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

JD Card

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
JD Card
signed, titled and dated ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat JD Card Sept. 1984’ (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
86 x 67 7/8 in. (218.4 x 172.4 cm.)
Painted in 1984.
Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zürich
Private collection, Paris
Private collection
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2013
Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Zürich, Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, 1985, n.p., pl. 5 (illustrated in color).
M. Enrici, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1989, p. 117 (illustrated in color).
R.D. Marshall and J.L. Prat, eds., Jean-Michel Basquiat, vol. I, Paris, 1996, p. 220 (illustrated in color).
E. Navarra, J.L. Prat, et al., Jean-Michel Basquiat, vol. II, Paris, 2000, p. 212, no. 4 (illustrated in color).
Basquiat a Cuneo, exh. cat., Cuneo, Galleria d'Arte: Il Prisma, 2001, p. 41 (illustrated).
Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Mexico City, Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, 2004, p. 61 (illustrated).
E. Navarra et al., Jean-Michel Basquiat: Appendix, Paris, 2010, p. 37.
Venice, Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Basquiat a Venezia, June-November 1999, pp. 96-97 (illustrated in color).
Milan, Fondazione La Triennale di Milano, The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show, September 2006-January 2007, pp. 266-267, no. 132 (illustrated in color).
Geneva, Opera Gallery, Warhol Basquiat: An American Legacy, November-December 2011, pp. 44-45 (illustrated in color).
Hong Kong, Gagosian Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, May-August 2013.


Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis


Orchestrated with the virtuosic flair of a poet, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s JD Card offers a dizzying cryptogram of numbers, words and images. Rendered in red and black upon a white background, the work confronts the viewer like a hieroglyphic puzzle: a flash of semantic suggestion suspended against the void. Executed in 1984, at the height of the artist’s celebrity, it demonstrates the oblique wordplay and stripped-down juxtaposition of symbols that came to define his practice after the wild painterly explosions of 1981-82. The suited penguin—a recurrent motif, derived from a frozen food label—dominates the composition like a ringmaster. Around him, words and images shift in and out of sync: coal, a rake, an axe, a jail cell, an electric wire, cigarettes, a lightbulb and Basquiat’s signature skull. Though “JD” remains unidentified, the profusion of crossed-out words suggests a link with the philosopher Jacques Derrida, whose semiotic theories came to resonate with much of Basquiat’s textual play during this period. Simultaneously cerebral and intuitive, it captures the raw, alchemical magic of the artist’s visual imagination: an elegant conundrum without a solution.
Throughout his career, Basquiat ruthlessly mined his surroundings for linguistic and pictorial inspiration, looking to textbooks, advertisements, TV cartoons, literature and graffiti. During the mid-1980s, his compositions became increasingly poised and abstract in character, with text taking on a newly dominant role. Various commentators have drawn attention to Basquiat’s engagement with Derrida’s notion of sous rature, or “under erasure”, developed from Heidegger, which referred to striking through words whilst allowing them to remain legible. For Derrida, it signified that a word was fundamentally inadequate but remained the best option within the limited constraints of our language. This idea would become something of a leitmotif for Basquiat: “I cross out words so you will see them more,” he explained, “the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them” (J-M. Basquiat, quoted in Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gemälde und Arbeiten auf Papier, exh. cat., Museum Würth, Künzelsau, 2001, p. 54). This treatment similarly invites comparison with Pablo Picasso’s Cubist collages—an important influence—in which obscured fragments of text simultaneously amplify and negate their own meaning. 

On a more personal level, perhaps, the initials “JD” might be interpreted as a reference to Jeffrey Deitch: the celebrated American curator and dealer who was an important champion of Basquiat’s work. He had been the first writer to review the young artist’s practice during its heady early days, and would ultimately deliver the eulogy at his funeral in 1987. In 1984, the year of the present work, Deitch curated a group exhibition at P.S.1 entitled The New Portrait, showing Basquiat’s creations alongside portraits of him by Andy Warhol. Though the two artists had become friends during this period—embarking upon an extraordinary series of collaborations—Deitch’s celebration of their relationship offered vital historical context for the younger artist. Indeed, the cool compositional clarity of the present work, along with its stripped-back palette and quotidian motifs, takes on new meaning in light of Basquiat’s Pop Art ancestry. The penguin, so cleanly cropped from the world of commercial mass-produced foods, flickers with the ghosts of the Coca Cola bottles and other logos co-opted by his 1960s forebears.

Aside from his relationship with Warhol, 1984 was a critical year for Basquiat. Following the whirlwind success of the decade’s early years, he began to consolidate his position, mounting his first solo museum exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, and striking up new relationships with prominent dealers. Recalling Basquiat’s debut exhibition at Mary Boone’s New York gallery that May, Jeff Bretschneider describes how “Jean had moved into blue-chip status. Andy was standing in the entrance of the gallery, and he stood there the entire length of the show. It was a barometer to where Jean was in the art world … It was like the Day of the Locusts, with people pushing up against this velvet rope that separated Jean-Michel from the thronging mass” (J. Bretschneider, quoted in P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, New York 1998, p. 236). Perhaps the present work captures something of this newfound self-assurance: gone are the frantic painterly effusions of his youth, replaced by a vision of bold, distilled rigor. A nod to Kazimir Malevich, in the form of both red and black squares, seems to drive the point home.

Despite its seemingly impenetrable web of imagery, JD Card retains something of the raw, self-reflexive quality that defined Basquiat’s earlier output. As he took his first steps into the art world, his practice had been dominated by ciphers for his own creative persona: from messianic figures, sporting the artist’s signature crown, to singular heads surrounded by whirring electrical currents. The present work’s use of the skull offers a brief acknowledgement of this motif, now subsumed within a wider tapestry of symbols and ideas. The penguin, clad in top hat and black tie, also seems tinged with a sense of self-awareness: Basquiat himself cut a dapper silhouette in his paint-spattered Armani suits, and would be pictured in such an outfit—barefoot, nonetheless—on the cover of The New York Times Magazine the following year. Here, the figure hovers like a prophet—a mysterious master of ceremonies in a world powered by coal, rakes and tobacco. Addressed to an unknown mentor, it is a work of subtle whimsy and bravado, alive with the intellectual and poetic flair of an artist at the height of his powers. 

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