Jean-Michel Basquiat's monumental Eroica I from 1988 stands as a testament to the artist's truly magnificent visual vocabulary and passionate pursuit of knowledge that spanned a brief but highly powerful and productive nine year career. This painting has been included in several landmark exhibitions of the artist's work, most recently at the Fondation Beyeler and the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Created in the year of his early death, the present work is an extraordinary example of the increasingly complicated and frenzied late work by the artist – a painting that truly culminates everything Basquiat stood for and firmly establishes the late work as holding equal importance to his paintings from earlier in the decade. Basquiat's short but explosive oeuvre can be broken down into three periods, with the third period in particular breaking with the past and forging ahead into new territory. In the last two years of his life, a varied lexicon of symbols and words became the content of the work. The composition of Eroica I is conscious and cohesive despite a first impression of chaos and naïveté. Basquiat's work always trended toward reviving originality, authenticity and the primitive in art. The title of the present work translates from Italian to English as "heroic". The subtext of death versus heroism is typical of the artist's exploration of opposites and the fundamental tragedy of the human condition.
The complex nature of Basquiat's art and its rich tapestry of meanings can be ambiguous to the viewer, but the artist's intent and purpose was not. As Johnny Depp aptly observed in 2003, "However crude the image may be or how fast it appears to have been executed - every line, mark, scratch, drip, foot and fingerprint, word, letter, rip and imperfection is there because he allowed it to be there." (Exh. Cat., Paris, Fondation Dina Vierny, Musée Maillol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2003, p. 19) His greatest works, as in the case of the present painting, are firmly anchored in his own history and result in compositions where a deeply personal, sometimes disturbing stream-of-consciousness floods across the canvas. Toward 1987, Basquiat's life was descending into turmoil. He broke with his long time dealer Bruno Bischofberger to be represented instead by Tony Shafrazi. In addition to his profound upset over the death of friend Andy Warhol in 1987, Basquiat was plagued with thwarted romances and drug abuse. Tony Shafrazi's cousin, Vrej Baghoomian, held the last and one of the most important shows of Basquiat's work during his lifetime at his gallery in April 1988 in which Eroica I was a feature. There was rawness to the artist's intuitive expressions of this period and significant meaning to the text and imagery in his paintings. It is impossible not to read the painting as a premonition of his death, particularly given that the artist staged a photograph of himself in front of the piece with the ominous text "Man Dies" over his shoulder and his drug-related pallor taking center stage for the viewer. Death, however, is not relevant solely to his late work. Basquiat also focused on death throughout his career with near obsessive fascination. Eroica I is an outstanding example of Basquiat's terse aesthetic, throbbing with a network of impulses that informs his extraordinary means of expression.
Basquiat considered words and lists to be his "facts" – they were both labels for and representations of the world. At times throughout his career words were often considered abstract, however, by the late 1980s they were imbued with meaning. His word choice is intelligent rather than random. Repetitions, misspellings, crossed out letters, circled and underlined words are deliberate and meant to invite closer scrutiny by the viewer. The incorporation of words in Basquiat's work stems from both the artist's earlier life as a graffiti artist, and from his love of books and music and his endless passion for knowledge. As Johnny Depp noted, "He was never truly able to hide his feelings or influence in the work. He openly acknowledged Cy Twombly, Picasso, the word juxtapositions of William Burroughs and Brian Gyson, Andy Warhol, Leonardo da Vinci, Be Bop Jazz, TV and cartoons." (Ibid., p. 19) On the viewer's part, we can easily read the words and imagery of his compositions but can not as easily deduce or understand the deeper implications and significance.
Basquiat often used symbols in his paintings from his favorite book, Symbol Sourcebook by Henry Dreyfus. In Eroica I, he incorporated the talon symbol, a cryptic symbol used by hobos that meant 'man dies' and was used to warn each other of potential dangers. This painting, like Riding with Death and others from the last year of Basquat's life, encapsulates the complexities of the artist's unraveling life and his intensified obsession with death. Eroica I, drenched in gestural washes of white and blue, is both pale and agitated – each aspect of the artist's life is laid bare by him. His confession is then confronted by its own inevitable conclusion. One senses here that the hero no longer needs to be announced. The body has now completely disappeared; just marks of the artist's hand remain like shadows of the self. Text becomes image and as Richard Marshall notes, "he constructed a circulatory transformation of marks into letters, letters into words, and words into meaning and then reversed the cycle to permit the marks to reconfigure from meaning into abstract lines that emphasize the integrity of the mark, the power of the gesture, and the fusion of representation and abstraction." (Exh. Cat., New York, Cheim & Read, Jean-Michel Basquiat In Word Only, 2005, n.p.)
Beethoven's "Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major" is also known as "Eroica" which Basquiat is undoubtedly referencing. The symphony was originally created to be dedicated to Napoleon who Beethoven initially held in great esteem; however, in May 1804, when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of France, Beethoven tore up the title page in a fit of rage and renamed the piece "Eroica". The symphony was immediately recognized as one of the longest and most complex symphonies ever composed. Like Basquiat's oeuvre, the work was a sensational leap forward in its respective field. The first movement alone lasted longer than any other symphony and from the start was a revolutionary call to struggle consisting of dissonant chords and sounds. The second movement, the funeral march for the fallen hero, resonates with Basquiat's Eroica. This movement was played at Franklin Delano Roosevelt's funeral, which is a perhaps coincidental although fascinating connection back to the present work, in which Basquiat writes "FDR blues" in the lower right quadrant. FDR Blues is itself a musical reference to the blues musician Champion Jack Dupree's record of the same title. Dupree, the African-American blues pianist moved around the United States until he settled in Detroit where he met the boxer Joe Louis who encouraged him to also become a fighter (from whence he was given the name Champion). Dupree, and other African-Americans supported Roosevelt and his "New Deal" which produced jobs and promoted equality for minorities. Basquiat throughout his career was interested in famous black figures in music and sports and chose to represent them in various ways in his art. The present work is a push and pull of death and heroicism, that resembling the Beethoven symphony, demands our attention and with a potent exuberance that continues Basquiat's legacy.
Acrylic and oilstick on paper mounted on canvas
New York, Vrej Baghoomian Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, April - June 1988
New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Keith Haring & Jean-Michel Basquiat, December 1990 - January 1991
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Houston, The Menil Collection; Des Moines, Des Moines Art Center; Montgomery, Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, Jean-Michel Basquiat, October 1992 - January 1994, p. 228, illustrated in color and p. 25, illustrated
Coral Gables, Quintana Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1980 - 1988, December 1996 - February 1997, p. 19, illustrated in color
New York, Malca Fine Art, In Your Face: Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, June - August 1997, p. 53, illustrated in color
Vienna, KunstHausWien, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings and works on paper. The Mugrabi Collection, February - May 1999, p. 100, illustrated in color
Brooklyn, Brooklyn Museum; Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art; Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts, Basquiat, March 2005 - February 2006, p. 158, illustrated in color
Milan, Fondazione La Triennale di Milano, The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show, September 2006 - January 2007, p. 295, illustrated in color
Basel, Fondation Beyeler; Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Basquiat, May 2010 - January 2011, cat. no. 162, p. 173, illustrated in color
90 7/8 x 88 3/4 in. 230.8 x 225.4 cm.
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, 1st ed., vol. I, p. 307, illustrated in color and vol. II, fig. 47, p. 145, illustrated in color (installed at Vrej Baghoomian Gallery, 1988) and fig. 48, p. 147, illustrated in color (detail in photograph of the artist)
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, 2nd ed., vol. I, p. 369, illustrated in color and vol. II, fig. 47, p. 219, illustrated in color (installed at Vrej Baghoomian Gallery 1988) and fig. 48, p. 221, illustrated in color (detail in photograph of the artist)
Taka Kawachi, ed., King for a Decade Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kyoto, 1997, p. 149, illustrated in color
Tony Shafrazi, Jeffrey Deitch and Richard D. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1999, p. 292, illustrated in color
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, 3rd ed., vol. I, p. 356, illustrated in color and vol. II, p. 286, illustrated in color (detail in photograph of the artist) and p. 287, illustrated in color (1988 Vrej Baghoomian Gallery exhibition photograph)
Vrej Baghoomian Gallery, New York
Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York
Private Collection, New York
Sotheby's, New York, May 17, 2000, Lot 69
Acquired by the present owner from the above