Painted in 1981, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s The Field Next to the Other Road is one of the artist’s earliest monumental canvases. Measuring over 13 feet across (the largest painting the artist executed that year), it includes one of his earliest fully realized human figures—a motif which would later come to define his career. Part-mythical and part-allegorical, Basquiat’s energetic portrayal of a meeting between man and beast was painted during a trip he took to Modena, Italy, for his first solo exhibition in Europe. This marked an important moment for Basquiat, as fresh from his recent success in New York he was fueled by the excitement of travel and the optimism of his nascent career. This period resulted in the some of the most exciting and innovative paintings in Basquiat’s oeuvre as across the surface of this canvas Basquiat was channeling his artistic prowess into paintings that both spoke directly to his own personal experiences but also to a wider audience searching for a new artistic voice.
Standing resolute and defiant, the central figure in Basquiat’s multifarious narrative is comprised of the artist’s arsenal of painterly devices as he lays down a quick-fire succession of marks and gestures using acrylic, oilstick and spray paint. The rudimentary skeletal structure acts as a framework upon which Basquiat embellishes the rest of the human body with a series of painterly flourishes. He gives weight and substance to the limbs by filling out the silhouette with substantial swaths of vivid, vibrant red. Moving up past the waist, Basquiat emphasizes the upper portion of the body with passages of frenzied scrawl of gold-colored marker pen that populates the area of the rib cage. Finally a mask-like face—featuring evocative eyes set amongst the warm golden complexion—sits diminutively on top of broad, muscular shoulders.
This arresting figure shares the canvas with one of Basquiat’s most extraordinary painterly creations; a rendition of a large cow, resplendent with a mottled coat of orange, red and shimmering gold—a rare example of the artist including such a large well-developed animal in his paintings. This ‘golden cow’ almost dwarfs his human companion; her muscular frame filled with the swoops and swirls of Basquiat’s trademark daubs. Like her human counterpart, the creature is first outlined in black spray paint, which he then completes with a torrent of his painterly daubs. Unlike the human figure where the different mediums are clearly delineated and keep separate, within the body of the cow Basquiat’s wet-on-wet technique allows the colors to coalesce, resulting in more animated surface—a physical reminder of the artist’s lineage as a street artist. These two figures contain the entire range of Basquiat’s mark-making repertoire. Paint is applied with different sized brushes—ranging from broad architectural strokes through to more delicate areas of painterly precision. Defining sweeps of spray paint outline the silhouettes of his protagonists before he completes the details with a series of energetic loops, scrawls, daubs and drips from his brush and palette. Ever the inventive artist, Basquiat even used the nozzle of the spray can to embellish the halo with some added texture.
The Field Next to the Other Road was painted during a crucial year in Basquiat’s development as an artist, for in 1981, as his compositions became more sophisticated, his painterly practice became more complex too. “At this point in his practice,” says Dieter Buchhart, “Basquiat started to apply layers of paint over one another, creating a visual element and lines of text and then deleting them” (D. Buchhart, “Against All Odds,” Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, exh. cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, 2015, p. 14). Here, we witness the active surface of Basquiat’s canvas particularly in the space around the figure, where the artist appears to have manipulated the still-wet layers of paint with mesmerizing effect. These grand gestures—both around the figure and in the body of the cow itself—displays Basquiat’s remarkable sense of self-confidence, in that he is prepared to leave these gestures unchallenged on the surface of the painting, perhaps partly out of a sense of urgency, but also as a way of making a confident statement about his art, without any fear of judgment. In 1981 Basquiat stood on the verge of being hailed the wunderkind of New York’s downtown art scene, emerging from the shadows of his alter-ego SAMO and becoming the more critically established artist that he yearned to be. This was marked by a significant shift in his work as it concerned itself less with Basquiat’s own life and started to explore the wider cultural context in which he was working. “Around this time,” curator Dieter Buchhart observes, “Basquiat began to differentiate his depictions, turning toward full-body portraits, primarily of African-American men. He represents these men as boxers, sufferers, saints, angels and fighters. Their haloes seem to oscillate between glorioles, laurel wreaths and crown of thorns, and their weapons stretch from fists, teeth, baseball bats, spears, arrows and swords to brooms, buckets of water and angel’s wings” (D. Buchhart, “Against All Odds,” Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, exh. cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, 2015, p. 14).
The present work bears all the hallmarks of this shift as this noble figure clearly references one of Basquiat’s hero figures. Standing proud and tall and topped off with an imposing halo, the figure emits a regal air as he leads his faithful cow to whatever fate may have in store for them. There are two main categories of figures in many of the artist’s paintings—icons and heroes. The figures 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/African heritage. This iconography of African masks, Vodoun figurines and Western religious symbols such as angels, haloes, devils, saints and martyrs all feature heavily in the artist’s work. Basquiat’s portrayal of heroes is very much based on his own pantheon of idols and includes luminaries taken from the world of music, sport and mythical figures.
Rich in symbolism, the majestic cow in The Field Next to the Other Road, offers an abundance of allegorical possibilities. Throughout human history the animal has been a symbol of wealth, abundance, fertility and steadfastness. In Ancient Egypt the cow was a symbol of fecundity, richness and renewal. She was the mother of Sun and the Goddess Ahet was often represented as a head of the sacred cow holding a solar disc between her horns. In the Egyptian pantheon, the Goddess Hathor contains different aspects of the cow. She is the hope of survival, the ruler and body of the sky, the living soul of trees. In India cows are regarded as sacred animals; they are celebrated as being fertile mothers and also playing a cosmic and divine role. In the Christian tradition the animals are regarded as faithful, nurturing providers who bestow plenty and fortitude on those with whom they reside. A feature of many paintings of The Nativity, the cow has enjoyed a long and symbiotic relationship with humankind.
In addition to ancient history, The Field Next to the Other Road also references Basquiat’s almost encyclopedic knowledge of art history. Two of his artistic heroes, Pablo Picasso and Jean Dubuffet, used the bovine motif on many occasions. Picasso’s 1942 sculpture, Bull’s Head—made from a bicycle saddle and a pair of handlebars—became one of the artist’s most famous works of sculpture and the magnificent muscular head of the bull in Guernica, 1937, is one of Picasso’s most celebrated creations. Dubuffet’s La Vache au nez subtil, 1954, with its naïve depiction of a cow, also acts as an antecedent to Basquiat’s own painted creature.
The narrative played out across the surface of this epic canvas can be subjected to both a spiritual and secular reading. The image of a noble figure leading a cow does lend itself to a divine interpretation, given the animal’s exalted place in many of the world’s great religions. Alternatively, given the work’s somewhat nonchalant title, it might be a recollection of a more chance encounter between man and magnificent beast that is one of the joys of rural living. Basquiat painted The Field Next to the Other Road during his first trip to Europe and the beauty and freedom of the Italian countryside must have been a stark contrast for the artist who had spent his life growing up in the urban decay of New York in the 1970s and 1980s.
The present work forms part of a series of paintings which Basquiat undertook in Modena, Italy in the spring of 1981. He had been invited to Europe to participate in his first one-man show by Emilio Mazzoli, who had seen the artist’s work in January at the legendary New York/New Wave show at P.S. 1. Basquiat flew to Italy in the spring and was immediately captivated by the Italian way of life and the lush beauty of the local countryside—a factor which may have inspired the pastoral nature of the scene in The Field Next to the Other Road. Compared with the crowded, active canvases that he produced when in New York, the peace and space afforded him in Italy can be seen manifested in the fluid brushstrokes with which he populates this large expanse of canvas.
This new found confidence underlined the important role that Italy and Italians played in the artist’s career. The Italian Neo-Expressionist painter Sandro Chia was an early advocate for Basquiat’s work, and helped introduced Jean to a dealer who had recently moved from Rome to SoHo: Annina Nosei. By the end of 1981, Basquiat was installed in a spacious studio in the basement of Annina Nosei’s gallery at 100 Prince Street and working on prepared canvas. Of this time, Basquiat explained: “She offered me a studio. It was the first time I had a place to work. I took it, you know. Not seeing the drawbacks until later...it was right in
the gallery, you know. She used to bring collectors down there, so it wasn’t very private. I didn’t mind. I was young. It was a place to work, which I never had before” (J. Basquiat, quoted in P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, New York 1998, p. 87). Basquiat’s presence at Nosei’s gallery was creating a stir in the art world, as was his unorthodox painterly practice. As Phoebe Hoban notes, “The room was filled with a haze of pot smoke. There was a mound of coke on a table, a couple of funky chairs, and a boom box, playing a steady stream of Charlie Parker” (P. Hoban, ibid., p. 82).
In Basquiat’s hands, a seemingly innocent encounter between man and beast becomes a masterly essay in composition and paint handling, and what is even more remarkable is that Basquiat painted this when he was just 20 years old. The Field Next to the Other Road is one of the first paintings in which the artist includes two fully rendered figures and the accomplished way in which Basquiat summons up the pair is a manifest display of his raw, natural talent. This work was painted during a period when Basquiat was channeling his artistic prowess into paintings that both spoke directly to his own personal experiences but also to a wider audience searching for an artistic voice that spoke for a new generation. By combining influences from a number of orthodox and unorthodox sources, Basquiat became that voice, an artist whom curator Dieter Buchhart characterized as “a revolutionary caught between everyday life, knowledge and myth” (D. Buchhart, Basquiat, exh cat., Fondation Beyler, Basel, 2010, p. 53).