JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT | Humidity, 1982 | acrylic, oilstick, and Xerox collage on canvas
Sold for $10,162,500 at the Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 15 November 2012, New York. [VIDEO]
During his early years in the public spotlight—from 1980 to 1982—Jean-Michel Basquiat’s progression as an artist was nuclear. His explorations into the subconscious imagery of the human psyche along with his integration of myriad cultural and anatomical tropes makes him one of the most recognized artists of the contemporary era. Throughout these years, we bear witness to a series of crowned figures living many lives: luminous, thorny, even cubic, and polygonal. Humidity, 1982, comes at the height of Basquiat’s unprecedented artistic revelations of the human condition. The painting yields limitless treasures of Basquiat’s generous spirit, and his sharp observations.
As a young graffiti artist in the late 1970s, Basquiat shared a partnership with his friend Al Diaz, establishing the phenomenon known as “SAMO”, named for their trademark tags on inner city buildings. Short for “same old shit”, SAMO as a form of satire. Many of their provocative anti-establishment messages addressed the sensitive issues of race, identity, and commercialism. Binding their biting ideas in eloquent poetry, SAMO managed to gain relative fame from their immense pictorial constructions, and Basquiat was apt to insert figures of his own making into their works, including early studies in bare, skeletal portrayals of the human body. Armed with a unique transition of expression, Basquiat soon disbanded SAMO in order to pursue his own projects.
While Basquiat has drawn from a multitude of art-historical sources, Humidity, 1982 makes certain allusions inevitable. Scholars are apt to describe the primitivism of post-Impressionists Paul Gaugin and Henri Rousseau as Basquiat’s historical precedents, their portrayals of “primitive” figures functioning as metaphors for essential states of the human psyche. Pablo Picasso furthered this theme, yet incorporated his signature cubist form, bringing a revolutionary stylistic element to the mask of primitivism. These early Twentieth Century painters were observant rather participatory; their masks were waystations for aesthetic experimentation. Raised in Brooklyn in a multicultural family, he mastered Spanish, French, and English during his childhood, carrying the imprint of a diverse ethnic background into his blossoming career. Yet the ecclesiastical aspects of Humidity, including the soon-to-be-discussed crown of thorns and halo figures, invite associations with an even older phase of art history, where the sole portraits were those of religious figures, blessed by the hand of God.
This intense scrutiny is clearly at work in Humidity, 1982. While the work is exceptional within Basquiat’s canon for its balance of color, “one exceptional feature of Basquiat’s use of color is the baffling fact that he had no signature palette to speak of; nor, for that matter, was he prone to repeating particular combinations, so curious he was to try new relationships.” (M. Mayer, “Basquiat in History”, Basquiat, Edited by M. Mayer, New York, 2005, p. 47) Indeed, though the chromatic battle in Humidity, 1982, seems to be clash of black, red, and yellow hues, it shares more than a passing resemblance to Picasso’s, Le Sauvetage, 1932. Picasso shares much of his chromatic schemes with the present lot as well as vivid evocations of a charged scene. While Picasso shows the rescue of a swimmer in trouble at a summer beach, Basquiat present a more revelatory rescue of the soul.
It has been suggested that the central figure in Humidity, 1982, illustrates Basquiat’s friend and most influential mentor – Andy Warhol. The fright-wig, highlighted with bold white oilstick, is perhaps the most telling sign as it mirrors the famed friseur of the legendary teacher to Basquiat. It has also been suggested that the dynamic and joyful figure to the right is actually the portrait of Swiss dealer Bruno Bischofberger. As their gallerist, Bischofberger had championed both Warhol and Basquiat’s careers and nurtured the artistic collaborations between the two. While Warhol and Basquiat’s collaborations would come after the creation of the present lot, Humidity, 1982, becomes a distinctive homage to Warhol and Bischofberger, two men who had greatly influenced the young Basquiat. The halos, which grace both protagonists, are a trait witnessed in many of Basquiat’s portraits, depicting both himself and others, and infuse the painting with the religious iconicity that has defined Basquiat’s celebrated oeuvre. The formal composition of the present lot takes on the quality of an illumination, with the figure occupying the central ground, it mirrors that of a religious depiction of a patron saint; here, the patron saint to the young artist was Andy Warhol. Here, both men extend their arms toward the celestial sphere while Warhol appears to conduct the vibrant aura of colors that dance around the canvas. Through the figuration of the present lot, we are granted a framed portrait of three of the most influential players in the 1980s and even thereafter: Warhol depicted in the center, Bishofberger to the right, and Basquiat himself in the vigorous and bountiful brushstrokes throughout the expansive surface.