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Jean-Michel Basquiat – Fuego Flores

October 2, 2009 Art, Contemporary No Comments

Up for bid at Sotheby’s October 16th, 2009 Contemporary Art Auction is another attractive piece from Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fuego Flores (Lot 153). It is an acrylic and oilstick on canvas, measuring 168cm by 152cm, executed in 1983.

Here is copy+paste of the catalogue notes:

Beating with raw visual power, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s sensational canvas Fuego Flores was executed at the very height of his brief and brilliant artistic existence. Created in just his twentythird year and perfectly exhibiting his already legendary repertoire of loaded iconography, painterly immediacy and stunning colouristic expressivity, this work is simply astounding in its authorial assuredness and charisma. Indeed, Fuego Flores is unrestrained by convention and stands as a concrete eulogy to a young and luminous spirit that breathed life back into the art of painting.

At the centre of the canvas a fiercely expressive stark black figure stares fixedly out of the picture plane, the tonal drama of its silhouette seizing our attention and launching out against the backdrop of beautifully mediated pastel hues. Surmounting the figure is a heavily delineated head that is exactly representative of Basquiat’s most powerful motif. Whether palpitating as selfportrait, rattling as vanitas skull, or overseeing as totemic symbol of the oppressed, the imagery of heads underpins his entire career. The daubed, scrawled and scratched example here is mystifying and intriguing with its simultaneous yet competing emotions of rage, sadness and  confusion. Its expression is testament to the psycho-somatic complexity that this young artistcould conjure so viscerally amidst his assault of mark-making.

Dominated by glaring cut-out eyes and a cavernous red mouth filled with dislocated peg teeth, the highly stylised physiognomy evokes both the primitive scribbles of a child and the elaborate iconographies of ancient cultures, especially African reliquary masks in the way it announces an almost spiritual, Shaman-like figure. These were seminal influences on Basquiat who, like his hero Picasso before him, assessed long-forgotten artistic traditions to interpret contemporary visual culture from a completely new perspective. Born to Haitian and Puerto Rican parents and growing up in the cultural crucible of Brooklyn, Basquiat was fascinated by his heritage and its artistic legacy. Furthermore, the tonal polarisation of the figure and head is reminiscent of x-rays and anatomical drawings of bone structures. This recalls Basquiat’s enthusiasm for anatomy that was sparked when his mother gave him a copy of the famous textbook Gray’s Anatomy when, as a seven-year-old, he was recovering from being hit by a car.

Sitting at the top of the composition, towards the left-hand side, is an area of text that is instantly recognizable as the idiosyncratic writing of Basquiat, the sometime poet and graffiti artist. Having worked under the alias and tag ‘SAMO’, an abbreviation for ‘Same Ol’ Shit’, Basquiat had forged his artistic self on the streets of Brooklyn, the alleys of Lower Manhattan and the vast urban tableaux offered up by the subway D train. Text, word-play and his unique poetry were paramount constituents to his street art, and his innovative and brilliant use of language adorns his most highly regarded paintings. Fuego Flores indicates the zeitgeist dialect of 1980s New York urban subculture, and also summates Basquiat’s groundbreaking questioning of established semiotic sign systems. In both lines of Basquiat’s text, “FLOWER FLOWERS, FLORES” and “FIRE – FIRE(S), FUEGO”, an English singular noun is followed by the English plural and a Spanish translation. With “fire” there are parentheses around the “s” of the plural version, because linguistically “fire” behaves both singularly and pluralistically: for example “there is a fire” and “there is fire”. Basquiat has chosen to translate the singular version of “fire” into “fuego”, rather than the plural “fuegos”, whereas “flowers” has been translated in the plural. This interrogation of language and its various interpretations lies at the absolute heart of Basquiat’s project to query and deconstruct conventional semiotic sign systems consisting of quotidian signifier and referent relationships.

In addition, the words “Fuego Flores” themselves are wonderfully alliterative and the phrase “Fire Flowers”, rich in connotation and imagistic metaphor, is exactly typical of Basquiat’s lyrically abstract use of language. However, as ever, Basquiat’s use of text works in concert with his use of iconography, colour and the sheer residue of physical technique to form a complete artwork. Thus immediately beneath the text are remnants of golden yellow and oranges flames poking out from behind serene layers of muted pastels that have been lathered over to dampen their burning pigments. The stark grid and overlaid red linear schema recall both road-markings and the curved symmetry of Nature, while the red, white and blue throughout the entire painting evokes the colour schemes of both the US and Haitian national flags. This schematic background with interlocking blocks of deep indigo, red, orange, yellow, pinks and whites is laid down with intense, gestural brushwork that evokes the abstract compositions of Cy Twombly, Willem de Kooning and the combines of Robert Rauschenberg.

There is no calm moment within the painting it is pure, raw, nervous energy with the background an extension of the psyche of the figure and, by implication, the artist himself. Basquiat often painted himself and the present work shares many of the attributes found in works openly designated as self-portraits. The concoction of imagery and graffiti implies a catalogue of sign and referent equations but, rather than some secret cipher Fuego Flores is ultimately a visceral celebration of vitality and this artist’s unrelenting creativity.

Link: Sotheby’s

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