Sterno, 1985

Painting, 120.5 x 102 cm

The three works in the MACBA Collection were made between the years 1982 and 1986, and are populated with totemic and archaic Voodoo images, homages to heroes of Afro-American culture, including jazz musicians, and other references to American popular culture. The vibrant lines, intense brushstrokes, silhouetted black figures and facial expressions pushed to the limit suggest connections with German neo-Expressionism and with referential painters such as Willem de Kooning.

The presence of dark-skinned figures as a self-portrait is recurrent in Basquiat’s work, such as the 1986 Self-Portrait that projects a fragmented and multiple reality. The dark figure in the centre of the canvas, with a head that is oversized compared to the rest of the body, evokes children’s drawings. The drips of paint, the spontaneity of the brushstrokes and their multiple directionality refer, in a very direct way, to the process of the artist moving through the illusory space of the canvas. This painting recalls the artist’s first works, when he began in New York in the seventies signing with Al Diaz as SAMO © (Same Old Shit), while at the same time alluding to his Haitian and Puerto Rican inheritance. It also references Basquiat’s knowledge of avant-garde artists such as Pablo Picasso. From a pictorial point of view, it is richer and denser than most of the artist’s works, with a sharp contrast between the soft and pastel tones of the background and the aggressiveness of the figure, with its forceful darkness, electrified hair, bared teeth and open arms.

In his work, Basquiat often referred to the music and musicians he admired, as in King Zulu (1986), a painting featuring three great American jazz trumpeters: Bix Beiderbecke (1903–1931), Bunk Johnson (1879–1949) and Howard McGhee (1918–1987). The canvas also shows a black-painted face inspired by Louis Armstrong (1901–1971), characterised as the King of the Zulus at the New Orleans Carnival Parade in 1949. Armstrong, also a trumpet player, explained his participation in this parade: ‘The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club was situated in the neighbourhood that I was reared… And no place that I’ve ever been could remove the thought… that, someday, I will be the King of the Zulus… I won it in 1949... Wow.’ Basquiat places his King Zulu at the centre of the canvas, while the musicians are submerged in a blue space that evokes the lyrical sound of the blues.

Finally, Sterno (1985) presents an aggressive and apocalyptic vision of alcohol abuse. The presence of a gin bottle at the centre of the canvas is associated with a can of Sterno (a.k.a. canned heat), an alcohol-based fuel created in 1920, used for heating food products but also notorious for its abuse as an alcohol substitute. Basquiat strengthens the apocalyptic message with ‘Drink Sterno’ written on the can and an image in the foreground of a monster with a double mouth, wolf’s teeth and horns. The dark and reddish tones contribute intensity to this nihilistic evocation of the perils of alcohol abuse.

Technical details

Original title:
Registration number:
Basquiat, Jean-Michel
Date created:
Date acquired:
MACBA Collection. Government of Catalonia long-term loan
Object type:
Oil on canvas
120.5 x 102 cm (height x width)
MACBA Collection. Government of Catalonia long-term loan. National Collection of Art. Formerly Salvador Riera Collection
© The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, VEGAP, Barcelona
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The MACBA Collection features Catalan, Spanish and international art and, although it includes works from the 1920s onwards, its primary focus is on the period between the 1960s and the present.

For more information on the work or the artist, please consult MACBA's Library. To request a loan of the work, please write to colleccio [at] macba.cat.

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