The dazzling array of images, motifs and text contained within this large-scale painting displays the rich and varied lexicon that Basquiat was incorporating into his work during this particular period of his life. Early in his career he focused mainly on large-scale figures, which were composed of frenetically applied brush strokes that he built up into numerous layers of painterly gestures until their final image appeared triumphal on the surface of the canvas. In Peter and the Wolf, however, Basquiat's attention is not focused on a single totemic figure, but on the thunderous selection of different stimuli that give us an insightful glimpse into the artist's famously active mind at work. Surrounding the simply drawn figures that give the work its name, Basquiat has assembled a vivid array of words and symbols that are both deeply personal and also deeply revealing. The full vocabulary of Basquiat's art is on display here--from the anatomical drawings that were inspired by a childhood accident to the triumphant commemorations of the artist's cultural and sporting heroes. Following in the tradition of other great artistic pioneers, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, who reassessed what it meant to be a painter in the twentieth century, here Basquiat produces his effect with a captivating mix of painting and drawing intermingled with collaging of Xerox copies of some of his earlier work. Basquiat had experimented with using Xerox copies as far back as 1981-before he had begun painting-yet in works such as Peter and the Wolf they became a new tool in his artistic repertoire and one which he used to maintain his position as one of the most exciting artistic voices of his generation.
In many ways Peter and the Wolf could be read as a visual autobiography of the artist's life. Several large sections of the work are given over to the anatomically detailed drawings that have been a constant theme throughout much of his oeuvre. Basquiat's interest in anatomy has been traced back to a childhood accident that left him hospitalized for a number of weeks. To relieve the boredom of his confinement, his mother gave him a copy of the medical textbook Gray's Anatomy and elements from this would appear in many of his most important paintings. In Peter and the Wolf, skeletal renderings of the human hand (complete with medical annotations) coexist alongside detailed diagrams of the human digestive system and their major organs. Intermingled amongst these signifiers of a childhood trauma are more nuanced signs of Basquiat's own personal pantheon of heroes from his adult life. Celebrated African-American heroes from the world of music and sports are represented by stylized renderings of the jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie or by images of vinyl records with the words 'BLUES' and 'ARMSTRONG' superimposed on them, as Basquiat pays homage to the numerous black cultural figures who helped to lay the path of his own success.
Just as he did in his painterly practice, Basquiat's created these assemblages at great speed, often working in bursts of activity, as can be seen in the undulating surface of the work, which clearly shows the frenetic pace at which he worked. Critics have often lauded the "musicality" of Basquiat's work, and Peter and the Wolf in particular certainly appears to possess these lyrical qualities. Basquiat was deeply interested in music, but as Robert F. Thompson points out, this went far beyond the clichéd forms of "urban culture" disparaged by the white cultural elite. "Because he is black and because he is young, some critics will not be able to resist temptation to link Basquiat to the more obvious forms of New York black and Puerto Rican street art. ...In his hands black vision becomes at once private, public, didactic, playful, serious, sardonic, responsible, and, above all, deliberate Basquiat's blues typography, at once interruptive and complete, makes visual black song, with equivalents to pause, shout, spacing, and breadth" (R. F. Thompson, quoted by M. Franklin Sirmans in R. Marshall (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992, p. 246).
The source material for many of the passages in Peter and the Wolf is an important work on paper that the artist produced in 1983 and such is the range of Basquiat's visual lexicon that almost every part of this earlier composition was reproduced at least once in later pictures. Jet black masks like those featured in the present work also feature in his 1985 painting Tenor, and makes appearances in paintings such as Glenn, 1984, and King of the Zulus, 1984-85 (Musée Cantini, Marseille). His reproduction of the children's wind-up car that hovers along the right hand edge of Peter and the Wolf also appears in Negro Period, 1986, and Tenor. But perhaps the most featured part of this configuration is the colorful carved head of a Chinese dragon watched over by a menacing black figure, which appears in no-less-than five other paintings, including Dark Milk, 1986, Evergreen Boys, 1986, Apex, 1986 and ISBN, 1985-87.
Painted in 1985, the year he was defiantly featured on the cover of The New York Times magazine, Peter and Wolf is a triumphal example of Basquiat's work at its most accomplished. By combining his painterly and graphical skills, Basquiat produces a work that showcases the entire range of his career. Here, he combined high art elements from street culture and the rough primitivism of graffiti in order to create this unique iconography, and through its brushstrokes, symbols and words, this work perfectly demonstrates the energy and dynamism that is so characteristic of Jean-Michel Basquiat's infectious spirit.