By Shaun Randol
Those familiar with Jean-Michel Basquiat shouldn't be surprised that the gone-too-soon graffiti-cum-Neo-expressionist used boxers as a recurring theme. Born in Brooklyn to Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, Basquiat grew up on the hardscrabble streets of New York City where he confronted racism and learned firsthand the realities of the socio-economic struggle of the working class. Basquiat was quite naturally drawn to the dogged spirit of the boxer, a determined individual who took his knocks but kept on fighting. The artist himself wasn't averse to putting on the gloves, having once challenged fellow painter Julian Schnabel to a sparring match (it never manifested).
Here is a brief survey of Basquiat's boxing paintings, much of which was informed with the artist's admiration for particular boxing heroes, especially Joe Louis and the defiant Muhammad Ali.
Untitled (The Boxer) by Basquiat
There are a few ways one can consider "The Boxer," for example by examining the subject of the painting or the style of the presentation (the latter of which is unmistakably "Basquiat"). The auction house Christie's presents a well-informed discussion of the piece, which eventually sold in 2008 for $13.5 million. "The upraised arms of the boxer in this painting invoke not only the victorious stance of the winner of a boxing match," says Christie's, "but also a doubling of the raised fist of the Black Power salute." Moreover:
"Although his arms are upraised in victory, Basquiat's boxer also seems marked by vulnerability in the way that his monolithic body is pierced in areas that expose an abstracted skeletal grid, while his mask-like face suggesting a skull-like specter of death. In fact, the outstretched arms also call to mind the pose of Christ upon the cross, while the halo might morph into a crown of thorns. Both victor and victim, the boxer that dominates the frame of Basquiat's monumental painting is a complexly conflicted figure." (Again, I highly recommend Christie's discussion.)
The Fighter by Basquiat
Compared to "The Boxer," "The Figther" is almost cartoonish. At first glance one might even mistake the subject for a fire hydrant. A golden-hued figure embedded on a cerulean backdrop is a platform for Cubist elements: disembodied hands, feet, and faces. The graffiti style is reminiscent of New York City in the 1980s and early 1990s, prefiguring the more refined street art peppering the same streets Basquiat roamed when he was only known as SAMO.
Basquiat is known for his intricate, frenzied (but controlled) work, but he could be a minimalist if needed. Contrary to his known aesthetic, the following four paintings showcase a restrained mindset. Here the artist is minimized—his personality almost removed the canvas—so as to focus the attention on an elevated, admired subject:
Cassius Clay by Basquiat
Jersey Joe by Basquiat
Jack Johnson by Basquiat
Sugar Ray Robinson by Basquiat
The crown, of course, is a signature element of Basquiat's work, but in three of the paintings above the symbol acts less as a calling card and more as an honorarium.
Sometimes Basquiat got his friends into the act. Here are a few images used to promote a joint show featuring Basquiat and his fellow pop culture pugilist, Andy Warhol:
Ultimately, art making, like boxing, is an individual sport. One of Basquiat's heroes—Joe Louis—finished his life in financial ruin, mental deterioration, and drug addiction. Basquiat fought his own demons, dying of a heroin overdose at the age of 27. The initial artwork in this survey presents a boxer with his gloves in the air, perhaps in a moment of triumph. Upraised arms, however, also present a moment of vulnerability, even surrender.
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