Jean-Michel Basquiat, ‘Hong Kong’, 1985, Phillips

Property of an Important American Collector

From the Catalogue:
The rare paper work Hong Kong was created in 1985, following Jean-Michel Basquiat’s trip to the city in April of the same year. At the time, Basquiat travelled with the restaurateur and artist Michael Chow and his then-wife Tina, spending two weeks in the city.

At first glance, Hong Kong features almost-caricatures of a cartoonish, exoticised “Far East”: a dragon’s head, a waving gorilla resembling King Kong, a grotesque face mask of sorts, the top half of a horse’s head. And yet, it is evident that even in such a seemingly simple piece, the artist has deftly incorporated more detailed remnants of the city: an electrical diagram for what appears to be a television screen, an unsurprising addition, considering that the VHS version of the widely popular King Kong vs. Godzilla became available in the same year, 1985. The nonsensical extract “For Stop The Itchy Empitigo Fleas Fleas”, presumably taken from an advertisement for ointment, can additionally be taken as vestiges of the artist’s memories and observations while in the city. When counted among the entirety of the artist’s other allusions to fleas, leeches, and parasites—all metaphors for a depletion of life—one might lend an ironic, almost humorous connection to the words’ proximity to the depicted horse in Hong Kong.

The piece’s display of Xerox collage also aptly captures the artist’s techniques from the late 1980s. Prior to his forays as an artist, Basquiat sold baseball cards and postcard collages, and in his later career, used Xerox collage as a way to inject a distinctive aesthetic into his pieces. Constantly making notes and drawings, the draughtsman Basquiat was known to fervently scrawl on quite literally any surface: fridge doors, windows, later Xeroxing these jottings to paste onto canvases. One might imagine the artist similarly scribbling against the streets and pavements of Hong Kong, hungrily taking notes as he traversed the new city.

The artist was drawn to Xerox because of its flat shininess, but perhaps most alluring was the ease with which his drawings could be reproduced, a potent nod to his past as a graffiti artist operating under the moniker “Samo”. Notably, Hong Kong features the copyright symbol—next to presumably King Kong—another carryover from Basquiat’s graffiti period along with the crown. Thus drawing our attention to the jest: Hong Kong King Kong, a little rhyme that remains; the butt of a private joke.

Hong Kong can be counted amongst the artist’s Xerox collage works—but most importantly, it is an extremely rare piece featuring the artist’s memories of an exciting and exotic new city. With its incorporation of bright colours, the work is a potent reminder of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s youth and vitality.

Phillips had the privilege of speaking to Michael Chow aka M, who invited Jean-Michel Basquiat to Hong Kong in April 1985, following a friendship of half a decade prior to the artist’s trip to the city. In the below excerpt, M recounts some of his memories of the artist’s excursion to Asia, the young Basquiat’s inquisitive mind, his rebellious sense of humour, and his deeply rooted devotion to his mother.

Phillips: How did you and Basquiat initially meet?
Michael Chow aka M: He gave me a calling card—he was very ambitious—and he gave me a painting, of 4 or 5 feet, and we became very good friends ever since. It was love at first sight.

P: How did the idea of going to Hong Kong together in 1985 come about? Could you share with us some of your memories?
M: I was with my then-wife, Tina, and the three of us went to Hong Kong [together]. It was a very nice trip. We stayed at the Peninsula. I took him to all the tailors, and he made something like, one and a half dozen suits, 18 suits, all in different colours and materials, so he was really into it. I was invited to dinner by the director of Tiffany and his friend, and I said, well, I am with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and we all went to dinner, to Gaddi’s—a very expensive restaurant as you know, fine dining. And during dinner—I don’t think he [Basquiat] liked my host very much—He was very rebellious, and so ordered the most expensive wine, you know, it was outrageous, this bottle of wine!

We had a lot of fun in Hong Kong, we went to all the restaurants we usually go to, and on our way back on the aeroplane, the plane was very empty in First Class, and we talked a lot about his past: how he loved his mother, how he was very sad as his mother was not very well, and how close he was to his mother…We were very close.

P: It must have been very difficult when he passed away, because of how close you two were.
M: Very difficult. He was one of these people that I instantly bonded with, and I had a great friendship with him…[He] was a memorable human being…very different from other people: more sensitive, more talented [than everyone else]…

P: It’s such a shame that he is no longer with us…Did he express what he particularly liked about Hong Kong? Did he say any comments that stuck out to you?
M: I think he really liked it. He’s comfortable anywhere you take him—he’s one of these people. He’s very hungry to learn everything; learn everything in the world that he’s not familiar with. All the luxury stuff—he loved: he learned a lot from Andy [Warhol], he learned all about wine…even the suits! All the suits we made: he wanted to learn everything, how to do this, and that. And I too, am very curious. And, Hong Kong—what is there not to like about Hong Kong? It’s a fantastic city.

P: In the piece (Hong Kong), it seems to draw from some objects Basquiat might have found in Hong Kong—there’s an ad for something like an ointment, electrical diagrams, and a dragon’s head maybe from a dragon dance. Do you have any particular memories you could share that might indicate where he took them from?
M: …From what you’ve just said, the dragon head reminds me of his [own] head…[Dragons] are very violent, very fierce, [and when taken with] all of Hong Kong’s imagery, [perhaps this] can be related to his “primitive violence”, if you will…He always picked up local culture, his drawings were amazing, he recorded everything with his drawings, and Hong Kong was somewhere that was very exotic for him, so he automatically picked these objects.

Phillips wishes to thank Michael Chow for his kind assistance.
Courtesy of Phillips

Signature: signed and dated 'Jean-Michel Basquiat 85' on the reverse

Akira Ikeda Gallery, Tokyo
Private Collection
Christie's, New York, 18 May 2001, Lot 502
Private Collection
Christie's, New York, 11 November 2010, Lot 343
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

About Jean-Michel Basquiat

A poet, musician, and graffiti prodigy in late-1970s New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat had honed his signature painting style of obsessive scribbling, elusive symbols and diagrams, and mask-and-skull imagery by the time he was 20. “I don’t think about art while I work,” he once said. “I think about life.” Basquiat drew his subjects from his own Caribbean heritage—his father was Haitian and his mother of Puerto Rican descent—and a convergence of African-American, African, and Aztec cultural histories with Classical themes and contemporary heroes like athletes and musicians. Often associated with Neo-expressionism, Basquiat received massive acclaim in only a few short years, showing alongside artists like Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Francesco Clemente. In 1983, he met Andy Warhol, who would come to be a mentor and idol. The two collaborated on a series of paintings before Warhol’s death in 1987, followed by Basquiat’s own untimely passing a year later.

American, 1960-1988, New York, New York, based in New York, New York