Off the Wall: Basquiat to Banksy exhibition is now open at Christie's King Street
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Off the Wall: Basquiat to Banksy exhibition is now open at Christie's King Street
Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Elephant, 1986.

LONDON.- ‘Off the Wall: Basquiat to Banksy’ showcases the contemporary explosion of street art and graffiti, charting a course through post-punk New York, millennial Britain and beyond. The exhibition also includes a major highlight from the June Sale Season, Banksy’s Subject to availability, an important work from his series of vandalised oil paintings. ‘Off the Wall: Basquiat to Banksy’ is being presented at Christie’s Headquarters in London until 7 May 2021, with an accompanying online component running concurrently.

From the illicit and illegitimate to the painterly and political, it celebrates the negotiation between street and studio over nearly half a century. In 1981, Jean-Michel Basquiat became one of the first graffiti artists to conquer the gallery world, shedding his pseudonym ‘SAMO©’ and infusing his paintings and drawings with raw, urban energy. Alongside him emerged a new breed of practitioners, including Keith Haring, A-One and Kenny Scharf, who made their names on subways and billboards before taking their place within the thrilling creative milieu of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Since the 1980s, street artists have been operating on a global scale. Banksy adopted graffiti as a tool for socio-political commentary, painting on sites ranging from London’s Southbank to Venice. Brazilian twins Os Gemeos have exported their surreal figures to cities around the world, while KAWS’ iconic skull-and-crossbone characters would go on to inspire toys, furniture and international clothing lines. Underpinning these practices is a belief that art should be for everyone.

Witty, satirical and timely, Subject to availability hijacked an 1890 painting of Mount Rainier in Seattle by the German-American artist Albert Bierstadt. Banksy inserted an asterisk next to the dormant volcano at the centre of the composition, captioning it ‘subject to availability for a limited period only'. Bierstadt was a leading member of the Hudson River School, who railed against the industrial revolution’s destruction of nature. Operating over a century later, Banksy updated the political commentary of his forebear: the sweeping panorama, suffused with Romantic heroism and grandeur, is reduced to a fleeting commodity. Painted in 2009-10, the work was included in Banksy’s exhibition ‘Banksy versus Bristol Museum’ that year: an extraordinary guerrilla stunt in his home town, in which he secretly inserted over 100 of his works into the gallery’s permanent collection displays. He included his defaced version of Rembrandt’s 1669 Self-Portrait at the Age of 63 (National Gallery, London), as well as the monumental Devolved Parliament (2009). Subject to availability therefore took its place among a new group of paintings that held a mirror up to society’s self-destructive tendencies. Like so many of the artist’s best works, it was hauntingly prophetic: in February 2020, Mount Rainier National Park was closed indefinitely due to extreme flooding and mudslides.

During the early 1980s in New York, the boundaries between ‘fine art’ and the urban underground were collapsing. MoMA’s ‘New York/New Wave’ was the era’s landmark exhibition, which examined the crossover between music and visual art in the post-punk era. It featured a performance by Blondie and displays by other emerging street artists such as Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, as well as established names like Andy Warhol. It was Basquiat’s first showing under his real name, leaving behind the ‘SAMO©’ moniker which he had tagged throughout downtown Manhattan in his late teens.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (1981) is a rich, layered composition, intuitively combining materials quite literally taken from the street – including a found wooden support, and a poster advertising a 1980 bodybuilding show at the off-Broadway West Side Theatre – with scribbled oilstick and splashy acrylic paint, as well as collaged, xeroxed pages of his own drawings. Fragmented text and repeated images of cars create a vivid sense of urban density. Basquiat sets the silhouette of champion muscleman Frank Zane aflame in scrawls of red, and adds to the left a cartoonish hero of his own, who sports the artist’s famous crown motif. This iconic stamp of royalty reappears in ghostly outline below, and again, large and blazing yellow, at the upper right. It was acquired directly from the artist by the critic, curator and collector Henry Geldzahler in 1981.

Over the following years, Basquiat held solo exhibitions worldwide, collaborated with Warhol, and became the youngest artist to exhibit at Documenta VII in Kassel; he featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 1985 as the face of a heady age for contemporary art. His work continued to shift in compositional daring and thematic depth. Working at a grand scale, in The Elephant (1986) he deploys spare, potent images against a backdrop of warm mahogany-brown. To the left is a human pelvis, inflated into an amorphous white shape that seems to suggest the big-eared creature of the title; the spectral profile of an elephant hovers further to the right. In front, a tall, statuesque figure stands in a spotlit shard of white and gold pigment. Blocks of white and blue surround it, as if deconstructing the picture into flat swatches of colour. The Elephant’s standing figure is closely reminiscent of Malian statues found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose holdings were a constant source of inspiration for Basquiat. His works were always anchored, however, by a graffitist’s touch: his deft, improvisatory visual wit, his sensitivity to his environment, and his genius for arranging line and form on a flat surface. Mark-making, for Basquiat, was a way of seeing and being in the world.

For more than twenty years, Banksy has taken the world as his canvas, using graffiti as a powerful form of social commentary and critique. Fuelling Banksy’s practice is a belief that art should belong to the people, and that – in reflecting their concerns – it has the power to change the world for the better. Executed on canvas in two parts, Girl and Balloon relates to one of Banksy’s most important and best-loved images. The original mural, entitled Girl with Balloon, first appeared outside a printing shop in London’s Shoreditch in 2002; in 2004, another version appeared on the Southbank, accompanied by a message reading ‘There is Always Hope’. Depicting a little girl reaching towards a red heart-shaped balloon, and drawn in the manner of a 1950s children’s book illustration, the image has become synonymous with the optimistic agenda of Banksy’s practice. Over the years, it has been reworked in various guises: in 2014, notably, a version featuring a little girl with a headscarf was projected onto Nelson’s Column and other major global landmarks in support of crisis victims in Syria.

Rat (with 3D glasses) is closely related to a mural created for the stage door of the Egyptian Theater in Park City, Utah, in 2010. In January that year, Banksy premiered his first feature length film Exit Through the Gift Shop at the city’s Sundance Film Festival. The rat – an anagram of art – has long been a key symbol for Banksy, appearing in multiple works over the years: from the live rats that swarmed his seminal 2005 exhibition ‘Crude Oils’, to the spray-painted rodents bearing masks and hand sanitiser who appeared on the London Underground during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Frequently anthropomorphised within his practice, the creature has been variously interpreted as a something of an alter-ego for the artist himself, who views his anarchic, clandestine operations in similar pest-like terms.

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