Ahead of New York’s upcoming Contemporary Art Evening auction, Grégoire Billault, Head of New York’s Contemporary Art Department, and David Galperin, Head of New York’s Contemporary Art Evening Sales, come together to discuss a highlight of the marquee event: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Versus Medici. Painted in 1982, when the artist was just 22 years old, Versus Medici is among Basquiat’s most forceful visual challenges to the Western art establishment.
In the early 1980s, Basquiat travelled to Italy to take part in his first solo exhibition; during his trip, he no doubt witnessed the legacy of the Medici family’s legendary patronage – which includes artworks from Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli and others masters of the Italian Renaissance. In Versus Medici, Basquiat is confronting the Medici legacy – that of classical art history – by adopting, respecting and subverting a range of influences. Yellow and red, the Medici colors, define the background; anatomical studies reference da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man; the triptych format brings to mind works by Hans Memling. But in the foreground, Basquiat places a black figure – literally inserting the Black body, his body, into the mainstream narrative of art history. And with his signature, a three-point crown, Basquiat claims victory over the Medici legacy.