Created in the milestone year of 1982, The Mosque is a poetic example of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s celebrated ‘stretcher paintings’. Twine-bound stretchers protrude from its corners, the hallmark of these emblematic works whose ‘rough-hewn frames’, as Phoebe Hoban notes, ‘are still singled out as one of Basquiat’s original innovations’ (P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, London 1998, p. 102). Basquiat mixes his media in an airy chromatic structure of white, cream, red, black and blue, drawing and painting an evocative array of imagery and text in ink, oilstick and acrylic over sheets of paper collaged to the canvas. A large, disembodied leg, circled in bright red and captioned ‘FEET’, reflects his preoccupation with Gray’s Anatomy, and the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. This earthly motif is countered by a pane of celestial blue to the upper right. The raised arm of an angular, toga-clad stick figure below – reminiscent of the carvings and paintings in Burchard Brentjes’ African Rock Art, a 1969 book from which Basquiat often drew inspiration – echoes in a tall, red-and-black building that rises up the centre of the canvas. Topped with twin aerials, the structure resembles the six-storey Masjid Al Farooq, a Brooklyn mosque close to Basquiat’s childhood home. Two more figures, one wearing a halo, dance beneath it next to a tangle of diagrammatic arrows, circles and numbers. Another doubled drawing depicts a man on his deathbed, with his soul – captioned ‘INSPIRIT’ – lifting into the air. ‘MY APOLOGIES’ makes for a humorous epitaph. The atmosphere of ascension is heightened by vertical arrows, and the phrase ‘GOING TO HEAVEN’, from which hangs a pair of scales: amplifying the work’s echoes of Ancient Egyptian tomb painting, these recall the scales of Anubis, the god of the dead, who weighed a person’s heart against a feather to determine their fate in the afterlife. From crypt to cave to the skyline of 1980s New York, The Mosque sees Basquiat collapsing time and space with typical polyvocal brilliance. ‘Basquiat reinvented the wall’, writes Francesco Pellizzi, ‘not just as a poetic ruin, but as a virtual presence, as suspended, dematerialised poetry’ (F. Pellizzi, ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Writing on the Wall’, in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat. Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York 1999, p. 315).
With other examples held in museum collections worldwide, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Broad Art Foundation, the Menil Collection and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, The Mosque takes its place in ‘one of [Basquiat’s] most important groups of paintings’ (R. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, p. 279). He arrived at his distinctive jerry-rigged frames in a breakthrough year of critical and commercial success, having made the transition from street graffitist to king of the New York art world. In 1981, the gallerist Annina Nosei had offered him studio space in the basement of her Prince Street gallery, where he swapped the city walls for canvas. By January 1982, the twenty-one-year-old artist had moved into a liberating seventh-storey loft studio at 151 Crosby Street, where he would produce some of the finest and most inventive works of his career. He instructed his assistant Stephen Torton to build stretchers from whatever materials he could find, then daubed and scrawled over the wild, salvage-yard results. ‘I would go out in the middle of the night and find the stuff’, Torton recalls. ‘I was making things that looked like what the circus leaves behind … It was such a relief to climb into Dumpsters and pull things out of them and make sculptures’ (S. Torton, quoted in P. Hoban, ibid., pp. 106, 173). At once objects and paintings, these works were an apt extension of the abandoned doors, fridges and other found surfaces on which Basquiat had first made his mark.
The artist’s rugged new canvases were an instant hit. ‘For a while it looked as if the very early stuff was primo, but no longer’, marvelled Rene Ricard in 1982. ‘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 civilisation has no use for’ (R. Ricard, quoted P. Hoban, ibid., p. 102). Richard Marshall enthused that ‘The effect was raw, askew, handmade – a primitive-looking object that recalled African shields, Polynesian navigation devices, Spanish devotional objects, and bones that have broken through the surface skin’ (R. Marshall, ‘Repelling Ghosts’, in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1992, p. 18). To this vivid, free-associative response, the present work might add the suggestion of sail, sarcophagus or papyrus scroll. Ancient Egypt as the cradle of civilisation was a central subject for the Afrocentric movements of the 1980s, and Basquiat’s art placed African and African-American identity in constant conversation. He directly conjured Egypt’s old kingdoms in many of his works, depicting funeral ships, antiquities he had seen in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and famous pharaohs, as in the ‘RAMESES II’ of another ‘stretcher painting’, Kings of Egypt II (1982, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam). Less explicit yet no less powerful, The Mosque’s restrained, spacious composition shifts between realms and calls up multiple symbolic histories, hinting at hieroglyph, magic and ritual in its playful vision of the hereafter. Much as Cy Twombly channelled the energies of Classical myth into his outpourings of gestural abstraction, Basquiat’s painting casts a lyrical, enigmatic spell that takes flight into timelessness.