Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

Early Moses

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Early Moses
signed titled and dated 'Jean-Michel "Early Moses" 1983' (on the reverse)
acrylic and oil crayon on canvas
78 x 55 ½ in. (198 x 141 cm.)
Painted in 1983.
Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
Private collection, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Hanover, Kestner-Gesellschaft, 1986, pp. 66-67, no. 20 (illustrated in color).
Galerie Enrico Navarra, ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, pp. 180-181, no. 5 (illustrated in color).
Rome, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Arte di Frontiera: N.Y. Graffiti, September-October 1984, pp. 63 and 131, no. 2 (illustrated in color).
Hanover, Kestner-Gesellschaft, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Das zeichnerische werk, September-October 1989, p. 67.
Lyon, 2ème Biennale d’art Contemporain, Et tous ils changent le monde, September-October 1993, pp. 263 and 275 (illustrated in color).
Trieste, Civico Museo Revoltella, Basquiat, May-September 1999, p. 63 (illustrated in color).
Museo d'Arte Moderna Lugano, Jean-Michel Basquiat, March-June 2005, pp. 48, 51 and 160, no. 21 (illustrated in color).
This Lot is Withdrawn.


Early Moses is a vibrant example of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ability to converge personal, historical, and urban symbols into a commanding canvas of expressive color and painterly energy. In 1983, the year of the present work, the artist was at the height of his career, busy creating some of the most crucial works of his oeuvre. Having risen from street artist to artistic “wunderkind,” he was skillfully combining the raw energy of his graffiti past with a new compositional expertise. The intuitive, calligraphic style that had become the hallmark of his mature work can be seen here, juxtaposed with serious issues of identity, race, and history. The unique vision of Basquiat is exemplified by Early Moses in the unexpected union of traditional, modern, and street art.

Much has been written about Basquiat’s frequent use of body parts as signifiers in his work. When Basquiat was seven years old, he was hit by a car and had his spleen removed. His mother, Matilde, gave him Gray’s Anatomy when he was in the hospital, and it became a major source of imagery throughout his work. Indeed, his mother’s artist leanings were a major influence on the artist and he retained childhood memories of her drawing pictures from the Bible on napkins and always professed that his interest in art came from her. As such, many Basquiat paintings include references to body parts—ranging from teeth to skulls to hands to feet—usually carefully labeled like an anatomy book, although always with Basquiat’s unique creative spin.

The artist’s 1983 painting Early Moses makes powerful use of this central anatomical motif, while at the same time including other trademark Basquiat imagery. In this commanding canvas he repeatedly crosses out words (in this case “Moses”), and invokes puns, such as in his use of the word “heel” (the heel as a part of the foot and heel as in cad, which also appears in several other works; i.e. the artist’s Self-Portrait as Heel, 1982). Here, the disembodied diagram of the leg and foot is similar to that found in other important paintings of the same year such Dark Race Horse, Jesse Owens, an homage to one of his heroes, the Olympic runner Jesse Owens.

Basquiat, an omnivorous exploiter of a wide range of source materials—from the encyclopedia to the Bible and cartoons to Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketchbooks—also liked to cannibalize his own work. Early Moses appropriates text from his painting Moses and the Eypgtians which depicts a monolithic magenta-pink double tablet bearing more or less the same text as the leg depicted here. Not only is the name “Moses” repeated three or four times in both paintings, but Basquiat has also repurposed three key phrases: “Staff into Serpent Trick,” “Leprosey Trick,” and “Water into Blood,” although he has slightly altered them. “Leprosey Trick” (with the “e” in Leprosey crossed out) and “Water into Blood” from Moses and the Egyptians, in this painting become “Magic Leprosey” and “Magic Water into Blood.”

While the limb in Dark Race Horse, Jesse Owens makes perfect sense, after all Owens was a world-class athlete, its use in Early Moses is much more ambiguous. Basquiat has also added a second disembodied foot to the upper right hand corner of the canvas, labeling it “Heel,” and then riffed on that idea, by drawing the image of a the sole of a shoe below it. He has also indicated the size of the foot, “Nine” and turned the notion of Moses and the enemy forces of the Egyptians into a kind of fight slogan, “Egyptians vs. Moses;” in Moses and the Egyptians the words “Israelites” and “Egyptians” occupies the same lower left hand corner. The hawk-nosed profile to the right of the leg in Early Moses is also borrowed from Moses and The Egyptians, where it anchors the center of the canvas, dividing the double tablet; it is Basquiat’s profile of the Biblical prophet.

Basquiat was clearly fascinated by the story of Moses and the Egyptians—and its allusion to the freeing of an enslaved people. This canvas, more than most Basquiat’s pieces, is, except for the use of the leg and foot, relatively literal—rather than deliberately cryptic or suggestive. When Moses and Aaron went to the Pharoah to ask him to let the Israelites go, Aaron approached the Pharoah and threw down his staff, which was instantly transformed into a snake, hence the phrase “Staff into Serpent Trick.” But Pharoah’s magicians performed the same trick. Following God’s advice, the next day Moses and Aaron returned, and this time Aaron put his staff in the water, where it turned into blood, which gives us Basquiat’s “Magic Water Into Blood.” The Pharoah still refused to liberate the Israelites. So Aaron’s next move was to create a plague of frogs….and later flies and leprosy—indeed, the ten Biblical plagues. Ultimately—after God has “passed over” the land and spared the firstborn sons of the Israelites, (who have marked their doors with blood so he knows which homes to skip)—and the Red Sea has been parted—the Israelites escaped Egypt and become free men.

Although Early Moses is typical of Basquiat’s sophisticated work of the period, in which he employs endlessly surprising ways of meaningfully combining text and image, one can also think of this canvas as one that—perhaps unconsciously—merges symbols and narratives that belong to early Basquiat himself. In that sense Early Moses can be read, almost like a Rorschach test, as a reference to Basquiat’s own memories of childhood, when his mother taught him to heal himself through reading Gray’s Anatomy, and told him Bible stories which she illustrated on napkins.

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