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Five Fish Species
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Five Fish Species
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About the item

Pulsating with raw energy and a compelling visceral strength, Five Fish Species is a masterpiece of Jean-Michael Basquiat’s oeuvre, painted when the artist was at the magisterial height of his creative powers. Combining an astonishingly diverse range of influences – literary, alchemical and historical, along with references to New York and paying creative homage to artists including Cy Twombly and Jackson Pollock – Five Fish Species confronts the viewer with its commanding sense of dynamism and sheer unbridled vitality. Reminiscent of Renaissance altarpieces in its imposing scale and triptych format, each panel sets up a compelling narrative in its own right: allusions to William Burroughs’s life and work on the left hand side, various New York and Hobo signs within the central panel, and esoteric alchemical symbols along with a shamanistic head dominating the right hand segment. Five Fish Species celebrates Basquiat’s origins as a successful graffiti artist in its energetic applications of paint and glorification of words and symbols, yet, in composition and format the work reflects the immense improvement in the artist’s financial circumstances that took place between 1982 and 1983. Following his breakthrough participation in the legendary New York/New Waveshow at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Centre in 1981, Basquiat attained the crucial support of Annina Nosei, an influential gallery owner whom, recognising that the artist had no permanent place of residence, offered him the use of a basement area as his studio. Although Basquiat moved from Nosei’s gallery to that of Bruno Bischofberger in May 1982, the greater sense of stability and financial success that resulted from his discovery by the elite of the American art world during this period allowed him to turn his efforts increasingly towards monumental canvas painting and triptychs.\n\nThe left hand panel of Five Fish Species is dominated by cryptic references to William Burroughs, a leading postmodernist author who was Basquiat’s favourite writer, as the artist declared in an interview in 1985: “[Burroughs] is my favourite living author, definitely. I think it’s really close to what Mark Twain writes, as far as the point of view. It’s pretty similar, I think.” (The artist, cited in an interview with Becky Johnston and Tamra Davis, Beverly Hills, California, 1985, in Exhibition Catalogue, Foundation Beyeler, Basquiat, Basel, 2010, p. xxvi). Evidence of Basquiat’s close reading of Burroughs’ novels is displayed within Five Fish Species in the inclusion of the forceful sentence at the base of the left hand panel, complete with the artist’s distinctive crossing out and near annihilation of various individual letters – “He is subject to take back the keys to the shithouse” – which is a near direct quotation from The Soft Machine, originally published in 1961. Burroughs’ colourful personal life (he was a long-time heroin addict and his writings frequently aroused controversy) appears to have fascinated Basquiat, who in the present work chose to commemorate an especially shocking episode in the author’s life. Whilst living in New Mexico in 1951, Burroughs mistakenly killed his second wife, Joan Vollmer, in a deadly game of William Tell: Burroughs was convicted of homicide and given a two year suspended sentence over the horrific incident. The words “Burrough’s Bullet,” daubed in blood-red pigment on the canvas, recur twice alongside depictions of bullets and the date of the killing, 1951, in turn enclosed within the contours of a five cent coin; the phrase, “In God we trust” taking on somewhat ironical overtones in the circumstances. A ‘skelly-court’ board – a game played by children in urban areas in which a board is chalked on the pavement - dominates the centre of the left hand segment, with the number thirteen at the grid’s middle introducing a distinctly ominous tone to the proceedings. The repeated association of the bullets within the game alongside the references to the fatal game of William Tell that killed Vollmer indicate a preoccupation with death on Basquiat’s part, a terror perhaps aroused by the brutal killing of Michael Stewart in September 1983. Stewart, a well-known black graffiti artist, had been horrifyingly attacked by elements of the police force and died shortly afterwards from his injuries. Basquiat seems to have felt a particular connection to the incident due to the fact that Stewart was dating Suzanne Mallouk, his former girlfriend, at the time: this sense of a ‘close escape’ evidently haunted Basquiat, who seemed to fear a similar tragic fate.\n\nBasquiat arguably further references Michael Stewart in the presence of a tiny black skeletal figure that hovers within the upper half of the middle segment, subtly linking the concerns of the left hand panel with that of its neighbour. Energetic explosions of paint dominate the central panel, splattering off from a Times Square ‘billboard’ and descending towards a line of shield-like shapes at the base of the canvas, each encasing a prominent “S.” Basquiat proudly acknowledges his graffiti beginnings, with the presence of the “S” standing in for his original “SAMO” signature, a teasing tag, born of the phrase “same old shit,” that adorned subways and walls prior to the artist’s absorption into the more traditional world of gallery shows and their corresponding financial rewards. Francesco Pellezzi comments on the importance of “SAMO” as a moniker of identity: “In the intricate, cryptographic, I idiosyncratically anonymous and ubiquitous web of multicoloured sprayed ‘signs,’ SAMO not only attests to the existence of a persona, an individual presence… but affirms the existence of a personality … SAMO is the affirmation of an identity that manifests itself both as signature… and as self-image, or rather as the image of an iconic self.” (Francesco Pellezzi, ‘Black and White all Over: Poetry and Desolation Painting,’ in Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Vrej Baghoomian Inc., Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1989, n.p.). By placing his ‘signature’ within a shield, Basquiat appears to be invoking an ancient form of protection against danger, whilst also evoking historical heraldic connotations, as evidenced by the words “circa 1500” on the right hand panel. The shielded “S’s” however, also bear a witty resemblance to the ancient symbol denoting alcohol – an S within an inverted, topless triangle – as detailed in Henry Dreyfuss’ Symbol Sourcebook, an important reference work for the artist.\n\nBasquiat frequently employed Hobo signs within his canvases – also gleaned from the Symbol Sourcebook – as though attempting to perpetuate the legend of a struggling artist who was born and raised in the ghetto: in fact, the artist’s upbringing had been a relatively comfortable one. Born of a Haitian father who had made a success of his emigration to the US A and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat’s parents were determined on educating their son to the best of their abilities, and he was encouraged to visit museums from an early age. However, the relationship with his family was a complex one, and, following his parent’s separation, Basquiat rebelled against his father’s desire for a conformist son, running away from home and forging his own distinctive identity as a graffiti artist. One of the artist’s high school teachers recalled the source of the parental conflict: “[Basquiat’s] father was a successful businessman, a three-piece suit guy, and Jean was nowhere even close to heading in that direction.” (Lester Denmark, quoted in Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat, A Quick Killing in Art, New York, 1998, p. 29). The use of Hobo symbols within his paintings arguably reinforces the idea that Basquiat was trying to distance himself from the realities of his early life in order to connect with the lifestyle and language of the numerous homeless within New York city. The middle segment of Five Fish Species includes various possible Hobo symbols: the inverted triangle that recurs throughout the central panel indicates that a move is necessary due to the presence of too many other ‘vagabonds’ within the street already, whilst the two empty circles that hover to the right of the skeleton deliver a similar message: ‘nothing to be gained here.’ The overall impression is one of bleak desolation and total despair, couched in terms that could be fully understood only by those itinerant city dwellers for whom the metropolis was an unfriendly environment  full of dangers to be circumvented and conquered on a daily basis. Basquiat could relate to these  feelings of fear and displacement following his own dark period of homelessness: “I would just walk around for days without sleeping and eating cheese doodles or whatever, because they only cost fifteen cents… I thought I was going to be a bum for the rest of my life.” (The artist, cited in Ibid. p. 22).\n\nAn intriguing element of sorcery is introduced through the use of alchemical signs within Five Fish Species: particularly noticeable is the baleful symbol for arsenic, two circles joined by a line, clearly highlighted by Basquiat’s inclusion of the word “alchemy” directly above. The withered head, grotesquely skull-like, further reinforces the references to ancient, dark, ‘magical’ traditions, with the piercing of the jaw possibly alluding to Voodoo or shamanistic practices. The result is a morbidly fascinating meditation on themes of universal magnitude, with Basquiat tapping into and unleashing primeval fears and anxieties through his utterly unique painterly lexicon. In its immense wealth of allegorical and symbolical associations, Five Fish Species is one of the most remarkable and captivating paintings of Basquiat’s entire corpus, a truly magnificent work by a precociously gifted artist standing at the very apex of his creative progression.\nSigned, titled and dated 1983 on the reverse
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medium

Acrylic and oilstick on canvas mounted on wood supports

creator

Jean-Michel Basquiat

condition

Colour: The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate although the overall tonality is brighter and more saturated in the original, and fails to convey the variant light grey and green tonalities in the background. Condition: This work is in very good condition. Very close inspection reveals a small unobtrusive rub mark in the blue paint towards the lower left corner of the central canvas. No restoration is apparent under ultraviolet light. "In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue. NOTWITHSTANDING THIS REPORT OR ANY DISCUSSIONS CONCERNING A LOT, ALL LOTS ARE OFFERED AND SOLD AS IS" IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CONDITIONS OF BUSINESS PRINTED IN THE SALE CATALOGUE."

dimensions

168 by 357cm.

exhibition

New York, Brooklyn Ocean Terminal and Brooklyn Navy Yard, Terminal New York, 1983

literature

Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, Vol. II, 3rd Edition, p. 166, no. 5, illustrated in colour

provenance

Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner in 1983

signedDate

Signed, titled and dated 1983 on the reverse

creator_nationality_dates

1960 - 1988


*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.


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