This electrifying portrait of a mysterious dark figure confronts the viewer with a conflicting sense of aggression and vulnerability. With Basquiat's signature dramatic painterly style, the head attempts to break free from the confines of the picture frame with such force that his eyes bulge and teeth snarl with anger. But despite the initial jolt at the bellicose nature of this figure, closer inspection rewards the viewer with a skillfully constructed and extraordinarily sensitive portrait of a man. Seared onto a vibrant red backdrop, the head of a powerful man stares out at the viewer with a gaze that both transfixes and terrifies. Even for Basquiat's energetic oeuvre, the head is executed in a dizzying array of accomplished marks, ranging from the short, sharp staccato brushwork to the more fluid lines of bright yellow paint that frame the face like a mask. The head and body are rendered in what at first glance appears to be the dark facial tones of an African-American man, but upon closer inspections reveals itself to be a layer of soft bronze-like pigment, allowing the figure--almost imperceptibly--to shimmer with a glowing sheen.
The neon accents of yellow, red and white accentuate the man's strong profile, causing it to look larger than it first appears. They also act to reduce the face down its most essential skeletal elements--the jawline, cheekbones, eye sockets and bridge of the nose--turning the head into the haunting form of a skull. This is then embellished with a series of rapid marks that consists of yellow, red, black and white striations that are daubed across the face like the face paint of an ancient warrior designed to intimidate the enemy. With remarkable ingenuity, Basquiat achieves the reflective 'shine' on the figure's forehead by physically removing almost all the traces of the paint layers right down to the light colored ground. Whilst the head is rendered in spectacular detail, the rest of the body appears to fade in to the red backdrop, rather like a ghostly apparition looming suddenly into view, before disappearing again into the background of red mist. This has the effect of focusing attention onto the face, allowing us to concentrate on every line and every subtle nuance of Basquiat's accomplished rendition. This sense of awe-inspiring power is also heightened by the painting's monumental size, which at over five foot tall means this magnificent head stands at the average height of most humans.
The commanding thick-set figure, his heavy neck firmly fused onto a pair of muscular shoulders, recalls one of the artist's famed boxers--a figure that is included in some of Basquiat's greatest paintings. The hero, usually an African-American who triumphs in a predominantly white world, was a figure with whom Basquiat identified, and someone who embodied the spirit of the artist himself. Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis appear in many of the artist's works either as a victorious champion with arms raised above his head in victory, or as a victim surrounded by a retinue of agents, managers, trainers and advisors who all feed off their cut from their client's success. While Basquiat's boxers suggest a level of struggle--both on an individual and social level--the figure in Pre-Agrav is an intriguing mix of resistance and vulnerability. With the grimaced face, teeth showing, he projects a palpable degree of power, yet the skeletal-like contours produced by the neon yellow lines suggest a skull-like specter of death.
The fragility of life and the inevitability of death has been a fruitful trope for artists since time immemorial, from early man who recorded their battles with wild animals on the walls of their caves, through the seventeenth century tradition of vanitas painting, and even Pop masters such as Andy Warhol with his Death and Disaster series. Basquiat himself had his own brush with death as a child when he was involved in a car accident on the street that resulted in a long stay in the hospital. Death was an undercurrent that ran through much of his oeuvre, with many of his most powerful paintings populated with quasi-religious figures such as angels and prophets. This interest in death became all the more prophetic after Basquiat's own tragically early demise in 1988, at the age of 27.
Yet for all its subtle nuances, Pre-Agrav exemplifies the bravado of Basquiat's unmistakable style, particularly his magnificent handling of paint, spontaneous sense of line and inventive use of color, which made him an innovative heir to the mantle of Abstract Expressionism. Basquiat cited Franz Kline as one of his favorite artists, whose muscular brushwork is echoed here in Basquiat's vigorous swaths of paint. Likewise, the use of line in this work, marked by hesitations and erasure, expands upon Cy Twombly's style, which Basquiat cited as another source of inspiration. Basquiat confidently built on the heritage of these painters, as well on a rich visual lexicon of African masks, Voudoun and Santeria figurines from the Caribbean, Christian icons, and even cartoon imagery, synthesizing these diverse sources into a language that was distinctly his own.
The ultimate distinguishing quality of Pre-Agrav is the artist's striking use of color. For all the rawness and frenzied execution of his canvases, his skills as a colorist are often overlooked. "It is remarkable that someone so young could exhibit such a firm command of color--a notoriously difficult aspect of picture making--without concentrating on it exclusively. Basquiat understood color like few others and used it with unbridled temerity" (M. Meyer, "Basquiat in History," Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2005, p. 47). The artist deeply admired Jackson Pollock's chromatic masterpiece Guardians of the Secret (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), in particular the way that Pollock used passages of color to conjure up figurative imagery. Accentuated by the red background, the sheer vibrancy of the reds, yellows, oranges and blues explode like fireworks against the night sky. Basquiat's non-representational use of color, and particularly the juxtaposition of highly keyed tones of primary color, also recall the radical innovation of Henri Matisse's Fauve masterpiece Femme au Chapeau or the colorful mask-like portraits of the Russian Expressionist painter Alexej von Jawlensky. Yet, while the Fauves were concerned with unpicking the representational nature of color in painting, Basquiat was more concerned with the influence of color in defining the structure of his paintings. In the same way that the present work is carefully constructed in compositional terms, his use of color as part of the structure is as important. As Marc Mayer notes, "With direct and theatrically ham-fisted brushwork, he used unmixed color structurally, like a seasoned abstractionist, but in the service of a figurative and narrative agenda. Basquiat deployed his color architecturally, at times like so much tinted mortar to bind a composition, at other times like opaque plaster to embody it. Color holds his pictures together, and through it they command a room" (M. Mayer, ibid., p. 46).
This noble portrait shows Basquiat at the zenith of his creative powers. In terms of its construction, his eye-popping use of color and the quiet dignity of its subject, Pre-Agrav is one of the artist's most distinguished paintings. Within the confines of this large canvas, the artist's graphic abilities are evident; expansive passages of color combine with simple lines and result in a work that renders its subject in an economical, yet energized way. Basquiat draws together a symphony of visual devices to produce a work that packs both a physical and a metaphorical punch and, which demonstrates an artistic maturity that was way beyond his years, as this work was painted when he was still remarkably only 24 years old.
Acrylic on canvas
Property of a Distinguished Collector
Signed, titled and dated 'Jean-Michel Basquiat 1984 "PRE-AGRAV"' (on the reverse)
Jean-Michel Basquiat , 20th Century, Paintings, United States of America, Contemporary
Stanford, Cantor Center for Visual Arts, January 2006-June 2008 (on loan).
Ithaca, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, July 2008-March 2009 (on loan).
Brunswick, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Face Forward, April-September 2009.
Brunswick, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Basquiat/Warhol, January-April 2010.
Brunswick, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Contemporary Masters, June 2010-August 2011.
Brunswick, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Motion and Emotion: Contemporary Art from Gerhard Richter to Chakaia Booker, January 2012-June 2012.
Brunswick, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Unity and Fragmentation: Selections from the Permanent Collection, March 2013-June 2013.
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
65¾ x 59 7/8 in. (167 x 149.8 cm.)
R.D. Marshall and J.L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, vol. II, pp. 132-133, no. 3 (illustrated in color).
Galerie Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, vol. II, pp. 216-217, no. 3 (illustrated in color).
Galerie Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2010, Appendix, p. 37.
D. Kany, "Good and plenty: Warhol's Polaroids at Bowdoin," Portland Press Herald, 21 February 2010, p. D6.
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, London, 7 February 2001, lot 53
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner