Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
signed and dated ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat 1982’ (on the reverse)
acrylic, oilstick and spray paint on wood panel
72 x 48 in. (183 x 122 cm.)
Painted in 1982.
Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris
Mugrabi Collection, New York
Hamiltons Gallery, London
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 9 November 2005, lot 42
Private collection, Milan
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, London, 21 June 2007, lot 28
Anon. sale; Sotheby’s, London, 26 June 2012, lot 49
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
R. Marshall and J.-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, 1st ed., vol. 1, pp. 62-63 and 387 (illustrated in color); vol. 2, p. 132, fig. 27 (installation view illustrated in color).
R. Marshall and J.-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, 2nd ed., vol. 1, pp. 87 and 390 (illustrated in color); vol. 2, pp. 206 and 249, fig. 27, no. 12, (installation views illustrated in color).
T. Shafrazi, et al., Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1999, p. 98 (illustrated in color).
E. Navarra, et al., Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, vol. 1, p. 83 (illustrated in color); vol. 2, pp. 100-101 and 289, no. 4 (illustrated in color and installation views illustrated in color); appendix, p. 29.
Tokyo, Akira Ikeda Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings, November-December 1983, no. 3
Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, April-June, 1996.
Coral Gables, Quintana Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1980-1988, December 1996-February 1997, p. 11 (illustrated in color).
Vienna, Kunsthaus, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings and Works on Paper, February-April 1999, p. 59 (illustrated in color).
Künzelsau, Museum Wu¨rth, The Mugrabi Collection: Jean-Michel Basquiat, September 2001-January 2002, p. 51.
Milan, Fondazione La Triennale, The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show, September 2006-January 2007, p. 216, pl. 87 (illustrated in color).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, February-April 2013, pp. 46-47, 192 and 201 (illustrated in color and installation view illustrated in color).
New York, The Brant Foundation Art Study Center, Jean-Michel Basquiat, March-May 2019.
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Painted in 1982 at the height of his artistic power, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Warrior is a commanding and authoritative portrait that amply demonstrates why the artist is regarded as one of the most important painters of the last half century. In the centre, a noble figure is rendered using the artist’s distinctive brushwork; carefully controlled and yet expressive gestures revel in their rudimentary nature, resulting in a figure that reverberates with artistic energy. With its roots firmly located in the grand traditions of portraiture, yet executed in a resolutely contemporary manner, this part mythical figure/part self-portrait spans artistic genres. Yet its unique style also validates Basquiat’s role as the artist who helped to resurrect contemporary painting in the early 1980s following decades of neglect. This large-scale painting is one of a number which the artist undertook during that period, all painted on panel, which have subsequently come to be regarded as some of his best works. This particular work was publicly exhibited for the first time at Akira Ikeda Gallery in Tokyo in 1983 and has been widely exhibited around the world, most recently at the critically acclaimed exhibition Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in New York on 2019.
Basquiat’s heroic figure stands firmly in the centre of the composition. With his sword held aloft and his fiery eyes, he commands the space around him. For such an authoritative figure, Basquiat constructs the image through a series of rapidly applied strokes of acrylic and spray paint along with oilstick—his medium of choice for many of the large-scale figurative paintings. Initially, Basquiat marks out a silhouette in spray paint and oilstick—a square torso and long limbs that traverse across the canvas. Once the outline of the figure has been mapped out, Basquiat then fills in the body with a series of harried painterly layers. Planes of black, white, organic hues and silvery streaks coalesce into a series of anatomical features: bones, organs, even muscles appear visible through the dexterous movement of Basquiat’s hand. As with many of the artist’s most successful canvases, it is in the face where much of the force of the painting is located. In Warrior, two staring eyes (one red, one a deep burnished orange) glower out at us as if in a state of rage. This is further enhanced by the clenched grin of the bared teeth and the flow of green curls that billow out behind the figure’s head. Together with his weapon held high above him, this is the stance of a solider about to charge into battle.
Warrior belongs to a select group of important canvases that Basquiat executed in 1981 and 1982 by painting directly onto panel. Having obtained a dozen or so of these large-scale wooden supports, the artist began to apply his paint directly onto their roughly hewn surface. By eschewing the use of a base layer, or ground, the rough texture of the wood emerges through the painted surface, enhancing the rapidly laid down painted layers and adding a further energetic dimension to the work. Along with the present work, these large paintings include such luminary examples as La Hara (1981); Irony of Negro Policeman (1981); and Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face, (1982). Evoking the Renaissance panel portraits that Basquiat would have seen during his museum visits, these single figures stand proudly in all their solitary glory.
With works such as this, Basquiat is drawing on the rich art historical traditions of over one thousand years of portraiture, at the same time infusing them with contemporary themes and concerns that were at the forefront of the 21 year old artist’s mind. He was an enthusiastic connoisseur of art history and thoroughly immersed himself in the Western art historical canon through his regular visits to the museums of his native New York City. But with a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, he would also have been acutely aware that he was not seeing faces that looked like his staring back at him from the museum walls. With the rare exception of paintings like Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Saint Maurice, ca. 1520-25 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), nearly all of the heroic figures he encountered would have been white, which led him to develop his own canon of Black heroes to fill this gaping void in his own artistic experience. He often used his canvases to pay homage to the great spiritual warriors of the Yoruba and Ogun peoples, originally from western Africa, who were subsequently taken to Brazil and other South American and Caribbean nations as a result of the transatlantic slave trade.
In addition to respecting and honouring his cultural traditions, Basquiat also celebrated a new generation of contemporary Black heroic figures; musicians, athletes, and civil rights figures who all became ‘gods’ and warriors to Basquiat and his fellow Black American youth. The artist included references to the jazz musician Charlie Parker and the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson in many of the his canvases throughout his career. They were all personal heroes to Basquiat, not only as accomplished sportsman and artists but also as a high-profile figures at a time of heightened racial tension in the United States. Once, when asked about his choice of subject matter, Basquiat replied that he painted “Royalty, heroes and the streets” (J.-M. Basquiat, quoted in H. Geldzahler, "Art: from subways to Soho: Jean Michel Basquiat," pp. 18-26, Jean Michel Basquiat: Gemelde und Arbeiten auf Papier, exh. cat., Vienna, 1999, p. 23).
In addition to being a celebration of the artist’s spiritual and cultural heroes, in many ways Warrior is also a very personal statement of Basquiat’s own role as an artist, and thus becomes a stately self-portrait of a man at the height of his powers. The strong figure, brandishing his weapon of choice (a metaphor for Basquiat’s distinctive brushwork that can be seen throughout this painting), has been likened to the artist’s way of “repelling ghosts” of the past, a favourite phrase of the artist’s which is referenced in many of his other paintings. By combining both temporal and spiritual themes, Warrior is a declaration by Basquiat of heaven and earth; from the distinctly historical forms to the more divine elements, this work could be read as a philosophical rendering of the artist as much as a physical one.
1982, the year in which Warrior was painted, was the highpoint of the artist’s career, and the year in which he created some of his most celebrated works. At the age of just 22 he had become one of New York’s most prodigious artistic talents. After he dropped out of school five years earlier he spent much of his time immersed in the downtown New York arts and music scene, and together with a friend began to graffiti abandoned buildings on New York’s Lower East Side with the tag SAMO. His reputation began to grow, until in June 1980 he was included in the now famous The Times Square Show, where his work was noticed by the legendary dealer Jeffrey Deitch. A year later he was included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art’s MoMA PS1 curated by Diego Cortez. By the time he painted Warrior, Basquiat was installed in a spacious studio in the basement of Annina Nosei’s gallery on Prince Street in Manhattan, and began showcasing his work in a number of international exhibitions around the world, including in 1983 at the Akira Ikeda Gallery in Tokyo, where Warrior was publicly exhibited for the first time.
This highly creative period was due, in part, to New York having been suffering from economic stagnation and foreclosure; whole swaths of the city were being vacated by businesses and white-collar workers in favour of the suburbs. Rap, hip-hop and street art had become the new language of the dispossessed and Basquiat was at the centre of this new cultural movement, with the downtown scene becoming a rich source of inspiration that he would continue to mine for the rest of his career. Looking back on 1982, Basquiat himself recognized the tensions that he felt between the draw of his humble beginnings as a graffiti artist and his meteoric rise to become the wunderkind of the New York art world. “I had some money,” he recalled of that important year, “I made the best paintings ever…” (J.-M. Basquiat, in R. Marshall (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 241).
Epic in scale, yet intensely personal in nature, these paintings convey a dazzling range of ideas in concise fashion. Artist, poet and cultural flaneur, Basquiat possessed a remarkable talent for capturing the zeitgeist of his age. Warrior is one of his most accomplished and striking paintings, created at a time when the artist was at the height of his powers. Like many of the greatest artists of the twentieth century he not only had the ability to articulately depict his view of the world, he also had something powerful to say. “Underlying Jean-Michel’s sense of himself as an artist,” said Fred Hofmann—an art dealer and admirer of the artist’s work, “was his innate capacity to function as something like an oracle, distilling his perceptions of the outside world down to their essence and, in turn, projecting outward through his creative acts” (F. Hoffman, ‘The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works,’ in M. Mayer (ed.), Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, p. 129), and as an oracle of the late twentieth century, Basquiat had few equals.