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The Guilt of Gold Teeth

The Guilt of Gold Teeth
titled ‘“THE GUILT OF GOLD TEETH”’ (lower left); signed, inscribed and dated ‘MODENA / JEAN MICHEL BASQUIAT 1982’ (lower right); signed, titled, inscribed and dated again ‘"THE GUILT OF GOLD TEETH" Jean-Michel Basquiat 1982 MODENA" (on the reverse)
acrylic, spray paint and oilstick on canvas
94 ½ x 165 7/8 in. (240 x 421.3 cm.)
Executed in 1982.
Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zürich
Galerie Thomas, Munich
Private collection, Europe
Anon. sale; Sotheby’s, New York, 14 May 1998, lot 45
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
E. Navarra et al., Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. II, Paris, 2000, pp. 100-101, no. 3 (illustrated).
Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, 2006, p. 177, fig. 14 (illustrated).
K. Jones, A. Baraka and L. Jones, EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art, Durham, 2011, p. 292.
J. Saggese, Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art, New York, 2014, p. 56
J. Saggese, ed., The Jean-Michel Basquiat Reader, Oakland, 2021, p. 312.
Munich, A11 Art Forum Thomas; Darmstadt, Museum Mathildenhöhe and Moderna Galeriga Ljubljana, The Thomas Collection: Art of the 1980s, 1987-1991, p. 57 (illustrated).
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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis Head of Department


“Basquiat’s great strength is his ability to merge his absorption of imagery from the streets, the newspapers, and TV with the spiritualism of his Haitiain heritage, injecting both into a marvelously intuitive understanding of the language of modern painting.” Jeffrey Deitch

Painted in 1982, the seminal year of the artist’s career, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s The Guilt of Gold Teeth is an epic painting filled with the enigmatic words, signs and cyphers that occupy the very best examples of the artist’s work. In this particular example, Basquiat carefully balances color and form by combining shifting fields of rich pigment with spray painted graffiti to produce one of his most intriguing and dramatic canvases. With strong visual references to his Haitian heritage, this is one of a group of works that Basquiat painted during a momentous trip to Modena, Italy in 1982. It is also a prime example of what Jeffrey Deitch characterized as the artist’s “absorption of imagery,” his ability to bring together seemingly disparate images and techniques into one highly accomplished painting (J. Deitch, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Annina Nosei, Flash Art, 16 May 1982, p. 50). Held in the same private collection for a generation, The Guilt of Gold Teeth is a triumphal celebration of the formal and cultural resonance of Basquiat’s art, and his unique place within the twentieth century canon.

Measuring nearly fourteen-feet wide, and eight-feet tall, this is one of the largest paintings that Basquiat executed in this crucial year. On this monumental scale, the artist arranges painterly layers of personal experience, cultural recollection, and his life in New York City, to produce a bustling and intoxicating canvas. Against a painterly backdrop of warm shades of atomic tangerine and cool blues, Basquiat presents the figure of Baron Samedi. As Master of the Dead, Samedi is an important figure in Haitian Voodoo, and indeed, his top-hat, painted face, and dark frock coat, mark him out as an imposing figure.

Surrounding him are examples of Basquiat’s ingenious lexicon: words, numbers, symbols and graphic flourishes all rendered in spray paint swirl around the central figure. Some of these monikers are more recognizable—the large $ sign to the right of the figure, for example—while others are almost indecipherable, such as the series of vertical hash marks that indicate ‘this is now a safe place,’ or ‘unsafe area’ in the language of hobo symbols that were used by New York’s homeless population. Together, these invented words, numbers, random sequences of letters, and other unrestrained marks all add to the dizzying mix laid out on the painted surface.
In addition to this visual dictionary, The Guilt of Gold Teeth also provides an excellent example of how Basquiat constructs his figures. Often working at a frenetic pace, he builds up layers of paint, modeling individual features with swift gestures or more considered pools of pigment. In the case of Baron Samedi, the strong outlines of the facial features are traced out in thick black marks set against the whiteness of the painted face; these indicators also delineate the grimace of gritted teeth through the forces an ominous smile, and the piercing sunken eyes. Basquiat’s faces are often the most accomplished parts of his canvases, and in the case of The Guilt of Gold Teeth, the tradition is continued with aplomb.

As the son of a Haitian immigrant, Basquiat undoubtedly heard stories of Baron Samedi and his importance within Haitian culture from his father, Gérard. The spiritual figure is an Ioa, one of the intermediaries between Bondye (the Supreme Creator) and humanity, and an intermediary between the physical world and the afterlife. He can usually be found at the crossroads between life and death, as when someone dies he is the one who digs their graves and greets their souls, leading to them to the underworld. Conversely, he is also a giver of life and can intercede on behalf of those who are sick and dying, curing them of diseases or wounds as long as he thinks they are worthy of salvation. Samedi is also known for his outrageous behavior, noted for his propensity for disruption, obscenity and debauchery, along with his fondness for tobacco and rum. Painted on such as epic scale, Baron Samedi joins the canon of religious and spiritual figures that have taunted death over a millennia of Western art.

“The work of Jean-Michel Basquiat opens up opportunities to experience paintings and drawings in a new dimension. The overwhelming collection of references that we find on these surfaces—across geographies, chronologies, and histories—forces us to move differently as art historians.” Jordana Saggese

As with many of Basquiat’s paintings, an exact reference to the title The Guilt of Gold Teeth, is hard to establish conclusively, but it may refer to the 1980s trend of Black sports and music stars of having cosmetic gold teeth fitted. This first became popular in the early twentieth century, championed by figures such as the legendary boxer Jack Johnson. He was the first black American heavyweight boxer and was also a particular hero of Basquiat’s who became the subject of several of the artist’s paintings. Around the time this painting was executed, gold teeth became fashionable again with celebrities including the boxer Mike Tyson, who received gold caps mimicking Jack Johnson. Rappers such as Rakim and Slick Rick also subsequently began to wear gold grills instead of permanent gold teeth, a trend which lasted over a decade. The word play inherent in the transposing of ‘Guilt’ and ‘Gilt’ is also an insightful indication of Basquiat’s clever and devilish sense of humor.

Thus, The Guilt of Gold Teeth sits alongside Basquiat’s paintings of his childhood heroes as a celebration and honoring of Black culture, something he felt was missing from the established artistic canon. In attempts to confront this racism, Basquiat had often sought to elevate his heroes—African American sportsmen and musicians—to the status of Gods. He immortalized a pantheon of athletes (particularly boxers) in his paintings, including legends such as Johnson, Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali), Jersey Joe Walcott and Joe Louis. Basquiat read extensively about these men, and was well informed about the details of their lives and achievements, details which he then translated into his painting. He particularly admired the way that each of these athletes had challenged prevalent racial prejudices and social injustices, and had literally fought their way to a new level of success.

The Guilt of Gold Teeth is one of the largest in a series of paintings which Basquiat undertook during two periods he spent in Modena, Italy, in the spring of 1981 and 1982. He was initially invited to Europe by Emilio Mazzoli to participate in his first ever one-man show after the dealer saw the artist’s work in January 1981 at the legendary New York/New Wave show at New York’s P.S. 1. After the initial trip in May ’81, he returned the following March and it was during this stay that he painted the present work along with several other major paintings from the period including Untitled, and Profit 1. All three paintings contain underlying themes of a religious or spiritual nature and feature deific or satanic figures, and the fragile link between heaven and hell, between the present and the afterlife can clearly be scene in the striking ambassadorial figures that guard the entrances to these two competing worlds. These paintings became some of the most important and influential works that the artist ever painted; monumental and majestic, they represent the artist at the peak of his power, fully accomplished in his practice and executing works that have come to define a generation.

1982 was also a marquee year for Basquiat as it saw him continue his meteoric rise within the New York art world as he was rewarded with his first solo show at Annina Nosei's gallery. He also made an important trip to Los Angeles where he was introduced to—and proved to be a major hit with—influential collectors such as Eli and Edythe Broad, Douglas S. Cramer and Stephane Janssen. He was also the youngest of 176 artists to be invited to take part in Documenta 7 in Germany where the expressive nature of lyrical lines was compared to that of the other master draughtsman of the post-war period, Cy Twombly. This comparison to Twombly must have been particularly rewarding for Basquiat as he was the only artist whom Basquiat acknowledged publicly as being influential to his career, as Marshall explains, “From Cy Twombly, Basquiat also took license and instruction on how to draw, scribble, write, collage, and paint simultaneously. One of the few art artworks that Basquiat ever cited as an influence was Twombly’s Apollo and the Artist (1975), and its impact is apparent in numerous loose, collaged and scribbled Basquiat works…” (R. Marshall, “Repelling Ghosts,” in R. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1993, p. 16).

Even while he had attained an astonishing level of success at such a young age, Basquiat remained acutely aware of the imbalance of power in the art world in which he triumphed, where white dealers and collectors held sway. He saw himself in this world as a defiant warrior who had risen from the streets through sheer tenacity and talent. Yet, even though he was defiantly a ‘child of New York,’ the importance which he never forgot his cultural heritage, and the Caribbean roots of his parents. With its dynamic and imposing figure of Baron Samedi, The Guilt of Gold Teeth stands as an important representation of Basquiat’s unique oeuvre and a powerful reminder of the fragility of life.

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