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$1,500,000 - 2,000,000
sold for $1,810,000
Head of Evening Sale
+ 1 212 940 1267
Scott D.F. Spiegel, Los Angeles (acquired directly from the artist in 1982)
Adversity and Liberation
by Fred Hoffman
Untitled, 1982 is a rare work in the oeuvre of Jean-Michel Basquiat. It brings forth, within a work on paper themes and subjects found in key paintings including Acque Pericolose, 1981, Untitled (LA Painting), 1982, Notary, 1983, Untitled (Black Tar and Feathers), 1982, and pieces from the acclaimed Daros Suite, 1982-83, of 32 works on paper. Presenting the image of a standing black male surrounded by an array of symbolic images, this work distinguishes itself from other works on paper in its rich narrative content. The subject matter of this work is the triumph of freedom over physical adversity. In contrast to other works depicting an iconic black male figure, this work singularly tells a story---the struggle for liberation and an ultimate victory.
Untitled presents a full-length, armless black male depicted in the nude. Not only does the work reveal the figure’s external physiognomy, it equally portrays internal organs and musculature. Unique in the oeuvre from this period, both arms are severed at the shoulder sockets. This disembodiment is suggested by “energy” lines extending away from the figure’s right shoulder as well as by a symbolic lightning bolt directly below. Basquiat reinforced this representation of physical loss in the depiction of a severed foot and ankle with spikes or nails driven through the toes and ankle. The rendering of the severed foot in Untitled is depicted again in King Brand, one of the works on paper from The Daros Suite.
Untitled is the artist’s first portrayal of an armless free-standing figure. This subject is rare in Basquiat’s work from 1982-1983. Possibly a precursor, the full-length, standing black male in Acque Pericolose seems to be armless, when upon more careful inspection, it is revealed that the figure’s arms are, in fact portrayed by simple white lines crossing at the figure’s chest. Interestingly, Acque Pericolose shares a second similarity with Untitled in the depiction alongside the standing figure of a four legged creature. While the animal portrayed in Acque Pericolose appears decimated--- more of a skeleton than a living creature-- the animal alongside Basquiat’s figure in Untitled appears both alert and animated. Acque Pericolose was an important precedent for Untitled. “In what may be interpreted as the artist’s first major self-portrait, the artist has depicted himself as vulnerable, yet possessed with pride and authority….a sense of being at peace with himself even though he is surrounded by death and upheaval.” (Fred Hoffman, “The Defining Years, Notes on Five Key Works.” Basquiat, The Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, p. 132) In Untitled Basquiat elaborates on these same themes of vulnerability and transcendence, further using his picture making as a means of both self-representation and the expression of a larger “world view.”
The only other renderings of an armless, free -standing figure from 1982-83 appear in Flash in Naples and Notary from 1983. In several 1984 paintings, including Pedestrian II, Freddy and Bird as Buddha, Basquiat presents the image of an armless male figure. The figure depicted in Untitled however remains unique as it is part of a “story” that the artist “tells” through his array of accompanying symbols and images. While the central figure of Untitled conveys physical loss, Basquiat’s figure in Flash in Naples, 1983 accompanied by his animated side-kick who appears to spring through space, suggests an act of heroism. In Notary, 1983 Basquiat’s central figure shares none of the attributes of loss or a diminution of physical capacity. The figure portrayed in this monumental work presents a rich iconographic portrayal of transcendence not found in the earlier Untitled. In many ways Notary, 1983 is the culmination and fullest realization of the themes and subjects first suggested in this seminal work on paper. Untitled also shares with Notary, 1983 the simultaneous depiction of external and internal components of a human figure. In both works Basquiat “x-rays” the human figure, portraying an outward focused human being who equally exposes his internal structure and make-up. Basquiat’s figural portrayal in Untitled, as well as his layering of symbols and images creates a narrative content –a figure telling a story which serves as an initial exploration, a warm up for the more complex, multilayered presentations in key 1982-1983 paintings, including Untitled (Black Tar and Feathers), 1982, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Derelict, 1982 and The Nile, 1983. These paintings substantially defined Basquiat as an artist.
Central to Basquiat’s practice was the representation within the same work of seemingly disparate and conflicting aspects of human experience. Whether it was the idea of reversing black into white or white into black, the scales of justice, or the theme of “God and Law,” the artist was continually concerned with the representation of a duality, and the integration and reconciliation of seemingly opposing forces. In Untitled Basquiat’s duality is the representation of an armless figure alongside a tall classical column, on top of which he has placed an eagle with open wings. Emphasizing the importance of this bird, he has included three additional birds all represented with spread open wings. These images link this work on paper to the monumental painting Untitled (LA Painting) executed a few months earlier in 1982. Basquiat’s birds symbolize perspicacity, courage, freedom and immortality. They are his messengers from the highest Gods. In classical Roman culture the image or object of an open-winged bird was a symbol of power and strength.
Basquiat has placed his central eagle atop a column positioned slightly behind his frontal facing, armless figure. The juxtaposition of eagle and column also has its roots in classical Rome. Erected in 113 AD, Trajan’s Column commemorates the Roman emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars and stands as a monument symbolic of victory with an open-winged bird positioned atop a fluted column. As with the classical iconography, Basquiat’s winged creature on top of a column also alludes to triumph and victory, while his human figure depicts physical loss and suggests vulnerability, its juxtaposition with his eagle and column implies that weakness or loss have been dealt with and overcome. Basquiat’s work, in high probability represents a self-reflection at a critical juncture in his personal as well as professional life. This work is his declaration of societal as well as personal triumph over adversity--- transcendence from bondage into freedom.
This conclusion is reinforced by the inclusion of a resting four- legged creature above which Basquiat scrawled the word “Androcolis,” in reference to the tale Androcles and the Lion written by the Greek storyteller, Aesop, in which Androcles, a slave was saved by the requiting mercy of a lion which can be compactly moralized into the statement: “Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.” Basquiat refers to the story of Androcoles and the Lion as an additional level of context to his works’ primary theme of transcendence of physical and psychological adversity. Neither the word “Androcolis” nor a crouching lion are found in any other works by the artist. As noted, Basquiat had previously turned to a similar pictorial strategy of juxtaposing figure and animal in the representation of a half alive, half skeleton cow alongside a reverential standing black male figure in Acque Pericolose . In Untitled Basquiat relegates his lion to a “supporting” role. Much like the multi-positioned open-winged birds symbolizing liberation and transcendence, Basquiat’s lion functions symbolically and does not imply a narrative interaction with his standing figure. In other words, Basquiat’s figure is not Androcoles and the artist is not representing the popular tale. Having initiated his work by presenting an armless figure and accompanying “victory column,” the young Basquiat was drawn to the popular tale of the prisoner and lion as his means of enhancing the subject matter of his work. In this popular tale, the ever perceptive, always discovering young artist found a message compatible with his own personal vision as a young black man attempting to overcome adversity and assert his identity.
Fred Hoffman,Ph.d, worked closely with Jean-Michel Basquiat during the artist's residency in Venice, California from 1982-1984; during which time he produced most of the artist's silkscreen editions. Hoffman co - curated the last American Basquiat retrospective in 2005 (Brooklyn Museum, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Houston Museum of Fine Art). Fred Hoffman is the author of the forthcoming book The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2017, published by Galerie Enrico Navarra Paris and New York).
$1,500,000 - 2,000,000
sold for $1,810,000
Head of Evening Sale
+ 1 212 940 1267
New York Auction 18 May 2017