The explosive composition of Victor 25448 embodies not only the enormous vitality and dynamism of Jean-Michel Basquiat's inimitable street-inflected style, but also a sense of his self-destructive impulses. Basquiat is often identified with the figures in his canvases, and here a skeletal figure, bandaged and beaten, speaks to the difficulties that he was going through at the time. Victor 25448 was executed in 1987, the year Andy Warhol suddenly died, an event that particularly traumatized Basquiat as they had become friends and collaborators. Warhol's death, along with other personal difficulties, contributed to a downward spiral that would cut short Basquiat's meteoric career when he died of a drug overdose the following year at the age of 27. Victor 25448 vividly captures the sensation of Basquiat both at the height of his creative powers and on the brink of destruction.
A photograph from around the time Basquiat was working on Victor 25448 depicts him in his Great Jones Street studio next to another canvas on which the word "Victor" is repeatedly inscribed. Basquiat holds a toy gun to his head, confronting the viewer with a dead-on glare, a gesture that might suggest a prankster's dark humor, but also conveys the feeling that the stakes are high for the painter. The words "Victor" and "Bluebird," repeated on the canvas that accompanies him, refer to the names of record labels known for jazz. Music, particularly the influential bebop jazz that Charlie Parker pioneered in the 1940s, was crucial to Basquiat's work as an artist. His art offered a vibrant visual counterpart for jazz's emphasis on improvisation, nonlinear structure and creative sampling of previous works. Basquiat frequently celebrated his favorite jazz heroes, such as Parker, through portraits dedicated to them, or by alluding to them in textual fragments incorporated into larger works. Basquiat strongly identified with Parker's astonishing creative force, and indeed both musician and artist would share similar fates, dying from drug overdoses when they were young and at the height of their careers.
When Basquiat painted Victor 25448, he had reached a vertiginously high point in his artistic career. Since arriving on the downtown scene in New York as a teenager in the late 1970s as graffiti artist and poet SAMO, he had risen to an unprecedented apex of the art world while still in his early twenties. A splashy article that featured Basquiat on the cover of a 1985 issue of the New York Times Magazine titled "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist," testifies to the celebrity he achieved. Along with the critical raves that catapulted him to fame came the inevitable detractors and market pressures that fame forced him to navigate. Victor 25448 deals with his conflicted relationship with success and fame as well as his wider social concerns with power and its abuses.
The central figure of Victor 25448 has been subjected to various destructive forces. With a bandage on his face, and crossed-out eyes that rhyme with the symbol for "fatal injury" inscribed nearby, his figure is splayed on the ground where a "magnetic grabber" zaps him. The forms floating above this abject figure seem to bear down on him. Inscribed with the word "IDEAL" they hint at the artist facing a moment of moral crisis, which afflicts him with violent force. Basquiat employed the tag "IDEAL" in a number of late works, adopting the colorful oval logo of a well-known toy manufacturer in a gesture that suggests a conflict between artistic ideals and commercial forces. Using a logo familiar from children's games, Basquiat reflects upon the art world itself as a game, albeit one with devastating effects. The phrase "money orders" hovers nearby the figure's head, suggesting that the destruction manifested here has its roots in the corrupting effects of money. As is characteristic of his work, Basquiat exploits the expressive visual effect of words as well their layers with meaning, and plays with the dissection of the word "ideal" into both "idea" and "I deal."
A variety of symbols anchor the composition's lower left corner, one declares "nothing to be gained here" while another ominously warns "a beating awaits you here." Basquiat adopted these signs from the well-known Symbol Sourcebook created by Henry Dreyfus, from his section devoted to "hobo signs," abstract symbols used in previous generations by homeless people. Using chalk or crayon, they would leave messages for one another on walls, fences or doors to advize fellow wanderers. Basquiat thus pays homage to an earlier form of street art that had belonged to displaced and disempowered people.
Victor 25448 speaks eloquently of the complicated and difficult crossroads at which Basquiat found himself toward the end of his career. Although he was lauded as one of the most (if not the most) brilliant young artist of his generation in New York, he was haunted by the specter of death and destruction. The self-referential skeleton of Victor 25448 would reappear in a work created in 1988, Riding with Death, in which Basquiat seemed to presage his imminent demise. Both paintings were exhibited in the 1988 show at the Vrej Baghoomian Gallery in New York, and only months later, Basquiat's life was suddenly cut short.