Catharsis is a powerful example of Jean-Michel Basquiat's ability to converge personal, historical, and urban symbols into a commanding canvas of monumental size and expressive gestures. In 1983, the year he painted this work, Basquiat was at the height of his career, busy creating some of the most crucial works of his oeuvre. Having risen from street artist to artistic wunderkind, he was skillfully combining the raw energy of his graffiti past with a new compositional expertise. The playful, calligraphic style that had become the hallmark of his mature work is represented here, juxtaposed with serious issues of identity, race, and politics. The unique vision of Basquiat is exemplified by Catharsis in this union of traditional, modern, and street art.
The autobiographical element of Basquiat's work began with his graffiti tag SAMO during his street art phase and contributed a major theme to the artist's oeuvre. In Catharsis, he invites an element of ownership and legitimacy to enter his art by including his trademark symbol of the copyright symbol as well as the crown. This crown mandates a level of respect in its associations with royalty, superiority, and preciousness. The copyright sign ensures that his images and personal codes are authenticated as his own. In this way, he questions the originality of works of art in a world in which commercialism and mass production has seeped into the market. He also claims ownership over his distinct identity and makes his presence known within his works.
The personal aspect of autobiography extends to the use of anatomy and body parts throughout the painting. In a sense, Basquiat has created a new form of portraiture by using signs, motifs, words, and body parts in order to construct the human anatomy. The science of anatomy was an important subject to the artist who had been hospitalized during his childhood due to a car accident at the age of seven. During his recovery, his mother gave him a copy of Gray's Anatomy, a standard text book used by both medical and art students, and the images and information lingered in his fascination with sketching, labeling, and identifying. Pictorial and textual limbs and organs of the body decorate the canvas as he reconstructs his persona and breaks down the issues of society for the viewer.
The title Catharsis suggests the release of repressed emotions, both by the artist and his audience, through the vehicle of Basquiat's aesthetic energy and meaningful language. He attempted to bridge the gap between art and life through the medium of painting and his declared obsession with sending a message of "royalty, heroism and the streets" (J.M. Basquiat, quoted in H. Geldzahler, "Art: From the Subways to Soho, Jean-Michel Basquiat," Interview, January 1983). The monumentality of this enormous three-panel composition demands the same amount of attention as a looming wall of graffiti. Robert Rauschenberg once said of his own 1950s Combine works (collaged juxtapositions of garbage and found objects expressively invigorated by paint) that he aimed to make them "at least as interesting as anything going on outside the window" (R. Rauschenberg, quoted in C. Knight,"He led the way to Pop Art," Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2008). In a similar manner, the size, meaning, and color of Catharsis were also meant to connect directly to the pulse and immediacy of the street.
Basquiat's self-revelation and cultural attitude can be found amidst the themes of his personal symbolism in the spontaneous nature of the painting's brush strokes. Catharsis exemplifies one of the artist's finest demonstrations of his favorite themes synthesized within one canvas, including urbanization, race, and identity. Representative of his former life within the grime and graffiti of New York City streets, Basquiat uses fast-drying acrylic material to present a spontaneous façade of art brut over the actual precision of his codified illustrations. He conceptually combines text and image for an enigmatic message of both academic art historical discourse as well as the popular culture of graffiti design. Like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Basquiat was also interested in the incorporation of consumer culture in the form of comic books and cartoons both to further mass appeal and to invite low art into high culture. However, he uses the sociopolitical subtexts differently than the Pop artists' playful messages by delving into their remarks on the American institutionalization of racism and prejudice. Furthermore, he flaunts a freedom of expression in his style that differs greatly from the mechanical, reproductive aesthetic of Pop art and is perhaps more aligned to the international neo-expressionists of the 1980s, whose work he greatly admired.
Basquiat grew up with an awareness of art history. With this knowledge, he took note of the white majority of the art world from an early age saying, "I realized that I didn't see many paintings with black people in them" (J.M. Basquiat, quoted in C. Vogel, "Metallica Drummer to Sell Basquiat 'Boxer,'" New York Times, October 9, 2008). He would make it his mission to fashion a black protagonist for the future of art. Basquiat rejoiced in the achievements of black celebrities in many of his paintings, especially because he shared in their inner conflicts and social struggles. The artist, with his own background in Haitian and Puerto Rican culture commemorated the crisis of the black man battling for respect in a cultural world dominated by Caucasians. For example, in Catharsis, Basquiat depicts a fist in his left panel that signifies black power as well as his popular boxer motif of the self-made man who fights for his own success. A symbol of determination, physical strength (also addressed by the dumbbells), and the self-respect of a race, the artist also uses the fist as a reference to his personal turmoil and eventual championing of his goals.
In Art in America, Jeffrey Deitch commented that Basquiat represented "a knockout combination of de Kooning and subway paint scribbles," and he truly did have a knack for merging his traditional, art historical knowledge with contemporary and street art (J. Deitch, quoted in L. Emmerling, Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1960-1988, London, 2006, p. 16). Basquiat was heavily influenced by the raw energy of Jean Dubuffet, the intuitive drawings of Cy Twombly, and the expressionist brush strokes of Franz Kline. However, he stands out from the regular movements of art historical discourse by avoiding derivation and searching for his own, albeit angry, voice. His enthusiastic, critical opinions on society can be read by the audience in his mixture of organized chaos and playful sincerity.
Catharsis captured a moment during the zenith of Basquiat's career. The young artist signaled art's future by displaying a new aesthetic and message rather than resorting to retrospective themes. His emotional richness, technical sophistication, and unique perspective as a black man succeeding in the white art world guaranteed his staying power as a professional artist.
Triptych--acrylic and oilstick on canvas
Signed, titled and dated 'Jean-Michel Basquiat CATHARSIS "1983"' (on the reverse)
Jean-Michel Basquiat , 20th Century, Paintings, United States of America, Contemporary
New York, Vrej Baghoomian Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, October-November 1989, p. 9, no. 8 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
72 x 93¾ in. (183 x 235.6 cm.)
T. Shafrazi, J. Deitch and R. Marshall, eds., Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1999, p. 181 (illustrated in color).
R. Marshall, et. al., Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, pp. 158-159, no. 7 (illustrated in color).
Marsha Fogel, New York
Vrej Baghoomian Gallery, New York
Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York
Anon. sale; Phillips de Pury & Co., New York, 12 May 2005, lot 46 Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
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