Back of the Neck is a monumental, animated example of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s anatomical studies. Screenprinted across a vast widescreen of paper, with hand-coloured finishing, Basquiat renders the profile of a muscular torso, a spinal cord, and the detail of a dangling arm and hand, complete with blood-red, creeping, arterial-like lines. The sketchy network of expressionistic contours, mapped in beige, red and gold, are plunged into darkness against an immersive backdrop of matt black. Whilst conveying a sense of anatomical validity, the coarse rigidity of the forms seems almost to contort and strain deformedly on the paper. A gilded crown, Basquiat’s own hallmark and a symbol he bestowed amongst his most admired subjects, completes the composition, surmounting the spinal cord in a thick, radiant block of gold. Elsewhere, graffiti-like tags indicate the names of corresponding anatomical components, whilst the © logo – a quitessential characteristic of Basquiat’s oeuvre – both immortalises the artist’s originality and subverts notions of artistic ownership.
In 1968, when Basquiat was eight years old, he was hit by a car during a softball game, triggering a surgical procedure to remove his spleen. At his hospital bedside, Basquiat’s mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, positivizing its informational potential to assist him in his recovery. It catalysed Basquiat’s fascination with the body, a foundation upon which to develop his artistic vocabulary. Close friend and fellow-artist Brian Gormley claimed that Basquiat later owned a sizable monograph on Leonardo da Vinci, published by Reynal & Company (New York, 1966), and Paul Richter’s illustrated Artistic Anatomy, from which Basquiat excerpted most of his anatomical drawings of internal organs, as well as hands, legs, and feet; a publication that surely impacted Back of the Neck. Graffitied tags in Basquiat’s works are also borrowed from favoured art-historical sources. The term ‘BRACCO’ is indirectly quoted from Leonardo’s ‘braccio’ drawings and manifests itself multifariously in a variety of works, such as The Italian Version of Popeye Has No Pork in His Diet, a racially subversive homage to popular boxers of the time. In its bastardised Italian, ‘BRACCO DI FERRO’ (roughly translating as ‘arm-strength’) evokes Leonardo’s textual labels, which he deployed to correspond to his anatomical figurations. These references signify a deep aspiration to relate to the great Italian Master; as Robert Farris Thompson has stated, ‘the texts in his paintings are, among many things, brave essays in cultural self-definition. They reflect not only the books he read and the worlds he lived in… more critically, they reflect how he made sense of all those realms’ (R. Farris Thompson, ‘Royalty, Heroism, and the Streets: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat’, in Jean- Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 28).
Basquiat’s fascination with symbolism and iconography also illustrates his longing to communicate with external environments, their people, and contemporary socio-political situations. The crown and copyright (or ‘Copr’) symbol are two of Basquiat’s crucial leitmotifs and are both prominent features in Back of the Neck. The crown is Basquiat’s pictorial logo, a hallmark that he positioned above figures commanding his greatest respect. Here, it glistens in its gilded hand-colour above the centralised spinal cord, perhaps an emblem of the artist’s pleasure in rendering these figures, or else a mark of reverence towards the aesthetic beauty of anatomy and its humanistic study. The copyright logo, on the other hand, is an ironic subversion of rightful ownership, whilst humorously gesturing to his own originality and credibility. The presentation of these expressive icons alongside a distinctive anatomical study in Basquiat’s visual vernacular, with signature tagging which both aesthetically and contextually recalls his graffiti, signifies Back of the Neck as a trinity of Basquiat’s finest artistic accomplishments.
Back of the Neck
signed and dated 'Jean-Michel Basquiat 1983' (lower right);
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
New York, Vrej Baghoominan, Inc., Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1989 (another from the edition illustrated in colour, p. 69).
Buenos Aires, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Obras sobre Papeis, 1997-1998 (another from the edition illustrated in colour, pp. 102, 103). This exhibition later travelled to Recife, Museu de Arte Moderna and Sao Paulo, Pinacoteca.
California, Gagosian Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings and Drawings 1980-1988, 1998, pl. 17 (another from the edition illustrated in colour, n.p.).
Vienna, Kunsthaus Wien, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings and Works on Paper: The Mugrabi Collection, 1999 (another from the edition illustrated in colour, pp. 118, 119).
Künzelsau, Museum Würth, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings and Works on Paper: The Mugrabi Collection, 2001-2002 (another from the edition illustrated in colour, pp. 110, 111).
New Orleans, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Basquiat and the Bayou Presented by the Helis Foundation, 2014-2015, pl. 13 (another from the edition illustrated in colour, pp. 72, 73).
Milan, Museo Delle Culture, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Opere dalla Mugrabi Collection, 2017 (another from the edition illustrated in colour, pp. 176, 177).
T. Shafrazi, Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York 1999 (another from the edition illustrated in colour, p. 175).
R. Marshall (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat: Works on Paper, Paris 1999 (another from the edition illustrated in colour, pp. 342, 343).
Anon. sale, Sotheby's New York, 10 November 2010, lot 452.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.