Please note this work is accompanied by a certificate issued by the Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Swiss House on Fire, a striking Basquiat canvas from 1983, is comprised of a single simple image against a black background and is reminiscent of some of the artist’s earliest work on canvas. These included spare images of cars, or single heads (Old Tin, Al Jolson, both 1981) and unlike much of his work from this period, which often included a fair amount of text, this painting has no text at all, except the title, painted in bright fire engine-red.
Basquiat first went to Switzerland in September, 1982, flying to Zurich for the opening of his initial one-man show at Bruno Bischofberger’s gallery—only to discover that no opening had been scheduled. Instead, Bischofberger took the artist on a field trip to his birthplace, a mountain village called Appenzell. Basquiat even painted a piece about the trip, Bruno in Appenzell, 1982, with the single word, Essen, or eat, on a pink canvas with a mountain, pine trees and a crowned skull (P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, New York, 1998;2004, p. 134).
Jean-Michel had a notoriously difficult relationship with all his art dealers and his relationship with Bruno Bischofberger was no exception. Basquiat stayed with Bischofberger in St. Moritz on several occasions, even visiting once at Christmas and always painting up a storm. “Whenever he was here, Jean-Michel asked if there was somewhere he could paint” Bischofberger remembered. Basquiat painted outdoors, and, before a studio was built there, he also painted in the garage where canvases were stored, even painting on an expensive custom-made mattress that Bischofberger’s wife, Yo-Yo, had special-ordered a year in advance. In the winter of 1983, when Basquiat was visiting St. Moritz, the artist signed the guest book with a drawing he did with Bruno’s young daughter, Cora—giving Bischofberger an idea: to have Basquiat collaborate with Andy Warhol and Francesco Clemente on a series of paintings, fifteen of which were later shown in his Zurich gallery in the fall of 1984.
This painting references an image that Basquiat either actually saw—or perhaps imagined or dreamed—during one of his Swiss interludes. The house, outlined in yellow, is a primitive structure, with red flames shooting from the windows. Yet it’s very simplicity gives it a stark elegance. Interestingly, the Talking Heads album Speaking in Tongues, which featured the song Burning Down the House, was released in 1983. Basquiat would certainly have heard the song, which got enormous play that year, and may have conflated it with his experiences in St. Moritz.
It’s impossible to know the direct inspiration of the painting. But it is among the canvases Basquiat did that year that employ a single central image and little or no text, such as the wonderful Eyes and Eggs, of a neighborhood short-order cook, also painted in 1983, or his simple self-portrait, Untitled, 1960, a dreadlocked black bust emblazoned with his birthdate, done the same year. Contrast Swiss House on Fire with Basquiat’s Tuxedo, 1983, which, like Swiss House on Fire, has a black background, but is nearly covered with extensive text and doodles. Or with Discography (One) and (Two), also painted in 1983, honoring two of his idols, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, which features much white text against a black background.
One of the youngest contemporary painters to achieve international fame, Basquiat is now widely considered a 20th century master. He started out as a street poet, writing the famously cryptic SAMO sayings in strategic places (near galleries, art schools and clubs) along with his graffiti partner, Al Diaz. His love affair with text is currently on full display at the Brooklyn Museum, in “Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks,” a show of a collection of marble-covered school notebooks, their entries ranging from sketches to single words to full-scale poems, each penned with an artist’s hand, as if meant to be seen by posterity. The deliberately pared-down painting, Swiss House on Fire, vividly displays the opposite end of the spectrum of Basquiat’s talent, his strong sense of form and his powerful use of color.
While Basquiat’s poetic use of text is one of his signature stylistic conceits, the paintings that rely on images without text have a power all their own. And, when Basquiat limits the graphics to a single image, it emphasizes his innate sense of color and composition and functions on a purely graphic-design level almost like a logo (another visual component that Basquiat, like Warhol, used frequently).
Swiss House on Fire, with its red sharp flames contrasting with a few green blades of grass in the foreground, possesses the unique, haunting quality of a dream—or nightmare. Its relatively small size gives the piece a particularly intimate and personal touch.