Jean-Michel Basquiat executed Gas Truck, a brilliantly colored and monumental triptych, in 1984, at the height of his short yet meteoric career. The painting takes inspiration from Basquiat's artistic collaborations at the time, most notably with Andy Warhol, the young artist's persistent idol. For Gas Truck Basquiat assembled aquamarine, yellow and scorched orange panels, recalling the vibrant monochromatic colors favored by Warhol, the master of American Pop. However, Basquiat applied it to the canvas in a way that defies Warhol's icy mechanical reproduction, with a novel type of Expressionism akin to Franz Kline's impassioned brushstrokes. In the composition's center, Basquiat renders the rapidly gestured lines a gas truck combusted into flames. In either side panel of the triptych, he depicts, with intentionally childlike simplicity, an urban street scene filled with apartment blocks, a lamppost and a solitary car. These figurative elements recall Cy Twombly's intuitive drawings and Dubuffet's raw energy Art Brut. As René Ricard once famously asserted, "If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption, it would be Jean-Michel" (quoted in "Radiant Child" Artforum, December 1981, p.43). Basquiat, like Dubuffet, artfully chronicled city life; in Gas Truck Basquiat returns to the streets of New York, creating a bright and tragicomic scene, evocative of the action comic strip or animated cartoon.
Basquiat was deeply sensitive to his environment and his paintings consistently refer to contemporary mass culture and the events that surrounded him. In Gas Truck, it is likely that Basquiat had been watching television or had picked up a comic book when elaborating his image, with the painting's three panels redolent of a comic strip's dramtic frames. They operate in circular reference with the far right panel completing the cycle on the far left, depicting a neighborhood apparently unaware of the explosive scene on nearby streets. In Gas Truck, Basquiat employs this dramatic device to leave the viewer in suspended tension, waiting to see if the Marvel superhero will come to the rescue. This scene particularly fascinated Basquiat, perhaps because of his youthful ambition to become a fireman. Yet rather subversively, Basquiat was always more enthusiastic at the prospect of starting the fire rather than putting it out. As he once poignantly wrote on the surface of his painting, Untitled (When the Foam Breaks) (1981), "fire will attract more attention than any other cry for help" (Jean-Michel Basquiat quoted in L. Marenzi "Pay for Soup/Build a Fort/Set that on Fire" Basquiat, Milan 1999, p. xxxii). We can also draw parallels between Gas Truck and Basquiat's early Untitled (Car Crash) (1980) in which a green car has collided with a milk truck, underneath the roughly hewn yellow window of a nearby apartment building. Through these images, Basquiat was arguably paying homage to the celebrated crash paintings of his mentor Andy Warhol.
In both wings of the triptych, blue acrylic pigment dominates the picture, accented by bold and confident white oil stick renderings of buildings and city infrastructure. These apparently primitive depictions of the city resonate with the early images created by Jean Dubuffet in his dynamic series Paris Circus. In both Trinité Champs-Elysées (1961) and L'Automobile Fleur de l'Industrie (1961), Dubuffet offers "highly active line, abruptly-changing vivid color, lack of perspective and repetition of forms [that keeps] our eye constantly moving over the surface of the painting, with no central focus, simulating the vitality and activity of modern Paris" (M. Glimcher Jean Dubuffet: Towards an Alternative Reality, New York, 1987, p.14). Basquiat channeled the same vivacity when depicting New York.
In Gas Truck, Basquiat employed opaque paint washes layered onto the canvas's surface, complicating the visual clarity and pictorial elements of the work. Basquiat's concept of pentimenti recalls the works of Old Masters such as Rembrandt, who re-used their canvases and over-painted as a practical solution. With time and the aging process, the paint increased in transparency, with the unintended consequence of revealing its former subjects. In Gas Truck, Basquiat positively engenders this effect, deflecting the viewer from the painterly smoke screen and drawing their attention to the possibilities of what might exist beneath.
The young Basquiat realized Gas Truck, a work of humorous potency, with his characteristic energy. As Jeffrey Deitch so eloquently described" "Jean-Michel's statement was uniquely his own. He invented a vocabulary, a sense of composition, a new way to use the medium of painting that captured the intensity of and the disjointed quality of today's urban reality. Jean-Michel's statement summed up what was happening on TV, in the galleries, and on the streets, churning the languages of modern and pre-modern art to encompass a totally contemporary vision" (J. Deitch "Jean Michel: An Homage" in J. Baal-Teshuva Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings and Works on Paper, Vienna, 1999, p. 37).
Triptych--acrylic and oilstick on canvas
PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE NEW YORK COLLECTOR
Signed twice, titled and dated twice '"Gas Truck" Jean-Michel Basquiat 1984' (on the reverse of the center panel)
Jean-Michel Basquiat , 20th Century, Paintings, United States of America, Contemporary
New York, Mary Boone/Michael Werner Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, May 1984.
Kyong Ju, Sonje Museum of Contemporary Art and Seoul, National Museum of Contemporary, Andy Warhol--Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1991, pp. 58-59 and 75, no. 16 (illustrated in color).
New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Picasso, Bacon, Basquiat, May-July 2004, pp. 3, 41 and 62-63 (illustrated in color).
Seoul, Kukje Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, October-November 2006, pp. 48-49 (illustrated in color).
New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Four Friends, October-January 2008, pp. 12 and 36 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
50 x 169 in. (127 x 429.3 cm.)
E. Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1989, pp. 52-53.
T. Shafrazi, et al., Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, pp. 296-297 (illustrated in color).
Galerie Enrico Navarra, et al., Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, pp. 296-297 (illustrated in color).
R. Marshall, et. al., Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, pp. 296-297, no. 1 (illustrated in color, incorrectly dated 1985).
Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Enrico Navarra, Paris
Private collection, Italy
Acquired from the above by the present owner
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