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Jean-Michel Basquiat

signed and dated 'Jean-Michel Basquiat 1982' (on the reverse)
acrylic, oilstick and spray paint on wood panel
72 x 48 in. (183 x 122 cm.)
painted in 1982.

HONG KONG – On 23 March, Christie's will offer Jean-Michel Basquiat's Warrior (estimated at HK$240,000,000-320,000,000/ US$31,000,000-41,000,000), in a live and livestreamed, single-lot evening sale titled We Are All Warriors – The Basquiat Auction, to be held in Hong Kong in conjunction with Christie’s London sale week.
This masterpiece is poised to be the most expensive Western artwork ever offered in Asia.

Painted in 1982, Warrior depicts a standing black figure with a sword and a halo or crown of thorns. The painting is packed with color and energy, and the image of the warrior has deep art historical resonance. Let’s take an in-depth look to discover more.
Painted in 1982, Warrior depicts a standing black figure with a sword and a halo or crown of thorns. The painting is packed with color and energy, and the image of the warrior has deep art historical resonance. Let’s take an in-depth look to discover more.

Abstract Color

At first glance, we see a number of motifs and technical characteristics that reoccur in Basquiat’s artwork. Formally, the figure is centered in the composition, frontal and flat, and floating on a plane of broad patches of color. This type of ungrounded frontal depiction is typical of Basquiat’s most famous paintings, and it was pioneered in the 1940s and 50s by Willem de Kooning and Jean Dubuffet, artists whom Basquiat admired. De Kooning’s Woman paintings exist unmoored in space, on bright, energetic backgrounds, similar to Warrior.
Willem de Kooning, Woman I, 1950–1952. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Artwork: © 2021 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Anatomical Details

Basquiat’s depiction of the figure is grounded in anatomy, and a look at the figure’s torso and upper legs reveals suggestions of internal organs. While the upper body is rendered with a flat, one dimensional depiction of ribs, the lower torso and upper legs, with their circular underdrawings, produce a sense of the lower body’s anatomical roundness and the cylindrical nature of the limbs.

Layered Surfaces

Basquiat’s technique consisted of painting and repainting his human figures, in order to achieve a layered and complex surface. His images developed in the process, and he would sometimes change a painting’s subject in the act of its creation.

Mixed Materials

In preparing and executing Warrior, Basquiat used a variety of commercial paints and implements, such as brushes, spray paint, and oil sticks. A close look at the Warrior’s leg reveals many layers and a significant amount of underpainting.

Developing Depth

The first and farthest layer down is the white priming on the panel. Basquiat drew extensively on the white priming with a reddish-brown oil stick. This oil stick layer is almost completely overpainted by the broad areas of cream and blue acrylic paint. Basquiat then applied black oil stick, as well as spray paint, to render the anatomical outline of the leg and foot. The spray paint is distinctive, with its thick line and shiny appearance, on the outer edge of the leg.

Basquiat was an excellent colorist, and he adds highlights of green oil stick, as well as a rose colored acrylic, to further develop the depth and layering of the foot.

Bold Features

The face is one of the painting’s most striking features. The frightening, mask-like head has two fiery eyes, an ear, and a ferocious, crudely drawn mouth. Unlike the foot, all underdrawing and hints of the face’s development have been overpainted. It is a flat, black mass, made of thickly applied black oil stick, with white oil stick used for the facial features. The hair is rendered with the same green oil stick that we saw on the foot.

Mask-like Faces

Richard Marshall wrote that Basquiat’s mask-like visages “signal his obsession with mortality.” Indeed the warrior’s face seems to draw on ceremonial African masks, as well as to the mask-like faces of Picasso’s proto-cubist paintings.
Pablo Picasso, Musketeer with Sword, 1972 Artwork: © 2021 Estate of PabloPicasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The Heroic Figure

While many of Basquiat’s paintings from the early 1980s depict cars, buildings, police, and children’s sidewalk games - in other words, the urban environment - Warrior exists in a different realm. The character is legendary, heroic, and seems to emerge from art history rather than downtown New York.

A Hero's Halo

The halo or crown of thorns that surrounds the warrior’s head signifies he is a hero. Basquiat reserved this motif for his modern day saints and martyrs. It harkens back to Christian iconography, and is present in many of Basquiat’s most iconic paintings, such as Arroz con Pollo and Acque Pericolose (Poison Oasis).

Hidden Symbols

To the right of the head, we see a ladder. This is the only symbol in the painting. Basquiat drew ladders in many of his artworks, and they can be seen as symbolic of upward and downward mobility. Symbolism aside, the ladder hints at the painting’s possible setting. Cy Twombly and Willem de Kooning would often paint a door or window in an otherwise abstract composition, giving the viewer the smallest visual reference to ground the picture. Basquiat is presumably doing the same here, or else filling empty space with a symbol that he often utilized.

A Silver Sword

The sword, in particular, sets Warrior apart, and is rendered with virtuosity. Two continuous silver brush strokes complete the sharpened edges, and radiant red highlights around the tip of the sword seem to shimmer with movement. Unlike the other areas we’ve seen, Basquiat only needed one attempt to draw the sword, and he didn’t rework it.

Tribute to History

Basquiat’s depiction of an armed warrior has a deep resonance in art history. The halo motif recalls the iconography of Christian saints, in particular Saint George, who is typically shown slaying the dragon, and Saint Maurice, who is often depicted as a black African in knight’s armor. Historically Saint Maurice was known as a Roman soldier of Egyptian heritage and the commander of Theban Legion.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, St. Maurice, 1520-25. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Cross-Cultural References

The most apparent inspiration for Warrior is in African art, in particular the Benin Bronzes. These Benin plaques depict warrior figures in almost identical poses to the figure seen here. Their large eyes, out-stretched arms, and weapons bear a distinct resemblance to Basquiat’s painting.

Plaque: Warrior and Attendants, Edo peoples, 16th–17th century. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In the end, it’s clear that Warrior is the personification of a warrior spirit. The armed figure is a protector, warding off evil. This heroic spirit fit squarely into the pantheon of Basquiat’s heroes, and can be regarded as a holy guardian.
Auction Details
We Are All Warriors: The Basquiat Auction
Hong Kong, 23 March 2021, 10pm HKT
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