Property of a Distinguished Private Collector
In Elaine, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s large-scale painting from 1985, the artist surrounds his portrait with more than a dozen sheets packed with his drawings and notations—hieroglyphics if you like of his life experiences. This outpouring of creativity fills almost every square inch of the canvas and as such, Elaine becomes an encyclopedia of sorts, a tool to unlock the rich and detailed references contained throughout the artist’s body of work. From the anatomical drawings that fascinated him from childhood, to what appears be lists of everyday grocery items, the sheets are Basquiat’s biography; both meaningful and mundane, these motifs are the building blocks of his life.
Occupying the center of the canvas, the imposing face of the Elaine stares out of the picture plane with her hypnotic eyes, wide smile and tussles of black hair. Despite its apparent simplicity, the face is in fact rendered in the artist’s complex fashion. Multiple layers of different dark pigments are laid down to reflect the natural subtleties of human skin. Facial features are defined with white highlights, and even the reflections of raking light shining off the skin of are shown in the passage of white paint depicted on the right side of her forehead. Even the subject’s make-up is meticulously replicated by Basquiat’s fast-moving oilstick—the cherry red of her bright lipstick matched only by the vibrancy of her eyeshadow.
Surrounding her face are the pages from Basquiat’s notebooks which the artist has photocopied and applied directly to the surface of the canvas. These sheets are packed with the cacophony of images and pictograms that have been constant throughout his artistic life. Intricate drawings of a foot, cartoonish renderings of monkeys and bears, a tooth and a magnificent skull (complete with a section of the skull cut away to reveal a brain are among many images on display. These are complemented by a rapid fire lists of words (some related, some not) which are scattered throughout the surface. Commodities such as rye, wheat, oats, rice, millet and grain are listed alongside industrial conglomerates such as Universal, Westinghouse, Packard, Hudson, Chevrolet, Plymouth, Chrysler and Ford. Looking for logical connections among these motifs can prove futile, as Basquiat mines the contents of his subconscious for ideas.
Symbols and symbolism were an important part of Basquiat’s oeuvre from his earliest days as a street artist spray painting his ©SAMO tag all over New York. Although often described as the enfant terrible of the 1980’s New York art world, Basquiat was actually an erudite connoisseur of art history. He was a regular visitor to the city’s world famous museums, and his studio and living spaces accommodated many art historical and cultural textbooks including Gray’s Anatomy, a generously illustrated 1966 book of Leonardo da Vinci drawings (which became an important source of inspiration for Basquiat) and a copy of Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook. Basquiat studied these volumes intensely and the integrated many of the motifs he saw directly into the narrative of his paintings and drawings, as Basquiat scholar Richard Marshall explained. “He continually selected and injected into his works words which held charged references and meanings—particularly to his deep-rooted concerns about race, human rights, the creation of power and wealth, and the control and valuation of natural elements, animals and produce—all this in addition to references to his ethnic heritage, popular culture, and respected of infamous figures from history and the entertainment world” (R, Marshall, “Repelling Ghosts,” in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1993, p. 15).
Basquiat has long been celebrated for the distinctness of his line and long admired other master draughtsman, particularly the intellectual scope and visual intensity of Leonardo da Vinci and the poetic nature of Cy Twombly’s work. Basquiat often ‘quoted’ da Vinci’s work in his own paintings, for example the anatomical proliferations contained within Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits, 1982. The lyricism of Twombly was a big influence on a young Basquiat. Like the older artist, Basquiat saw painting as something you did, rather than a particular genre of art, and critics have argued that by looking at Twombly’s work, Basquiat gained permission to feel able to produce work imbued with a uniqueness and intensity that has since become one of the leading factors in Basquiat’s unique form of artistic expression. As curator Robert Farris Thompson explains, “Basquiat himself did not parody Abstract Expressionism, as Pop masters sometimes did. As he fused his sources, his mood was more complex; humor, play, mastery, and stylistic companionship. He bought into being first-generation (Kline) and second generation (Twombly) Abstract Expressionist citations and mixed them up with amiably with cartoon, graffitero, and other styles. In the process, he physicalized fused signs of erudition and amiability with his invented break pattern art, his own, uniquely arrived at auto-bricolage” (R. F. Thompson, “Royalty, Heroism, and the Streets: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, in ibid., p. 36).
Executed in 1985, just a few years before his premature death, Elaine provides evidence that despite his inner turmoil Jean-Michel Basquiat was still at the height of his creative powers. His rich graphic lexicon, rendered here in exacting detail, acts like a complex narrative speaking to the artist’s wide ranging social and artistic concerns including tensions of race, class, identity, and culture. Thus, Basquiat became the voice of a new generation of artists struggling to escape the dogma of Minimalism, “Basquiat’s status as a famous over-acknowledged artist in the media limelight had given American art what has so long been devolved to European artists: the artiste mauditiI, a sort of absolute criteria, from another world and another society that imposes a language that is so very different that it seems to be the last link of the chain” (J. Prat, The “Child King” of the Eighties, in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris, 2000, p. 12). Basquiat helped discover a unique vocabulary for American art through his own form of visual communication and as such Elaine encapsulates the artist’s brief yet vibrantly expressive and extraordinarily significant career.
Property of a Distinguished Private Collector
signed, titled and dated '1985 ELAINE Jean-Michel Basquiat' (on the reverse)
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
J.-L. Prat, et al, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, 2000, appendix, pp. 20-21, no. 3 (illustrated in color).
Gallery Mathias Fels, Paris
Galerie Bischofberger, Zurich
Galerie Mathis Fels, Paris
Galerie Nichido, Tokyo
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 14 November 2007
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner