes…In addition to the works about his black heroes, Basquiat created numerous pieces related to slavery [and] the South” (R. D. Marshall, Ibid., pp. 29-30; 39).

A feverish visual testament to the genius of this extraordinary young artist, who was not yet twenty-two years old when the work was created, Red Rabbit belongs to the significant series that ranks among the artist’s most vital contributions to the history of art. The pantheon of heroes and martyrs that Basquiat established in this pivotal moment would sustain him for the duration of his magnificent—albeit tragically short—career. Red Rabbit is also highly personal, a deeply symbolic painting that cleverly references the artist’s own status as both an outsider looking in, and a child prodigy, whose extraordinary knowledge of art history, literature and contemporary politics remains unparalleled to this day.

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