‘Looking back on that important year of 1982, Basquiat remarked: ‘I had some money: I made the best paintings ever’’ (J.-M. Basquiat, quoted in C. McGuigan, ‘New Art New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist’, The New York Times Magazine, 10 February 1985, p. 74).
‘If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption, it would be Jean-Michel. The elegance of Twombly is there... and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet’ (R. Ricard, ‘The Radiant Child’, in Artforum, December 1981, p. 35).
‘A sophisticated and thoughtful artist with great resources of concentration, possessed of an unusual pictorial intelligence and an uncanny sense of unfolding history and of how to avoid its traps, Jean-Michel Basquiat was an articulate and prolific spokesman for youth: insatiably curious, tirelessly inventive, innocently self-deprecating because of youth’s inadequacies, jealously guarding his independence, typically disappointed by the inherited world he defensively mocked, yet filled with adulation for his heroes. His work is likely to remain for a long time as the modern picture of what it looks like to be brilliant, driven, and young’ (M. Mayer, ‘Basquiat in History’, in Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2005, p. 48).
‘Basquiat’s great strength is his ability to merge his absorption of imagery from the streets, the newspapers, and TV with the spiritualism of his Haitian heritage, injecting both into a marvelously intuitive understanding of the language of modern painting’ (J. Deitch, quoted in M. Franklin Sirmans, ‘Chronology,’ in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 239).
Exuding a raw, visceral energy from its richly-worked surface, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Three Delegates is one of only a handful of canvases which features three of the artist’s dramatic yet superbly accomplished heads. Painted in 1982, at the height of Basquiat’s meteoric rise to fame, its skillful technique and remarkable use of colour captures the exuberance with which Basquiat burst onto the New York art scene. Across its surface Basquiat weaves together multiple layers of animated brushstrokes, mysterious cyphers and symbols, together with Pollock-like expressive drips and explosive passages of colour to produce a painting that reverberates with vitality and energy. The title Three Delegates refers to a childhood visit made by Basquiat to the United Nations Headquarters building in New York, where the father of a friend was working at the time. The multicultural membership of the organization resonated with the artist’s own diverse ethnic heritage. 1982 represented a breakthrough period for the twenty-two-year-old African American artist, whose extraordinary succession of six solo shows that year propelled him to unprecedented global stardom in a predominantly white-dominated industry. Reveling in the creative freedom afforded by his newly-acquired studio in SoHo, Basquiat produced some of his most impressive works during this climactic period, including LNAPRK (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), Agony of the Feet (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem) and Six Crimee (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles). Housed in the same private collection for the past 30 years, Three Delegates is situated at the pinnacle of Basquiat’s career, representing the zenith of one of the most exciting and gifted artists of the post-Punk generation.
This particular canvas is one of relatively few paintings from Basquiat’s critical period which relies entirely on pictorial means to convey its vision of ‘urban pressure and anguished, totemic visages’ (R. Rubenstein, ‘Independent and International’, in Co-Conspirators, exh. cat., Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando, 2004, p. 18). Rejecting the textual slogans, declarations and headlines that laceshis practice, Basquiat invests his entire visual energy in raw painterly expressions: swathes of white pentimenti, cascading rivulets of pigment and rich layers of colour and gesture. The almost theatrical trio of heads represents the extensive range of his technical vocabulary, from the liquescent sweeps of colour that comprise the features of the left-hand face, to the heavy impasto of the black-and-white mask-like faces dominating the right right-hand portion of the canvas. The large figure that dominates the left-hand portion of the canvas is one of Basquiat’s most intriguing and complex creations. Emerging out of numerous layers of paint and oil stick, the features begin as a seemingly disparate series of marks which then slowly coalesce into the distinguishable form of a human face. Sweeps of dark paint demarcate the strong jawline and deep sockets of the eyes and nose, while white highlights rendered in oil stick emphasize the subtle nuances of light falling across the skin. Basquiat produces the mottled effect of the skin by utilising a type of ‘wet-on-wet’ painting technique in which he applies consecutive layers of paint before the preceding layer is dry, resulting in a tantalising intertwining of diverse colours. As with Basquiat’s most accomplished figures, here the artist invests particular attention on the eyes and mouth as the figure’s grimace revels a regimented row of pure white teeth, while the bloodshot eyes that stare out from beneath the heavy lids are rendered in white and orange tones exquisitely capped with flashes of electric teal green. Opposite, the two mask-like faces are constructed in a more rudimentary fashion, remarkable for the depth and richness of its impasto. Using a thicker, coarser pigment, the artist reduces the number of colours, relying purely on the surface texture to generate the work’s inscrutable atmosphere.
Starting his career as a street artist in downtown Manhattan during the late 1970s, by 1982 Basquiat had secured an international reputation among dealers, critics and fellow artists, thus cementing his transition from an itinerant high school rebel to a leading figure of the contemporary art scene. Following his debut success in the 1981 group exhibition New York/New Wave at PS1, the artist was granted his first one-man show at Annina Nosei’s New York gallery in March 1982. After receiving rave reviews, further solo exhibitions followed in Los Angeles, Zurich, Rome and Rotterdam, as well as a prestigious invitation to Documenta 7 in West Germany, where Basquiat was the youngest exhibited artist within a line-up that included established contemporary masters such as Cy Twombly, Gerhard Richter and Joseph Beuys. Basquiat had moved out of Nosei’s basement studio into a liberating seven-story loft space at 151 Crosby Street, driving his work to new and ambitious heights. Amidst his growing fame and new-found financial independence, Basquiat retained close ties with the urban milieu of his earlier youth. Exhibiting his work at the Fun Gallery – an under-funded space in the East Village that supported the work of graffiti artists – Basquiat continued to express solidarity with his former comrades.
The artist’s oeuvre is rich with autobiographical references and he often mined his own childhood memories as subject matter for his paintings. In his depictions of the human figure he was able to combine many of his own personal concerns – namely his interest in art history, his multi-cultural heritage and his childhood growing up in New York. Beginning in 1982 he began moving away from the streetscapes and cars that populated his early paintings, replacing these subjects with his unique visions of the human form. As Marc Mayer pointed out in the catalogue for the 2005 retrospective of the artist’s work at the Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat’s paintings often incorporate two different categories of figures – icons and heroes. The deities that fall into the first category serve the same purpose as the West African statues and Christian iconography that would have been familiar to the artist through his Catholic, Hispanic and African lineage. This iconography of African masks, Vodoun figurines and Western religious symbols such as angels, devils, saints and martyrs all feature heavily in the artist’s work, whilst his ‘heroes’ are very much based on his own pantheon of idols, drawn from the worlds of music, art and street culture. Both of these streams of figural representation filter throughout his oeuvre, combining to create totemic tributes to the human form. As Jeffrey Deitch has asserted, ‘Basquiat’s great strength is his ability to merge his absorption of imagery from the streets, the newspapers, and TV with the spiritualism of his Haitian heritage, injecting both into a marvelously intuitive understanding of the language of modern painting’ (J. Deitch, quoted in M. Franklin Sirmans, ‘Chronology,’ in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 239).
The human head was one of Basquiat’s most distinctive recurring subjects, and represented a particular source of fascination for him during the crucial years of 1981-1982. As a child, the artist was entranced by a copy of Grey’s Anatomy given to him by his mother, and his obsession with the structure of the human skull was to become a key driving force behind much of his work. Other sources devoured by Basquiat included Paul Richer’s Artistic Anatomy, a 1966 volume entitled Leonardo da Vinci and Burchard Brentjes’ book African Rock Art, thus exposing the artist to a diverse array of anatomical representation - from ethnic cave painting to the Renaissance and beyond. This wide-ranging referential compass was complemented by Basquiat’s own efforts in the early 1980s to explore the work of artists he admired. In the present work, the quasi-Cubist arrangement of eyes, nose and mouth, as well as the almost tribal sense of patterning, recalls the work of Picasso, an artist to whom Basquiat is widely considered to be the contemporary heir. The influence of Jean Dubuffet’s art brut is also evident in the work’s caustic execution and its palpable primal energy. Twombly – another artist for whom graffiti has provided an essential source of inspiration – was equally admired by Basquiat for his exquisite handling of line, evinced by the rapid, schismatic linearity of the present work. As the critic Ren Ricard wrote in his now-famous appraisal, ‘if Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption, it would be Jean-Michel. The elegance of Twombly is there... and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet’ (R. Ricard, ‘The Radiant Child’, in Artforum, December 1981, p. 35).
The frenetic pace at which Basquiat executed his paintings indicates that he wielded his paintbrush just as adeptly as a draughtsman handles his pencil. The rapid coalescing of energetic brushstrokes, drips of pigment directly from the container and even swipes of paint dragged by the artist’s own fngers are all visible in Three Delegates and demonstrate Basquiat’s rare ability to fuse a variety of techniques into one coherent image. Basquiat understood the significance of his expressive style was as much historical as it was aesthetic. Just as Picasso developed his own unique language of pictorial representation, frst with Cubism and later with his calligraphic alterations of the human figure, Basquiat’s style would also become a patented device, harnessing yet ultimately transcending the influence of his predecessors. ‘He papers over all other voices but his own’, Mayer claims, ‘hallucinating total control of his proprietary information as if he were the author of all he transcribed, every diagram, every formula, every cartoon character – even affixing the copyright symbol to countless artifacts of nature and civilization to stress the point – without making any allowances for the real-life look of the world outside his authorized universe’ (M. Mayer, ‘Basquiat in History’, in Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2005, p. 48). Like the great master draughtsmen of the twentieth century, Basquiat strove to reinvigorate the age-old traditions of his forbears in an era dominated by ideas of appropriation. As Mayer goes on to discuss, one of modern art’s greatest dramas is the spectacle of an ancient craft trying to reassert its relevance. Basquiat’s visceral power bears witness to this very phenomenon.
It was his ability to engage with tradition whilst crafting a radically new form of artistic expression that marked Basquiat out within his generation. Not only did his Neo-Expressionist style capture the Zeitgeist of 1980s New York, but it also reinvigorated the practice of painting at a time when its relevance was fundamentally called into question. His distinctive style and insuppressible energy resulted in a trailblazing output whose legacy still reverberates today. As Mayer concludes, ‘a sophisticated and thoughtful artist with great resources of concentration, possessed of an unusual pictorial intelligence and an uncanny sense of unfolding history and of how to avoid its traps, Jean-Michel Basquiat was an articulate and prolifc spokesman for youth: insatiably curious, tirelessly inventive, innocently self-deprecating because of youth’s inadequacies, jealously guarding his independence, typically disappointed by the inherited world he defensively mocked, yet filled with adulation for his heroes. His work is likely to remain for a long time as the modern picture of what it looks like to be brilliant, driven, and young’ (M. Mayer, ‘Basquiat in History’, in Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2005, p. 48).