Jean-Michel Basquiat's paintings of boxers are among his most personally and politically charged subjects. In the figure of the black boxer, Basquiat found an alluring icon of self-made power, a hero for the modern era, an athletic champion who manages to triumph in a world where the odds were firmly stacked against him in the form of deep-seated racial prejudices. This was a heroic figure that Basquiat deeply identified with, as a young man possessed of powerful artistic talent, of Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage, going up against the predominantly white world of the art establishment. The monumentally scaled painting Untitled (Boxer) is one of Basquiat's most powerful images of a boxer, a champion of epic proportions, and a metaphorical self-portrait of Basquiat as a defiant fighter. Painted in 1982, the year when Basquiat reached the zenith of his power as a young painter at the age of only twenty-two, the work represents the artist at his most ambitious. Looking back on that year, Basquiat remarked, much like a prize-fighter touting his prowess, "I made the best paintings ever" (quoted in C. McGuigan, "New Art, New Money," The New York Times Magazine, 10 February 1985).
Basquiat's meteoric rise on the downtown New York art scene at the dawn of the eighties is legendary. After growing up as part of a middle-class family in Brooklyn, he dropped out of school at age seventeen, heading to downtown Manhattan to drift between friends' apartments and abandoned warehouses for a period, making his mark with spray paint on the streets as graffitero SAMO (with Al Diaz), while setting his sights firmly on making it in the New York art world. He proved to be a prodigious draftsman and painter, and quickly ascended to the heights of fame and recognition, first in the New York art world then on a national and international scale, before dying at the age of twenty-seven as a result of his self-destructive addictions. Basquiat took the streets of lower New York as his main subject and source of inspiration, starting his career by spray-painting enigmatic slogans and symbols on city streets, coded criticisms of contemporary culture that set him apart from the colorful graffiti tags that predominated at the time. Throughout his decade as a mature artist, Basquiat maintained the combination of social criticism and poetic expression that characterized his earliest creations as SAMO, which gives his richly inventive formal innovations a depth and resonance that makes him one of the most important and critical artists of the late twentieth century.
As Basquiat famously declared in a 1983 interview, he defined the subject of his art as "Royalty, heroism and the streets" (quoted in H. Geldzahler, "Art: From the Subways to Soho, Jean-Michel Basquiat," Interview, January 1983). The human figure quickly emerged as the central theme in Basquiat's work, which he used would use as a vehicle for melding autobiography with references to popular culture and black history. He had been aware of the history of art since his childhood, when he would visit the Brooklyn Museum of Art, not far from his home in Boerum Hill. "I realized that I didn't see many paintings with black people in them," he noted. Addressing this glaring lacuna, Basquiat declared that "The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings" (Ibid.). Basquiat celebrated many heroes of black history in his works, particularly athletes and musicians. Yet while he celebrated the achievements of black luminaries such as the jazz genius Charlie Parker or the boxing champion Joe Louis, he also specifically focused on these figures because he identified with their personal struggles and inner demons. Parker, for example, was arguably the most influential force in the history of jazz, yet suffered from alcohol and drug addiction that led to his early death. Joe Louis ended his astounding twelve-year reign as heavyweight champion in a state of personal and financial distress, suffering from drug addiction, mental breakdown, and financial ruin. Basquiat identified with the crises that each of these figures endured, and used his work to commemorate them.
The present work belongs to the important pantheon of boxers that Basquiat immortalized in his paintings, including pugilist legends such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Cassius Clay, Jersey Joe Walcott and Joe Louis. Basquiat read extensively about these athletes, and was very well informed about the details of their lives and achievements, which he 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. Joe Louis, in particular, is renowned for playing an important role in the promotion of racial integration in sports. Cassius Clay, transformed into Muhammad Ali, became in the 1960s and 70s (during Basquiat's formative years) one of the most widely-recognized symbols of social protest, particularly in his opposition to the Vietnam war, for which he was both widely criticized as well as revered. Basquiat canonized Louis and other black heroes in his paintings, depicting crowns or haloes circling their heads, as demonstrated by the suggestive halo form that arises from the head of Untitled (Boxer).
The upraised arms of the boxer in this painting invoke not only the victorious stance of the winner of a boxing match, but also a doubling of the raised fist of the Black Power salute. This gesture was famously on display at the 1968 Olympics, when American victors Tommie Smith and John Carlos made a powerful statement of solidarity with the Civil Rights movement by raising their fists when receiving their medals at the podium, sparking harsh criticism from detractors but lauded as courageous heroes by supporters. Basquiat's boxer thus suggests many layers of struggle, on both an individual and social level. Although the letters "K O" can be seen hovering over this figure's right shoulder, seemingly referring to the victorious boxer's knockout, this expression is rendered in a trembling hand and partly effaced, so that it remains an ambiguous sign. 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.
Untitled (Boxer) exemplifies Basquiat's unmistakable style, particularly his bravura handling of paint, spontaneous sense of line and inventive use of color, which made him an innovative heir to the mantle of Abstract Expressionism. Basquiat cited Franz Kline as one of his favorite artists, whose muscular brushwork is echoed in Basquiat's vigorous swathes of paint. Likewise, the use of line in this work, marked by hesitations and erasure, expands upon Cy Twombly's style, which Basquiat cited as a source of inspiration. Basquiat confidently built on the heritage of these painters, as well on a rich visual lexicon of African masks, Voudoun and Santria figurines from the Caribbean, Christian icons, and even cartoon imagery, synthesizing these diverse sources into a language that was distinctly his own.
Basquiat painted Untitled (Boxer) in 1982, which proved to be his prime year creatively, as well as a turning point for him professionally. Following his break-out success the previous year in the "New York/New Wave" group exhibition at P.S. 1, he had a series of six solo shows in 1982, two in New York, as one each in Los Angeles, Zurich, Rome and Rotterdam, which were greeted with rave reviews. He was also the youngest artist ever, at the age of twenty-one, to be included in the prestigious Documenta 7 exhibition in West Germany, in the company of leading artists such as Joseph Beuys, Cy Twombly and Gerhard Richter. Basquiat had also attained the financial success that allowed him to obtain professional art materials as well as a studio space, where for the first time he could create large-scale works such as the present painting.
Even while he had attained an astonishing level of success, 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, a role he played out in an explicit yet humorous way in the photos where he posed as a prize-fighter with Andy Warhol to advertise the artistic collaboration of these art-world champions. Toward the end of his life, Basquiat created coded self-portraits where he depicted himself as a haunted skeletal figure, exploited by the art world and tormented by the pains and losses in his personal life, in pointed contrast to the immense power and solidity of the present figure. The image of the victorious yet conflicted boxer of Untitled (Boxer) captures the difficult position in which Basquiat found himself even at the zenith of his career, and stands as a crucial self-portrait of this important period of his life.
This painting presently belongs to the collection of Lars Ulrich, the drummer for the influential heavy-metal band Metallica. He acquired the work in 1999 after seeing it in a retrospective in Vienna. An avid collector, Ulrich has over the years assembled an impressive collection of Basquiat's works, including Profit I of 1982, which closely relates to the present work, featuring a standing figure with outstretched arms and a barbed halo. Profit I was sold by Christie's in 2002 and set the world record for the sale of Basquiat's work at the time. Ulrich lent Untitled (Boxer) to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, where it was a highlight of the 2005 retrospective titled Basquiat, and served as a banner and poster for the exhibition at the Houston venue.