‘Nothing can replace the warmth and immediacy of Basquiat’s poetry, or the absolute questions and truths that he delivered. The beautiful and disturbing music of his paintings, the cacophony of his silence that attacks our senses, will live far beyond our breath. Basquiat was, and is music ... primitive and ferocious’
Christie’s is delighted to present an outstanding group of eight works by Jean-Michel Basquiat from the collection of the celebrated actor, producer and musician Johnny Depp. Spread across the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening and Day Auctions, this carefully-curated selection of early paintings and drawings testifies to Depp’s visionary engagement with one of the twentieth century’s most powerful artistic forces. Assembled over the course of more than twenty-five years, the works offered for auction stem exclusively from the early 1980s: the pivotal period that saw Basquiat’s transformation from clandestine street artist to global superstar. Channelling the creative energy that fuelled the musical and artistic underbelly of post-punk New York, the works represent a time capsule of this meteoric period. Together, they bear witness to the birth of a revolutionary visual language – a raw poetry of gestures, words and symbols – that would come to explosive fruition in Basquiat’s canvases of 1982. From the electrifying tableau Pork, executed on a discarded door, to the remarkable double self-portrait illustrated on the cover of Larry Warsh’s 1993 volume Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks, each work in the collection represents an expertly-chosen, jewel-like artefact from Basquiat’s early years. Widely exhibited in many of the artist’s most important retrospectives, they stand together as a connoisseurial survey of the moment that launched Basquiat’s stratospheric, though tragically all-too-short, career.
Since the 1990s, Depp has cultivated a close, personal relationship with Basquiat’s works, seeking out pieces that resonate with his understanding of the artist. United by their passionate commitment to their respective fields, the two share a fearless creative drive: a relentless desire to push the boundaries of their art forms. In Basquiat, Depp has identified something of a kindred spirit: an artist who was not afraid to work against the grain, to project his persona into every aspect of his output, and to channel his voice through multiple artistic media. Like Depp – a talented guitarist, who has performed with Marilyn Manson and Alice Cooper – Basquiat’s work was driven by a powerful affinity with music: a rhythmic and lyrical impulse that ran deep in his veins. Depp’s eloquent essay on Basquiat – commissioned by the gallerist Enrico Navarra in 2000 – testifies to a profound connection with this aspect of the artist’s aesthetic. ‘Nothing can replace the warmth and immediacy of Basquiat’s poetry, or the absolute questions and truths that he delivered’, he writes. ‘The beautiful and disturbing music of his paintings, the cacophony of his silence that attacks our senses, will live far beyond our breath. Basquiat was, and is music ... primitive and ferocious’ (J. Depp, ‘Basquiat Paintings – for Enrico – under the influence of Pork’, in E. Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, p. 17).
‘He’s more alive dead than most of the living’
‘Jean-Michel Basquiat, the very young African-American artist, constructs an intensity of line which reads like a polygraph report, a brain-to-hand “shake.” The figure is electronic-primitive-comic. Like monster “ghetto blaster” cassette players which link summer New Yorkers together, Basquiat’s characters portray amplification’
‘I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life’
Transforming his own image into a stark masterwork, in Self-Portrait (1981) Jean-Michel Basquiat becomes an idol. On three hinged wooden panels, echoing the triptych form of a religious altarpiece, two black silhouettes of the artist’s head stare forth from a raw off-white surface, devilishly hollow-eyed and complete with his distinctive crown of dreads. The central face, its panel raised and exposed plywood showing through like a wound, grins with teeth and eyes highlighted in careful crimson detail. To the right, he appears surrounded by a scrubbed palimpsest of song titles from Thelonious Monk’s 1947-52 Blue Note Sessions; the left-hand panel replaces Basquiat’s own likeness with the name of jazz tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, repeated like a prayer and sealed with Basquiat’s copyright symbol, a legacy of the SAMO© graffiti tag of his early career. The visionary use of found materials and mythic evocation of black heroes makes this work emblematic of Basquiat’s crucial 1981 period, during which he made the transition from cult street provocateur to fully-fledged king of the art world. Executed with his characteristic feverish speed and energy, Self-Portrait makes what was evanescent into a lasting monument, conjuring both a wryly messianic self-image and the dark spectre of early death that haunts Basquiat’s work. As his friend Glenn O’Brien has written, ‘He’s more alive dead than most of the living’ (G. O’Brien, ‘Who Was that Masked Man?’ in D. Burchhart (ed.), Basquiat, exh. cat. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen 2010, p. iii).
Basquiat’s work was always intensely personal and deeply felt, even when lightened by his deadpan humour; his self-portraits, recurring throughout his oeuvre, are no exception. Early works such as We Have Decided the Bullet Must Have Been Going Very Fast (1979-80) made use of the artist’s own blood quite literally spilled on the page. In 1981 Basquiat created Helmet, adorning a football helmet with trimmings from his own hair. Such playful, quick-thinking subtlety is evident in Self-Portrait with the substitution of Basquiat’s image for Ben Webster’s name in the leftward panel: the incantatory text suggests a parallel between the artist and the saxophonist, and is also reminiscent of the epic ‘Virgil,’ ‘Venus’ and ‘Apollo’ scrawls of Cy Twombly, whose Apollo and the Artist (1975) – one of the few works Basquiat ever cited as an influence – finds a clear echo here. The Monk melodies to the right similarly build a rich verbal atmosphere of inspiration and veneration. Indeed, this image was used as the front cover for the 1993 publication Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks, evoking his art’s vital, almost shamanic relationship with both words and music. As Demosthenes Davvetas has written, Basquiat’s work ‘is less like a mirror than like an eye and a voice: as eye, it observes and interprets life, collecting selected items and organising them within itself; thus organised, it becomes voice, a clear utterance expressing what has been seen. As voice, it approaches the aural, and many Basquiat paintings feature words that sound in one’s head as one looks at them’ (D. Davvetas, ‘Lines, Chapters and Verses: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat,’ in E. Navarra (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, 3rd ed., Paris 2000, p. 59).
The correspondences between jazz music and Basquiat’s work are clear: both share a rich improvisatory eloquence and redefined their mediums through novel and powerful creative expression. Basquiat himself was a musician, forming the avant-garde band Gray in 1979. The admiration for jazz players evident in Self-Portrait is a frequent theme – hard-living saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker probably appears more frequently than any other name in Basquiat’s oeuvre – and also anticipates his elevation of African-American heroes in 1982 works such as Sugar Ray Robinson, St Joe Louis Surrounded by Snakes and Famous Negro Athletes – with the dry insinuation that Basquiat himself was now a ‘Famous Negro Artist.’ By this year his fame had reached a peak, reflected in a vast and dramatic untitled self-portrait depicting himself as a horned devil rising amidst an explosion of painterly gesture; this sense of dark, almost overwhelming power is intimated in the demonic grin of Self-Portrait, casting Basquiat as trickster messiah of the New York art scene over which his star was rising. Spare in composition yet resonant in impact, this work stands as a brilliant and allusive relic, projecting all the mercurial energy, vivid charisma and urban grit of its creator.
JOHNNY DEPP: BASQUIAT PAINTINGS – FOR ENRICO – UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF PORK
On a turbulent flight out of Vienna, en route to Paris, I was asked to write a couple of pages about the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The passengers on this bumpy journey – Enrico Navarra, Sebastian Moreu, and myself were in the throes of what happened to be an enormous Austrian pork hock... at least we hoped it was. We’d acquired the beast at a small, run down, carnival-like market on the edge of Vienna. Our feast was primitive and ferocious. Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that it had been at least 24 hours since any solid had slithered down my gullet and my appetite was ravenous. And now, here we were, bearing down on this greasy pig meat and all too grateful for it, even as the plane dipped and jilted us around like kewpee dolls. The brain has been fed well that day, having just seen a collection of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s works and then on to another museum for a quick peak at a huge Warhol exhibition. All this information, in the matter of a few hours, is enough stimulation to drive any man to the nearest carnival-like market and throw down all of his coin for as much pork as humanly possible. So we did just that...
Between bites, Enrico brought up the idea of me writing something for the new and updated big book of Basquiat paintings he was about to re-publish. He said that if I wrote the piece, I should, at all costs, try to avoid writing about Basquiat’s life. Everyone, it seems, has a tendency to write more about the man than the work itself. This seemed fair enough, especially since I didn’t know the guy and had never met him, so the only thing that I really have is my opinion and my take on the legacy of what he left behind... in art. That, and of course, we seemed to share the same affinity for pork products. However, it is almost impossible to speak about his works without it becoming a crude dissection of the man. On any canvas or drawing, he spilled himself... maybe even without wanting to. His thoughts, his feelings – however fleeting, unfinished or incomplete are captured in that moment when he connected with his target. Early drawings show that he even literally shed his own blood onto the paper as proof of his commitment to the piece, his art... an acceptance of his destiny. A blood fusion, like a voodoo ritual, making the man and his art inseparable, an unholy bond merging the two into one.
If we really get down to brass tacks here, we can begin by saying that Basquiat is not for everyone. Much like pork is not for everyone. You either get it, or you don’t. One either loves with a passion, or despises with a vengeance. I’ve never heard of anyone saying, ‘Well, he’s okay, I guess...’ No, to my knowledge, that doesn’t happen with Basquiat. This is a very difficult result to achieve in any art form. The capability of not merely floating nicely in the middle, like a medium-tempered, semi-well-intentioned, virtually-invisible neighbor, whose passivity grates on one’s very being, but rather, the ability to speed like a bullet into the brains and bodies of the many jaded, and therefore ruined, intellectual art-hag and simpleton alike. That is the objective. It is a game of hit or miss. And when this motherfucker hits, he hits hard, on many levels.
There are some of his works that kill me and some that do absolutely nothing for me. But once you are touched by him, you are burned into either a kind of emotional stillness, or you may find yourself on the verge of doubling over into a painful belly laugh. Because as much honesty and history and life experience that he spewed into his drawings, paintings, objects, writings, whatever ... he had a killer sense of humor. Even in some of his most poignant works, his devilish sense of the absurd came through like gangbusters, completely unfiltered. As did his heartfelt disappointments in the human race, and his hopes for it. The signature imagery that comes to mind: the crown, the halo of thorns, portraits stripped of flesh, vital organs pumping blood- blue veined or devoid of any life, his childhood heroes Hank Aaron and Charlie Parker, etc., sainted for all eternity, the homage to his ancestry, endless references to his childhood ... he splayed himself open like a can of sardines for all of us to pick at, as he, in fact, devoured us.
He was never truly able to hide his feelings or influence in the work. He openly acknowledged Cy Twombly, Picasso, the word juxtaposition of William Burroughs and Brian Gyson, Andy Warhol, Leonardo da Vinci, Be Bop Jazz, T.V. programs and cartoons. He sometimes even used the drawings of his friends’ children as inspirations. His deep understanding and profound confusion with the American culture that he practically drowned himself in, was also an infinite reservoir from which he could draw upon for his chaotic assaults.
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.
His paintings and drawings come alive for me every time I look at them, and if Jean-Michel Basquiat had stuck around for a bit longer, I like to think that he might have eventually moved into animation, for a time at least, combining his music, his language and drawings into an arena seemingly more palatable to the rank and file, but one that would have opened the floodgates for his messages to attack the masses. Something akin to Lenny Bruce’s ‘Thank You Mask Man’, an ingenious weapon that enabled him to scatter his divine tirades out into the world without the hammer of censorship slamming him hard.
Had Jean-Michel Basquiat lived through the fatal times that eventually took him away from this world, there’s no telling what he would’ve been able to do. The possibilities are endless.
Nothing can replace the warmth and immediacy of Basquiat’s poetry, or the absolute questions and truths that he delivered. The beautiful and disturbing music of his paintings, the cacophony of his silence that attacks our senses, will live far beyond our breath. Basquiat was, and is music ... primitive and ferocious.
Published in E. Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, pp. 16-17.