Although he is essentially synonymous with the New York underground scene of the 1980s, Jean-Michel Basquiat also traveled frequently through Asia and Europe. On one trip to Modena, Italy, in 1982, he produced a group of eight new paintings for an exhibition with the dealer Emilio Mazzoli that never ended up happening.
Inevitably, with time, these works have made their own journeys across the globe. Just over 40 years later, they have all been reunited for the first time in a new show at Fondation Beyeler in the Swiss town of Riehen, near Basel.
The typically expressive works each measure at least six-and-a-half by 13 feet and tend to focus on one solitary figure who is, in some cases, accompanied by a cow or a dog. Lacking any of the common motifs of the metropolis that Basquiat liked to employ, they seem to reflect his new, more provincial location. Some of the compositions had been spray painted over old canvases discarded by the artist Mario Schifano, and all are easily identifiable thanks to the inscription of ‘Modena’ on the back. As such, they can be viewed as one cohesive body of work.
Basquiat was just 21 in 1982, but his star was rapidly ascending and that June he was the youngest artist to exhibit at Documenta 7 in Kassel. The year before, Mazzoli had given him his first solo show under his original alias of SAMO so, in early 1982, the artist gladly accepted an invitation from the Italian dealer to visit Modena and produce more works inside his warehouse studio.
Looking back on the arrangement some years later, however, Basquiat compared it to “a sick factory. I hated it. I wanted to be a star, not a gallery mascot.” He was surely relieved, then, when Mazzoli had a disagreement with Basquiat’s New York gallerist Annina Nosei and the show was canceled. Nosei eventually sold the canvases, some of which went on to become his most renowned and highly valued.
“Basquiat: The Modena Paintings” runs until August 27. Preview works from the show below.