Untitled

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  • Provenance

    Diego Cortez, New York
    Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
    Private Collection, acquired directly from the above

  • Exhibited

    Hannover, Kestnergesellschaft, Jean-Michel Basquiat: To Repel Ghosts, November 28, 1986 – January 25, 1987
    Pully/Lausanne, FAE Musée d’art contemporain, Jean-Michel Basquiat, July 9 – November 7, 1993
    Trieste, Civico Museum Revoltella Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Jean-Michel Basquiat, May 15 – September 19, 1999
    Lugano, Museo d’Arte Moderna, Jean-Michel Basquiat, March 20 – June 19, 2005
    Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Jean-Michel Basquiat, May 9 – September 5, 2010
    Paris, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Jean-Michel Basquiat, October 15, 2010 – January 30, 2011

  • Literature

    C. Michetti-Prod’Hom, A. Affentranger-Kirchrath, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., FAE Musée d’art contemporain, Pully/Lausanne, 1993, p. 24 (illustrated)
    L. Marenzi, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Milan: Charta Edizioni, 1999, pp. 16-17 (illustrated)
    Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Civico Museum Revoltella Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Trieste, 1999, pp. 16-17 (illustrated)
    R. Marshall, J. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris: Galerie Enrico Navarra, 2000, vol. II, p. 70, No. 6 (illustrated)
    Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Museo d’Arte Moderna, Lugano, 2005, p. 21, no. 3 (illustrated)
    R. Chiappini, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Skira: Milano, 2005, p. 21, no. 3 (illustrated)
    D. Buchhart, S. Keller, G. O’Brien, R. Storr, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2010, p. 25, no. 16 (illustrated)
    D. Buchhart, G. O’Brien, J. Schuhl, R. Storr, Basquiat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, 2011, p. 29, no. 15 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    With fury in his paintbrush, Jean-Michel Basquiat descended upon the art world in the early 1980s as a vital storm, a revolutionary by simple virtue of the intense vitality of his complex and complicated artistic energy. While many struggled to understand the importance of his remarkably new forms, others quickly realized the impact that Basquiat would have upon the art world long after his premature death in 1988. Basquiat’s early work in particular exemplifies his sophisticated and revelatory examination of the history of the Americas. A public anatomization of his complex biography lent itself to controversy in his final products, with his work often showcasing not only his own struggle to understand himself, but also those who he considered his heroes and personal icons. Untitled, 1981, is Basquiat in his righteously angry prime, his youthful vigor begetting a masterwork of societal critique only executable by the hand of an artist so uniquely talented.

    It would be insufficient to discuss this marvelously radical piece without touching upon the biographical and ideological forces that gave rise to Basquiat’s work. As a child of New York in the 1960s and 1970s, Basquiat personally contended with the challenges of a global cosmopolitan with two ancestral national identities, Haitian and Puerto Rican. He was instilled with the nuances of cultural differentiation early on in his life and was exposed to both the challenges of the struggle for racial equality and the wealth of his diverse heritage. He harnessed these differences to a brilliant degree, establishing his fluency in French, English, and Spanish by age eleven. In addition, his fascination with the universals of human knowledge created lasting obsessions, from the natural sciences to history. Astronomy, chemistry, biology, anatomy—all would become ripe subject matter. Perhaps most saliently, he trained his intellect toward self-expression: his skills in drawing and painting were entirely self-taught, a remarkable marriage of observational discipline and extraordinary creativity.

    As half of the graffiti duo SAMO in the late 1970s, Basquiat’s racial awareness took the public stage, his urban poetry covering the sides of buildings in Brooklyn and downtown New York City. In this period, Basquiat’s growing interest in urban disenfranchisement—and, of course, the role that he was beginning to play out in his artistic endeavors.

    Exploding onto the stage of the New York contemporary art scene in 1981, Basquiat’s prolificacy was matched only by his thematic depth and enigmatic subject matter.

    Basquiat’s similar works in this period point to a fascinating preoccupation with authority figures. Per Capita, 1981, parodies the concept of printed money itself, as Basquiat skewers the economic powers at hand with his scathing portrayal of man subjected to the power of the dollar bill, and only to be respected when he has attained a requisite amount. In Sherif, 1981, Basquiat begins to incorporate the use of the comical small-town boss as a metaphor for the looming forces of authoritarianism in general. This powerful statement rendered in varying colors give us a privileged view into the conflicted mind of the young artist, where the powers that be are always in conflict with artistic agency.

    In the present lot, Basquiat expresses this dilemma in a breathtakingly concise visual metaphor. A blur of blue and black, Basquiat’s picture possesses a palpably taut energy and fury. It’s centrality and balance are rare features in Basquiat’s work, hinting at a purposeful reason for making this picture stand in contrast to his others. In addition, Basquiat restrains himself to a limited palette in crafting the surface of his canvas. In these ways and others, Basquiat’s portrait of injustice stands on its own within the scope of his oeuvre, at a stroke equally graphic and emotionally wrenching.

    Dragged unwillingly by the figures at his side, Basquiat’s central figure bears all the hallmarks of a man in police custody. Donning the infamous stripes of ignominy, the prisoner’s beatific expression is open to interpretation—a mix of surprise, fear, and, most strikingly, peace. Basquiat’s scrawls of his striped attire parallels bars from his chin, resembling not only the uniform forced upon prisoners but also the metal bars of the prison itself, signifying a man imprisoned for what we know not. Almost melting into the background with his unpainted lower torso, the prisoner is awash in light brushstrokes of confusion at his head, almost as if being whisked away to prison is bringing him to the edge of unconsciousness. His single pitch-black hand hanging at the left shows him not to be struggling, instead complying, however confusedly, with his captors at his sides as they lead.

    Freed from narrative specifics, Basquiat opens a seam for an investigation of inequality and potential wrongful imprisonment through the intensity of line and economic use of color. Basquiat’s guards are figures of sheer terror. Adorned in an almost military uniform, with only a star to lend them their authority, their blocky bodies are clad in the colors of the state, the variegated blue lending them a certain three-dimensionality. Neutral blue caps sit atop horrifyingly blank faces, bereft of any hint of sympathy, compassion, or wrongdoing. This facial anonymity is a common trope for Basquiat in his portrayal of oppression—the identity of the guards is less as two individuals and more as an inherent function of a state built on racial inequality, one that sought to suppress essential human freedoms. These two figures function in tandem, surrounding and overpowering the central figure into a state of submission. They are spectres in their efficiency and masters in their swift brutality.

    Above and to the left, Basquiat has left us another one of his trademark visual tropes—a bit of graffiti. “LOANS 80” is a tantalizing puzzle piece, one that could perhaps unlock the meaning and origins of the figures within the painting. Yet Basquiat’s constant incorporation of verbal poetry in his work was rarely within the realm of direct semiotics; more often than not, the words function as glyphs, moody accompaniments to the wrenching scene below. While we may be tempted to view unpaid “Loans” as the rationale for the arrest in question, perhaps revealing a common tactic for incarcerating African-Americans, we would be better served to view Basquiat’s word painting as free-association on his part; the word sharing the tone of chromatic scheme of the painting for example, or perhaps to address the concept of freedom as loaned time.

    In this whimsical manner of suggestion, along with the distinct visual style of Untitled, 1981, we find an apt visual comparison with the work of Cy Twombly, who was a major influence on the young artist, especially in his use of words upon the canvas. While Twombly employed words on his surfaces to a surrealist extent, drawing them from his subconscious in order to enrich the worlds that he sought to paint, Basquiat recognized the power of the letter as a visual symbol not only for its correlative meaning, but for its visual structure alone—his words are art in themselves, glorified for their angled beauty:

    “Basquiat was the first to use “words as brushstrokes,” the inscribed and painted word, demonstrating not just the breadth of his knowledge, but new ways of directing attention to fragments and parts of the canvas…As Kurt Varnadoe noted in his essay on graffiti and Twombly… “The surfaces and emotional impact of Twombly’s paintings are enriched, too, by a duality: they seem to show both the basic urge to scribble and simultaneously, the compulsion to deface. He often appears engaged in constant self-vandalism. Because Twombly looked to the language of graffiti with a sensibility so specifically shaped by the calligraphic and painterly idiom of deKooning and Pollock, he left aside one of the forms most closely associated with graffiti—the irreverently and often scabrously distorted or recomposed human form, and especially the face.”(T. Shafrazi, “Basquiat: Messenger of the Sacred and Profane”, Basquiat, New York, 1999, pp. 19-20)

    Indeed, the “irreverently and often scabrously distorted” human form in the present lot is an offshoot of Basquiat’s earlier work in graffiti, by now flourishing into a thematic powderkeg. This similarity between Twombly and Basquiat extends further, for while each had his separate aims in terms of subject matter, we can see the visual field of both artists in their contemporaneous work as an indefinite landscape. Twombly utilized melting background behind his central illustration as a way to expose his painterly purposefulness. His field is dreamy, a sea of image upon a barren landscape. Contrastingly, Basquiat’s is a nightmare, a terrifying event perhaps only witnessed in his dreams.

    But we would be remiss not to mention one of Basquiat’s most obvious influences as a visual artist, especially in the realm of chromatic scope and figure. Pablo Picasso’s cubist renderings find their way into Basquiat’s work quite readily, but, while Picasso explored a multitude of surface, Basquiat explores the interior surface, as the prison bar jacket of his inmate recedes into the canvas itself. In this piece, Basquiat finds more in common with Picasso through his use of limited color, similar to Picasso’s own work in the Blue period. Many of Picasso’s paintings during this time utilized the dominance of blue to lend mood to their subject matter. But while Picasso’s blue was often the color of empathy or sadness, Basquiat’s blue functions as the color of corrupt power, the color of disenfranchisement and the color of an unjust history. Combined with his figurative renderings, Basquiat almost creates his own brand of Cubism: “If Cubism, reconsidered from a Central African point of view, becomes pasula kini—break-shadow art—then Basquiat reset the course to Africa. He evolved an African-influenced manner of break-sentencing lettering, break-pattern skulls, cut and viewed in different levels, and break-period historicism, like a time machine stuttering to itself.”(R. Thompson, “Royalty, Heroism, and the Streets: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat”, Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1993, p.36)

    Indeed, the time machine here is one that Basquiat readily employs in searching out his personal history among a sea of oppressed figures and heroes, such as the martyr taking center-stage in the present lot. Basquiat continually revisited the theme of the black male body as a heuristic for oppression. In Untitled, 1981, this fascination reaches a fever pitch, narrating fear and confusion in the face of historic disenfranchisement:

    “As Greg Tate has pointed out elsewhere, Basquiat was obsessed “with the black male body’s history as property, pulverized meat and popular entertainment.” By narrating that history in the language of the nursery and the schoolyard through the simulated infantilism of stick figures and scribbled skylines, he draws us right into the terrordome—the arena in which the chaotic play of fear and desire conducts its endless surgery, cutting back and forth from “black” and “white”, performing the splitting, doubling, and stitching-up procedures which lie behind a production of identity that opens with the child’s entry into language and only ceases with the closure into death.”(D. Hebdige, “Welcome to the Terrordome: Jean-Michel Basquiat and the “Dark” Side of Hybridity”, Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1992, p. 65)

    This terrordome is the realm of the subconscious, which, like Twombly, Basquiat continually throws onto his canvasses, either in the form of hieroglyphic letters and words, anatomized bodies and skulls, or the ghosts of his ancestral and racial lineage. In Untitled, 1981, the terrordome is a place of submission, where African-American men are subjected to the whims of an overpowering white organization, capable of convicting them of crimes they never committed. Basquiat’s graphic rendering is the perfect encapsulation of the binary—namely that of the good and evil defining themselves only by the existence of the other. The clear metaphorical implication in the present lot is that both parties rely on the other’s actions to understand both themselves and their function in a racist world.

    “Since slavery and oppression under white supremacy are visible subtexts in Basquiat’s work, he is as close to a Goya as American painting has ever produced. The consequences of America’s war on the black and poor are everywhere in evidence in Basquiat. The male spirits are obviously homeless spirits, bereft of family, land, companionship, or clear connections to tradition, family or the economy.”(G. Tate, “Black Like B.”, Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1992, p. 58)

    One of Basquiat’s favorite qualities to incorporate into his paintings, and one that is on display in full force in the present lot, is that of redemption, indicated by the halos and crowns that sit above his subjects. Though it fades in with the blue swirls of his background, the halo above the central figure speaks to the prisoner’s martyrdom—a man long suffering but certainly not forgotten. While Basquiat often gave into the subject matter that most entranced him, such as the historical imprisonment and enslavement of his race, his editorializing often came in the form of canonizing these victims of oppression, creating heroes out of scapegoats.

    Basquiat’s halos have a hidden meaning: while he was of course granting an idealized pardon to the oppressed figures in his work, he also saw a version of himself in the oppression inherent. Though the present lot contains no self-portrait of Basquiat, we can assume that he saw enough of himself in the wronged prisoner to wholly empathize with his predicament. This was Basquiat’s way to befriend even his most unreachable subjects: “A good deal of Basquiat’s black stick figure/mask pictures are self-portraits, whether titled that way or not; we can recognize him by his signature spiky-dread hairstyle. Even more of these icons, however, have no particular sitter, and we might presume that their point is more broadly existentialist in nature, showing a black man as a universal human paradigm, emoting furiously if often without clear pictorial or narrative purpose, but otherwise under an ennobling crown or a sanctifying halo.”(M. Mayer, “Basquiat in History”, Basquiat, New York, 2005, p. 51)

    While rage is obviously the central concept in the present lot, so is Basquiat’s inspirational reach across time. It is a trope that he employed frequently in his early career, as he coped with being on the edge of a new reality, where a young black man could be a successful without incurring the ire of the white establishment. In other works, such as Profit I, Basquiat exploited this phenomenon, directly challenging those who would attempt to usurp his own agency in his own success. But in Untitled, 1981, we discover Basquiat as a brilliantly conscientious young man, one who was as indebted to his past as he was to present.

    The powerfully stark interplay of color, line and subject of the present lot makes it at once one of the most accessible and profound pieces that Basquiat ever created, especially during a time period as turbulent and wildly prolific as the early 1980s. For this reason, it stands out among his oeuvre as a painting of unmatched clarity, where Basquiat the artist was tackling meaning and form in a hitherto unseen manner—a work of staggering genius and brutal honesty.

    For this dichotomous reason, and for a wealth of others, Basquiat is the figure most associated with art in the 1980s, where a reckoning of the past came into contact with the children of the future. In Untitled, 1981, Basquiat exhibits his empathetic passion as a function of his responsibility as an artist: to express all of himself without reservation. Both oppressed and privileged, unique in his journey and beholden to the figures of the past, Basquiat makes it known that he is an artist of pressures—history, culture and conscious. The present lot is a breathtaking expression of all three.

  • Artist Bio

    Jean-Michel Basquiat

    American • 1960 - 1988

    One of the most famous American artists of all time, Jean-Michel Basquiat first gained notoriety as a subversive graffiti-artist and street poet in the late 1970s. Operating under the pseudonym SAMO, he emblazoned the abandoned walls of the city with his unique blend of enigmatic symbols, icons and aphorisms. A voracious autodidact, by 1980, at 22-years of age, Basquiat began to direct his extraordinary talent towards painting and drawing. His powerful works brilliantly captured the zeitgeist of the 1980s New York underground scene and catapulted Basquiat on a dizzying meteoric ascent to international stardom that would only be put to a halt by his untimely death in 1988.

    Basquiat's iconoclastic oeuvre revolves around the human figure. Exploiting the creative potential of free association and past experience, he created deeply personal, often autobiographical, images by drawing liberally from such disparate fields as urban street culture, music, poetry, Christian iconography, African-American and Aztec cultural histories and a broad range of art historical sources.

    View More Works

14

Untitled

1981
acrylic, oilstick on canvas
50 1/2 x 88 in. (128.5 x 223.5 cm.)
Signed and dated “Jean Michel Basquiat 81” on the reverse.

Estimate
$8,000,000 - 12,000,000 

sold for $9,125,000

Contact Specialist
Zach Miner
Head of Sale
zminer@phillips.com
+1 212 940 1256

Contemporary Art Evening

New York Auction 15 May 2014 7PM