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


Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
signed, titled and dated '"SAXAPHONE" Jean-Michel 86' (on the reverse)
acrylic and oilstick on canvas
66 x 60 in. (167.6 x 152.4 cm.)
Painted in 1986.
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg
Private collection, Brussels
Anon. sale; Christie's, London, 24 June 1993, lot 103
Private collection, New York
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 19 November 1997, lot 55
Private collection, Hong Kong
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, London, 26 June 2012, lot 20
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Galerie Enrico Navarra, et al., Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, pp. 242-243, no. 8 (illustrated in color).
Arte Americana, ultimo decennio, exh. cat., Ravenna, Loggetta Lombardesca, 2000, p. 11 (illustrated).
D. Elger and U. Krempel, Sprengel Museum Hannover, Malerei und Plastik: Bestandsverzeichnis, v. II, Hannover, 2003, p. 56, no. 123 (illustrated).
Salzburg, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bilder 1984-86, July-August 1986, p. 23 (illustrated in color).
Hannover, Sprengel Museum, June 2001 - April 2012 (on loan).
This Lot is Withdrawn.


In 1981, Basquiat named his industrial sound band, Gray, after Gray’s Anatomy, an important reference source for his later paintings and the perfect name to capture the haunting, machine-like, ambient music the band wrote and performed. In the catalogue for the artist’s 1991 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Robert Farris Thompson, professor of Anthropology at Yale University, wrote this about Gray, “They worked the Mudd Club, CBGB’s, and Hurrah’s in New York, where Blondie and the Talking Heads were at that time emerging. They performed, in other words, at the epicenter of New Wave. Here they contended for space and recognition with a style that, in Basquiat’s own words, was ‘incomplete, abrasive, and oddly beautiful’” (R. Farris, Jean Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, 1991). Performing and experiencing music were a fundamental component to Basquiat’s artistic practice from the very beginning of his career and are brilliantly rendered in the present painting, appropriately titled Saxaphone. Firmly established at twenty-six as the brightest light of Neo-Expressionism, Saxaphone crucially evinces the artist’s discovery of fresh symbolism and thematic content via an astounding intermingling of graffiti, abstract expressionist and popular imagery.

Saxaphone immortalizes Basquiat’s veneration of legendary jazz saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker. The painting stands among Basquiat’s most iconic ‘musical’ works, including Charles the First, 1982, and Horn Players, 1983, which rejoice in “the innovative power of black male jazz musicians, whom he reveres as creative father figures” (B. Hooks, ‘Altars of Sacrifice: Re-membering Basquiat,’ in Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, New York 1994, p. 35).  The figures and heads are composed in a variety of twisting and turning positions, some with their mouths open, indicating a celebration of dance and movement, further echoed by the brightly colored palette and tight composition. A single golden saxophone emerges from the left side of the canvas releasing a myriad of text and symbols, which characterize Basquiat’s greatest pictures.

Basquiat portrayed images of black men he admired (musicians, boxers, athletes) in his works, seeing them both as heroes and inspiration. He features the physical appearance of music by listing body parts he associates with listening, dancing and singing; ear, feet, larynx and teeth as well as the gestures of dance through arms and legs. There is a musical pattern to the work; the heads are arranged in an up-and-down pattern, and words are scattered throughout the canvas.

Emerging from within the South Bronx’s Hip-Hop culture, Basquiat’s own Haitian and Puerto Rican descent echoed the vibrancy of New York’s Afro-Hispanic scene, whose cosmopolitanism provided a template for the integration of street art, pop culture, abstract and neo-expressionism. As Lydia Yee has noted of Basquiat, “Like DJ, he adeptly reworked Neo-Expressionism’s clichéd language of gesture, freedom, and angst and redirected Pop art’s strategy of appropriation to produce a body of work that at times celebrated black culture and history but also revealed its complexity and contradictions” (L. Yee, “Breaking and Entering,” One Planet under a Groove: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art, exh. cat., Bronx Museum of the Arts, 2001, p. 18).

Saxaphone teems with the frenetic energy of the buzzing metropolis of the graffiti scene of New York City in the 1980s while simultaneously recalling the archetypes of 20th century New York action painting and the vibrant cultural downtown scene of the 1950s. The painting celebrates Basquiat as a true colorist, with his saturated swathes of purple, gold and yellow in a manner that rivaled Franz Kline’s celebrated colored paintings. Like Kline, Basquiat took pleasure in the textural possibilities of paint manifested in the drippy and graffiti-inspired falling vertical lines. Undeniably indebted to Cy Twombly in this respect, Basquiat carries forth the legacy of pursuing erudite and painterly content, executed with the refreshing authenticity of the drawn line. Full of repetition and visual punctuations, Saxaphone utilizes the symbols and visual references of jazz while at the same time deploying those references as though to recreate music itself. Overall, the painting has the sense of rhythms emerging and then fading away, emerging again and recombining as though demonstrating the improvisation of jazz. Basquiat himself stated: “Since I was seventeen, I thought I might be a star. I’d think about all my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix…I had a romantic feeling of how people had become famous” (as told to Cathleen McGuigan, New York Times Magazine, 1985).

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