Sold for £8,161,250 at the Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 28 June 2012, London.
In the majestic Irony of Negro Policeman from the pivotal year of 1981, Jean-Michel Basquiat expounds upon the most important theme in his oeuvre, the issue which underlines his entire artistic premise: race. As an artist of mixed racial origin, the plight of black people in America fascinated Basquiat throughout his tragically short but highly prolific career. Whether in dealing with sports stars, musicians or himself, Basquiat constantly placed the black figure at the centre his artistic dialogue. His figures are heralded, commemorated and honoured as kings, heroes and martyrs valiantly battling against the odds to overcome the cynical oppression of the white man and his oppressive establishment. However, in a twist rarely seen within his oeuvre, Basquiat turns the tables to offer a sharp and biting critique on members of his own race in Irony of Negro Policeman.
Against a stark white background, a black man emerges dressed in a midnight blue police uniform. His face is like a mask upon which his cap acts like a cage imprisoning his identity. This is Basquiat’s depiction of a fellow African American who has sold out to the white establishment. Basquiat’s traitor has joined an institutionalized form of whiteness, collaborating to enforce the exact laws created by whites to enslave blacks. By titling the work “IRONY OF NEGRO PLCEMN” next to the black face and also inscribing what may be read as ‘PAWN’ in the lower right corner, Basquiat is clearly suggesting that he deems it ironic that the oppressed should wear the uniform of the oppressor.
As a tremendous existential portrait, Irony of Negro Policeman, is reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X from 1953. Both visually depict a screaming head entrapped within a grid like cage. Although neither painting is entitled as a self portrait both can be inferred as containing significant auto-biographical references for their respective authors. Whereas Basquiat was tormented by his race, Bacon struggled with the acceptance of his sexuality having been brought up a strict Catholic. But whatever the underlying struggle was, it allowed each artist to create portraits which depict man at his primal core with all of his complexities, paradoxes and inner most demons laid bare for the world to see.