<strong>“TO REPEL GHOSTS”</strong><br />Jean-Michel Basquiat’s <em>Self Portrait</em>, 1983<br /><br />By Fred Hoffman, PhD <br /><br />Fred Hoffman, PhD, worked closely with Jean-Michel Basquiat during the artist's residency in Venice, California in the early 1980s. He has written extensively on Basquiat’s practice, most recently authoring <em>The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat</em>, published in 2017.<br /><br /><strong>Introduction</strong><br /><br />As one of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s most compelling depictions of himself, <em>Self Portrait</em>, 1983<em> </em>presents a metaphysical subject on two related panels. The full-length representation of the artist is juxtaposed with an adjacent panel portraying both his personal incantation, “To Repel Ghosts”, and his characterization of the passage from the material to the eternal. <em>Self Portrait</em> is unique, having been executed on two found doors, one which also includes an attached plywood panel. This singular painting was executed in Venice, California sometime in 1983 at New City Editions, the print studio where Basquiat produced his now acclaimed silkscreen works, <em>Tuxedo</em>, 1983, <em>Untitled</em>,<em> </em>1983 and <em>Back of the Neck</em>, 1983. The creation of this painting is recorded in filmmaker Tamra Davis’ acclaimed documentary, <em>The Radiant Child</em>, possibly the only extant film documentation of Basquiat working on a painting. <br /><br />As conveyed to the author by Tamra Davis, after having completed the work, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Tamra Davis moved the work to the studio of Matt Dike in West Hollywood. The work is also documented in Tamra Davis’ 1988 promotional video for Matt Dike’s record label Delicious Vinyl, in which Matt Dike and his business partner Mike Ross are filmed sitting on a couch with <em>Self Portrait </em>in the background. <br /><br />Matt Dike first met Jean-Michel Basquiat at a party at New York University in the late 1970s. In 1982 Matt Dike was the 21-year-old gallery assistant at Gagosian Gallery in West Hollywood. His interest in both art and music led to his friendship with Tamra Davis, then the young gallery assistant at Ulrike Kantor Gallery also in West Hollywood. When Larry Gagosian invited Jean-Michel Basquiat to live and work in his new Venice residence, Larry suggested to Matt and Tamra that they get together with Jean-Michel, knowing that the young artist would enjoy hanging out with two people of his own generation. Both of them quickly bonded with Basquiat, spending time with him in his new studio, equally exploring and having fun around Los Angeles. <br /><br />Dike soon became Basquiat’s go-to assistant in his studio. As documented in recently discovered photos taken by Brian Williams in early 1983, Dike worked closely with Basquiat as he prepared for his April exhibition at Gagosian Gallery. Later that year, when Basquiat moved into his own studio, also on Market Street in Venice, Dike was part of the crew who assisted the artist with the production of his silkscreen-based paintings. This is documented in the wonderful photo taken in the Venice studio of Dike standing alongside one of the 1984 silkscreen paintings in progress. While Dike played an important role in Basquiat’s Venice studio production, the young painter equally found his way into Dike’s music world, regularly hanging out and spinning records with the soon to become hip hop record producer at the club Power Tools located in Central Los Angeles.<br /><br /><strong>On Basquiat’s Self Portraiture<br /></strong><br /><em>Self Portrait</em> is one of the most compelling portraits Basquiat rendered. In its scale, it is rivaled by only one work, Basquiat’s heroic depiction of himself as a full-length black man, his left hand holding at arrow in a gesture of pride and dignity set against a background of abstract passages of paint, intermixed with marginal references to the urban milieu. First exhibited in the artist’s debut one-person exhibition in New York, the work announced Basquiat as a new and authoritative voice in the contemporary art world. Painted approximately one year later, <em>Self Portrait</em> is significantly different. It is the first, and retrospectively, the most important self-portrait presented as a multi-part structure. Here the artist’s self-image is countered by a compendium panel conveying insight into not only how the artist viewed himself, but also his larger “world view”. While Basquiat would explore a formal structure of dichotomy in other self-portraits, such as the 1985 two-part painting in which the head-torso image of the artist is juxtaposed with a second panel comprised of six vertical rows of bottle caps adhered to a wooden panel, <em>Self Portrait</em> is still the largest and most complex multi-faceted self-portrait in the artist’s oeuvre. <br /><br />Basquiat’s rendering of his head in <em>Self Portrait</em> is consistent with many of the artist’s other self-portraits, such as <em>Untitled (1960)</em>, 1983, a work that the artist retained for his personal collection and which is documented in Tseng Kwong Chi’s memorable 1987 photograph of Basquiat crouched on a box in front of a grouping of paintings including a portrait of the artist by Andy Warhol. Another example is the rendering of the head in the 1985 painting/construction <em>Untitled</em>. What most of Basquiat’s self-portraits share is the generalized manner in which the artist has captured his own key facial features such as the eyes and mouth. In the Venice self-portrait, the rendering of his eyes is especially haunting. Painted in a cool grey-white, Basquiat’s eyes block interior penetration, almost functioning as the exterior-directed glow of a machine whose rays pulsate out into the realm of the viewer. The somewhat harsh, clearly confrontational effect of these eyes, which is only enhanced by similar treatment of the mouth, is made even more haunting as they are now part of a full-length figure depicted on an object conveying the reality of our daily-lived experience.<br /><br />Separating itself from almost all other self-portraits is Basquiat’s treatment of the figure’s chest as well as the lower portion of his figure. He has outlined portions of the ribs as well as a small segment of the spinal column in the same grey-white pigment. Basquiat has essentially X-rayed himself, revealing his internal channel of energy. While the chest cavity is more or less an accurate representation of this portion of the human anatomy, the suggestion of skin and muscle encasing both arms is not apparent; these limbs having been reduced down to the bone. Setting this figure even further apart from his other self-portraits is the artist’s treatment of his lower limbs and pelvic region. Again, portraying what is beneath both skin and muscle, Basquiat has depicted his right hip/pelvic bone in profile, as well as his extended, fully exposed femur bone. This treatment of the figure’s lower extremities reminds us of the artist’s continued fascination with both <em>Gray’s Anatomy</em> and the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. Equally relevant is what Basquiat has not included: both his fibula and tibia bones and any suggestion of the foot. Further distinguishing this figure, the artist has left a virtual void in the place where we would expect to find the lower left portions of his anatomy. In place of the lower left region Basquiat has painted a red linear-shaped form, presumably his means of depicting the passage of vitally circulating blood from his heart to the region of his lower limbs. Basquiat’s inclusion of a bloodline leaves no mistake that the figure depicted is a fully functioning human being.<br /><br /><strong>“To Repel Ghosts”<br /></strong><br />What makes <em>Self Portrait</em> most unique in Basquiat’s oeuvre is the artist’s juxtaposition of an image of himself with the second panel full of symbolic imagery conveying both a personal narrative and larger world-view. In the lower portion of the second door, Basquiat collaged two original graphite and ink drawings. The drawing to the left presents an array of text references to our lives and our world, including SODIUM WATER COPPER, PINE TREE, SILVER, MEXICO, INFORMATION, BILLION QUALITY AND MOOSE. The second accompanying drawing is unique in Basquiat’s oeuvre: a dense, seemingly non-directional map, a frenetic linear cacophony of lines suggesting movement through a maze executed in the unusual medium of a rolling ballpoint pen. Together these two works on paper collaged onto the picture support literally “ground” the work, capturing aspects of how we navigate, what we uncover and what we experience. Immediately above these two images, Basquiat has layered abstract passages of bright, colorful paint. We know that this portion of the work is in fact the result of multiple paint applications from the evidence provided in the film <em>The Radiant Child</em>, in which Davis captures Basquiat laying down an initial layer of both text and imagery in this section of the composition. As the film footage shows, he began this part of his work with the letters NIT below which he seems to have repeated the same letters and then partially painted them out. To the immediate right he possibly wrote the word (or name) DOGEN, having made this reference unclear by the painting over of the D. <br /><br />More revealing, directly below, Basquiat began to depict a human head with the outline of two large, almond shaped eyes. In the final painting, what remains from these initial pictorial actions are two haunting eyes peering through a rich passage of colorful green, red, orange and brown layers of paint. These pentimenti deliver Basquiat’s intended result of portraying the haunting presence of a personage coming forth from a distant place, another world. They remind us of other examples of Basquiat integration of imagery from the underpainting into a “final” image. Interestingly, in another example of this pictorial strategy, <em>Masonic Lodge</em>, painted around the same time as <em>Self Portrait</em>, a number of ghost-like human heads emerge out of the background and into the viewer’s realm. <br /><br />But Basquiat does not stop with these subtle and mysterious references to another reality. Partially covered over by his rich pictorial paint application, yet equally legible, the artist has painted the words TO REPEL GHOSTS ©”. This is Basquiat’s earliest reference to this phrase, which he would later repeat in a select few other works, and which has become synonymous with Basquiat’s declaration of his own identity. Positioned halfway between his drawings of a map, a mixed assortment of material references, and the top portion of the work, an additional wooden panel with the images of spaceships, a ladder and forms suggestive of natural vegetation (possibly tree branches), Basquiat’s incantation functions as a declaration of a rite of passage. The ever insightful and masterful Basquiat enhances this conclusion with the subtle addition of a thin red vertical line starting below one of the two collaged drawings, passing both through and across the central passages of paint and running up to, and virtually touching his assorted symbolic references to transcendence. <br /><br /><strong>The Artist’s Ascendance<br /></strong><br />The imagery depicted on this attached upper wood panel is Basquiat’s means of declaring ascent, not merely something physical (the spaceships), but something psycho-spiritual—a transcendence, a liberation from the confines of one’s worldly experience. This was a central theme for the artist, something that he explored throughout his short career as a painter. In this light the artist’s usage of two doors as his picture support must be viewed as much more than the act of bringing the outside world into the studio. While Basquiat’s act may be considered a new contribution to a postwar artistic practice (in the lineage with Rauschenberg’s <em>Bed</em>), it is much more. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s presentation of his monumental self portrait on two found doors reveals a highly considered and insightful understanding that the doors themselves signify the portal between these two realms of experience.<br /><br />Jean-Michel Basquiat integrated the subject of transcendence into many of his most important artistic contributions. It underlies works as diverse as <em>Untitled</em>, 1981, Broad Collection, <em>Notary</em>, 1983, Schorr Collection, <em>Tuxedo</em>, 1983, and <em>Pegassus</em>, 1987. In each of these works Basquiat alludes to the transformative experience—a rite of passage from the transitory nature of phenomenal experience to the realization of a more fundamental state of being. <br /><br />Throughout Basquiat’s short career, he continually sought out new means of capturing this dichotomy, the duality of FLESH AND SPIRIT, the play between GOD AND LAW. In <em>Self Portrait</em> Basquiat captures this same expression in different ways. For one, he juxtaposes a full-length portrait of himself with a second panel that essentially serves as a “roadmap” from earth to heaven. Equally notable, and in many ways separating itself from Basquiat’s other depictions of the dichotomy of FLESH AND SPIRIT, the right half of <em>Self Portrait</em> declares that this rite of passage “moves” from our comings and goings in the material world into an encounter with our demons, our ghosts—those forces that continually weigh on us and limit recognition of a truer sense of self. This right panel of <em>Self Portrait</em> was for Basquiat a Rosetta Stone, his means of capturing the stages of life, the path toward liberation. <br /><br />Not unlike Dante’s Divine Comedy, a text which Basquiat must have considered (as it clearly underlies portions of <em>Untitled</em>, 1984-1987, a work also depicted in the background of the previously referred to Tseng Kwong Chi photo of Basquiat in his studio), the artist’s declaration TO REPEL GHOSTS was his means of expressing a decent into hell. Like Dante, <em>Self Portrait</em> portrays a journey. That this is Basquiat’s journey is made explicit by his depiction of himself on one panel of the painting. The journey begins as a twisting passage through the muck of the here and now. Not only has the artist alluded to this in the two collaged drawings, but the fact that the picture support for this work is an object from our daily lived experience, gives additional credence to Basquiat’s subject. As the right panel continues to suggest, we are lead from the world of our observations to an encounter with our fears—those aspects of one’s life that are haunting and threatening. Only then, as Basquiat portrays, are we capable TO REPEL GHOSTS. Basquiat characterizes this passage as an ASCENT, a rite of passage from adversity to the recognition of a truer sense of self. Supporting this conclusion, in a later, 1985 painting Basquiat returns to this iconography, depicting a head/torso image in profile with the text AUTOPORTRAIT © beneath, above which he has written inside a diamond-shaped form the word HEAVEN ©.<br /><br />Jean-Michel Basquiat’s life was short, and his career as an artist only ten years. It is hard to understand how this young man could create the number of important contributions to 20th century art that he did. Even more impressive is Basquiat’s awareness and sophisticated interpretation of his world. He must have been aware of his unique gift long before he began his practice as an artist. By the time of his first one-person exhibition, the depth of his insight was apparent. His themes had profound meaning, were rendered with a mature artist’s recognition of traditions and techniques that had gone before him; Basquiat leapt forth with a totally new voice. Like the spiritual masters, Basquiat seemed to possess an understanding of fundamental truths.<br /><br />© Fred Hoffman/2019
oil, acrylic, oilstick, graphite and pen on paper collage on wood with metal attachments, in 2 parts
The work is in very good condition. The work is structurally sound. The collage elements to the right panel adhere well to their underlying support. There are scattered cracks and losses to the support of both panels which are inherent to the artist’s chosen materials and method of production. There are some scattered small paint losses to both panels, primarily noticeable on the left panel in the figure’s torso and arm at center right, consistent with the nature of the materials used. There are vertical hairline cracks and minor losses to the brown paint in the lower part of the right panel, consistent with the nature of the materials used and the age of the work. When examined under ultra-violet light there is no indication of inpainting.
<a href="mailto:email@example.com">Amanda Lo Iacono</a><br /> Head of Evening Sale<br /> New York<br /> +1 212 940 1278<br />
left panel 79 5/8 x 29 3/4 x 5 1/2 in. (202.2 x 75.6 x 14 cm.) right panel 96 3/4 x 34 x 2 in. (245.7 x 86.4 x 5.1 cm.)
Tamra Davis, “Jean‐Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child”, July 21, 2010, 1:30:23, 1:30:36, video (illustrated in progress)<br />Jessica Rew et. al., "Delicious Vinyl x Tamra Davis", July 27, 2017, 0:45, 1:08, 1:25, 1:36, 1:51, video (1988 footage illustrated with Matt Dike & Mike Ross)
Matt Dike (acquired directly from the artist)<br />Thence by descent to the present owner
<p>One of the most famous American artists of all time, Jean-Michel Basquiat first gained notoriety as a subversive graffiti-artist and street poet in the late 1970s. Operating under the pseudonym SAMO, he emblazoned the abandoned walls of the city with his unique blend of enigmatic symbols, icons and aphorisms. A voracious autodidact, by 1980, at 22-years of age, Basquiat began to direct his extraordinary talent towards painting and drawing. His powerful works brilliantly captured the <em>zeitgeist</em> of the 1980s New York underground scene and catapulted Basquiat on a dizzying meteoric ascent to international stardom that would only be put to a halt by his untimely death in 1988.</p><p>Basquiat's iconoclastic oeuvre revolves around the human figure. Exploiting the creative potential of free association and past experience, he created deeply personal, often autobiographical, images by drawing liberally from such disparate fields as urban street culture, music, poetry, Christian iconography, African-American and Aztec cultural histories and a broad range of art historical sources.</p>